Church Communications resources and tips from Justin Dean

An Improbable Spiritual Awakening Despite an Anxious and Irreligious Age

Based on the author’s forthcoming book, Taken by Surprise: The Asbury Revival of 2023, Seedbed Publishing

On February 8, 2023, on the campus of Asbury University, Wilmore, Kentucky, a so-so chapel service, by the speaker’s own admission, confounded all ordinary expectations by lasting an extraordinary 16 days. Through-the-night worship in Asbury’s Hughes Auditorium spilled over to seven overflow worship venues on the campus of adjacent Asbury Seminary and nearby churches.

The Asbury Outpouring of February 2023 had all the traditional hallmarks of a genuine revival: prayers (before and during), preaching, teaching, repentance, confession, and reconciliation. For some a new life in Christ, and for others, a deeper walk in faith through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The spontaneous, Holy Spirit- and student-generated season of renewal that enveloped the Asbury institutions and Wilmore was characterized by a widely felt sense of the presence of the divine; simple praise choruses that were sometimes exuberant, sometimes contemplative; a sense of time standing still; an absence of celebrities: low-key, low-tech worship; and an abundance of the above-mentioned repentance, confession, and forgiveness.

One definition of revival is scheduled, periodic religious services for the purpose of conversion of the lost and the rededication of those who have grown nominal in their faith. A second definition is an unplanned, spontaneous surrender of large numbers of seekers realizing their need for God. Theologians debate nuances differentiating revival, renewal, awakening, outpouring, and revitalization. In contrast, laity typically use the above terms interchangeably, but at heart, they all refer to getting right with God through Christ, and in response, living a transformed life of faith and service.

But why is a spontaneous revival now sparked by super-skeptical Gen Z youth in this increasingly irreligious age? Perhaps in part, it is because today, many teens and early twenties, including students at Christian colleges and universities, are having to deal with some combination of addictions, family turmoil, not measuring up to the perfect bodies and affluence of advertisements, loneliness, feelings of worthlessness and depression, suicidal thoughts, a 

decline in civil discourse (especially in politics), and too much time devoted to social media interaction that is increasingly confrontational and vicious.

Summarizing the rise in adolescent angst, New York Times writer Ruth Graham notes Gen Zers have “been battered by everything from political polarization to COVID-19 shutdowns to a near epidemic of depression.” All of these destructive trends have been compounded by pandemic-enforced online learning and isolation. Graham further reported that accounts of healing were “overwhelmingly about mental health, trauma, and disillusionment.” Dr. Sarah Baldwin, Asbury University vice president for student life, shared that four afflictions in particular were weighing students down and from which many found release in February 2023: addictions, anxieties, “church hurt,” and what she called “the spirit of death” (thoughts of self-harm and suicide).

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Asbury Revival of February 2023 was its almost instantaneous spread by means of social media. 

  • The top five “Asbury Revival” YouTube videos, even though not authorized by the university, had a February viewership of 6.34 million;
  • Asbury University’s Facebook page reach for February 8-23 was 15,600,644; and
  • The TikTok hashtag #asburyrevival, again not generated by the university, mushroomed from 10 million views on February 9 to 240.8 million by April 6.

The deep spiritual hunger that motivated 50,000 to 70,000 pilgrims to make their way to Asbury for spiritual refreshing was another hallmark of the outpouring. Professor Suzanne Nicholson wrote, “The thousands of visitors to campus have only demonstrated how much spiritual thirst exists right now.” These people are desperate for relief, life, and hope and are willing to wait in line for hours to enter the place where the veil between heaven and earth is remarkably thin right now. For Dr. David Thomas, Methodist pastor and student of revival history, “It was not hunger; it was starvation.” And those who sought the Lord were rewarded. Dr. Thomas—and others—noted that many entering Hughes, after hours in line, did not take seats but made their way directly to the altar.

With participation from pilgrims from 40 states, 40 countries, and 279 colleges and universities, outbreaks of spiritual renewal far and wide are already in evidence. Only future years will tell the full extent of the impact, but early instances of its spread include the campuses of Cedarville University (OH), Northern Kentucky University (KY), Samford University (AL), and Baylor University (TX). Even before the end of the spring semester of 2023, many Asbury students shared their renewal experiences in churches across the U.S.

Readers who take to heart lessons from the Asbury Revival of 2023 will place renewed stress on Christ-like selflessness, much in evidence in February at Asbury: radical humility, radical generosity, and radical hospitality. Nothing could better illustrate the point than a cabinet member and two faculty volunteering to clean restrooms in the basement of Hughes Auditorium. Dr. Baldwin related, “Most of the people coming have no idea that their usher navigating a wheelchair through the rain has a Ph.D., and their prayer minister is a retired seminary professor. It was radical humility and radical hospitality.”    

In keeping with the gospel admonitions, “Come, Tarry, Go,” in the stained glass window of the Wilmore United Methodist Church, one of the overflow worship venues, the point of any spiritual revitalization is not to put a light under a bushel, but, as Jesus taught, to let the light shine (Matthew 5:15–16). As Asbury University President Kevin Brown put it, “The trajectory of renewal meetings is always outward.” In unknowing anticipation of the revival to come, he spoke in chapel on February 3 on “The Difficulty of Being True to Yourself.” In his message, he gave students a penetrating critique of the sad shallowness of a life given over to self-absorption. As an alternative, he proposed, instead, the hope and joy, whatever the circumstances, of a life given over to Christ.

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