Asbury revival unites young generation in divided society where religion is in decline

Image credit: Asbury revival live

By Andrew Brown

The revival at a small university in Kentucky may be a sign that the younger generation of Americans, where Christianity is weakest, are turning away from the showbiz and circus models that dominate the American evangelical scene, a Religion Media Centre briefing was told today. 

For the past 10 days, students at Asbury University, a Methodist establishment in the quiet town of Wilmore, have been engaged in continuous prayer and singing in the chapel. Nobody planned this. It just took off after a sermon which the preacher thought he had delivered very badly. But after that service ended, some of the students stayed on. They started praying and singing, and just didn’t stop. 

Others came by to join and relieve the original participants and so the celebration has continued. Word of this has spread across social media, and then into the mainstream so that as many as 20,000 pilgrims have arrived some days to take part in a town with a population of 6,000. On Monday the university announced that it would close the chapel to outsiders. But the participants believe they have received a transformative and personal experience of God.

The revival comes at a time when the mainstream of American Christianity is under threat as seldom before. The close identification of white evangelicals with the Trump presidency and his campaigns has distressed most other Christians and some who were brought up in that tradition themselves. 

Bob Smietana of the Religion News Service said: “Revivals are pretty common in American history. They come when people feel like something’s been lost, and if you look at American religion right now, there’s a sense that it’s on the decline and especially younger people are not interested in religion. 

“So, there’s been a lot of people praying for a revival. And what’s fascinating about this one, is that it’s been a unifying event for people who disagree politically. We had a reporter down there to talk to them and that’s actually what the some of the students said in the school that we’ve talked to: that the schools have been divided like the rest of America over Trump and politics and all kinds of things. And this has been a very uniting event.”

This is partly because the student chapel has avoided the flash and showbiz of most charismatic Christianity in the United States today. Although a number of big names on the evangelical circuit have paid visits, they have not been encouraged to take over the leadership.

Kami Rice, a writer who was at the university in the 1990s during an earlier revival, said that even back then the student body had been suspicious of the Toronto Blessing, a form of charismatic experience that spread like wildfire around the world and involved the participants making animal noises and giving themselves up to hysterical laughter. 

This revival is not like that at all, as the YouTube coverage makes clear.

Ms Rice said “Our experience on campus felt much more unifying. charismatic, at least in my experience. It wasn’t even exactly the right word in the way that term is typically used.”

She had attended a meeting with the leadership group of the college on Saturday and said they were determined not to commercialise what was happening: “In fact they had stopped some fundraising calls that would typically happen in February because they didn’t want to appear to be profiting off of the attention on the school.”

Although such self-restraint may be unusual in American religion, several speakers made the point that charismatic practices are now very widespread in all kinds of churches, not just those that are explicitly Pentecostal. In this country, the Alpha course includes a residential weekend where students are meant to experience the direct power of the Holy Spirit. 

Dr John Maiden, a church historian at the Open University, said the Asbury revival was evidence of “a very low-key, intense, charismatic style, where people are reporting, really experiencing the presence of the spirit, the profound sense of peace and joy”. 

He added: “It shows, I think, the ways in which charismatic patterns of ministry and worship have just pervaded evangelicalism and almost become the norm. So, I don’t think the student body at Asbury or the faculty would see it as a charismatic revival. But it does show the ways in which practices, patterns of ministry that were very new, say, in the 1960s and 1970s, have just become very normal in in contemporary Christianity.

“[There is an emphasis] on intimate worship and extended manifestation or prayer, on being very comfortable with using the body, whether that is of arms raised, prostration on the floor, kneeling in confession. That’s not necessarily a new thing, but it is something that has become increasingly normal in Christian worship.”

Dr Leah Payne, associate professor of American religious history, saw the Asbury revival as a return to some of the oldest traditions of US Christianity.

“I think what we were seeing is that kind of 19th-century idea coming to life. There were old people there who had participated in this hundreds-of-years-old practice and they recognised what that was. 

“Because that is so powerful for the people who are there, revival is often harnessed towards political or social beliefs. Examples in earlier generations include trying to convince the American public to adopt teetotalism and prohibit alcohol. I think it’s just an American tradition that is frequently used for American politics and internationally too. We’re not the only ones.”

In the UK, though, “the culture we inhabit is very different”, said the Rev Ashley Cooper, principal of Cliff College, a Methodist training establishment.

“One of our senior leaders is saying what we need to do as the Methodist people in the UK is to pray and seek revival. And we’re not going to pray and seek for something that is impossible. We have to believe that if we’re praying and seeking, God can do — could do, will do — something in our midst.

“And I guess I’ve been part of that evangelical tradition in the Methodist movement most of my life and ministry and I’ve spent much of that time in among people where the language is of praying for revival, both in the life of the church and in the life of our nation.

“If I’m praying for revival, I want to see transformation of a nation. I want to try to see transformation of people that brings real change and hope to a wider body than just myself. I hope I’m not selfish enough to pray for revival that I might have a warm fuzzy moment, but recognising it is often in those warm moments that an awakening happens within my life and other people’s lives.”

The low-key and personal nature of what was going on at Asbury seemed significant to all the speakers. Mr Smietana linked it to the fall of Hillsong, that scandal-hit charismatic mega-ministry: “Hillsong is the ultimate in power and experience and celebrity and kids know all their songs. These [Asbury] kids are singing these songs by heart: they’re taking something that Hillsong propagated — singable entertaining, catchy music — for their own, and using it to get the experience without all the celebrity.”

Our briefing in on YouTube here


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