Renewal or Revival?

There are certain assumptions inherent in this question. Historically, revivals have come suddenly during times of great spiritual dryness, and were not preceded by times of refreshing. If we could pose our question to Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards, or Charles Finney, they would respond with puzzled looks. In their day, whenever the Holy Spirit came in power, making God's presence known, that was revival.

In the 20th century, there has been a shift in the popular definition of "revival." Instead of describing the revitalization of God's people, this word is now frequently reserved for spontaneous mass conversions or dramatic social changes. While this is characteristic of some revivals, it is less so with others. By limiting "revival" to those particular cases, we have accepted a concept different from that of the Puritan movement and the first and second Great Awakenings.

The characteristics of revival, as understood historically, were detailed in the workshops that I gave at the Catch The Fire conferences in Toronto (Oct. 1994 and Oct. 1995) and St. Louis (May 1995).

But isn't it just a question of semantics? What difference does it make whether we use the term “renewal” or “revival”?

In my opinion, it makes a significant difference. Semantic shifts can be barometers indicating changes in basic concepts. The shifting use of the word "revival" reflects changing expectations of what should happen when revival comes. By calling the current outpouring "renewal" and looking for something better called "revival," we devalue what God is doing now, preferring our own expectations. That puts us in danger of trying to make things happen according to our desires, rather than accepting and promoting God's chosen agenda. These attempts could divert His power into our own plans, hampering revival by efforts to squeeze God's sovereign move into a man-made mold. 

But in a typical revival, aren't there usually significant social reforms and many more decisions for Christ than we're seeing at the present time?

In my opinion as a historian, current developments in these areas are at least as significant as what has happened during some of the most important awakenings of history. In the completely different order of magnitude in the numbers of people coming to Christ than was the case just prior to it. At TACF alone, over the past four years, more than 15,000 people have come to Christ and crime rates in places like northern England and New York City have dropped significantly. These are dramatic signs of revival.

Nevertheless, although revivals have many things in common, each is unique. Different characteristics become prominent in each, as God moves with varying intensity in the way that He brings repentance, reform in doctrine or practice, inner healing, miracles, missions, evangelism, holiness, social change, or charismatic gifts. 

True of all revivals is the fact that God initiates and supernaturally empowers them. On this basis alone, and regardless of whether or not large numbers of conversions and social changes are taking place, we would still be in the midst of revival, as defined historically.

But are we not in the initial stages of something that will soon be much greater, and shouldn't we adopt terminology to convey this?

In my opinion, this question minimizes what God is already doing and takes for granted the validity of certain inappropriate assumptions concerning revival. We are in danger of missing our day of visitation if we set our hearts too much upon our own expectations for the future. Let's remember to seek God for Himself, not for anything He might do for us.

I do personally believe, however, that God will do much greater things in the days ahead. This expectation does not arise from preconceptions about revival, but from faith in His greatness and ability to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine. Let's allow God to be God! We may well see some of the most dramatic things that will ever take place in all of history in the future. But if that happens, then we will have gone beyond revival into something that has no historic precedent.