Talk of revival at various American colleges is beginning to fade from the spotlight, but the work of local churches could be just beginning as we reach out to those inspired by recent events.
The possible revival of February 2023 that started at Asbury University is something to celebrate. Few items of news in Christian spaces of the US have met with less cynicism in broad media (though of course we can’t escape that entirely). Those close to Asbury were quick to point out a history of revival on the campus. And America historically is a land of revival meetings. In the 19th century, Frederick Douglass attended them outside of Baltimore before his escape to freedom. Mark Twain satirized them through his two conmen, the Duke and Dauphin, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even now, a sign appears on a main road into the home of the PRM, Grove City, PA, in the summers announcing tent revivals on a rural property.
The Lessons and Responsibilities of Revival
As valuable as the planned revival tradition is, what happened at Asbury, by all accounts, arose spontaneously. My pastor at Sandy Lake Wesleyan Church—Wesleyans share common history with the founders of Asbury and the seminary there—recently preached about the extended services of prayer, repentance, and worship to ensure that our whole congregation was aware of this work by the living God. He drew one conclusion that is valuable for local churches, and I want to add another.
First, he said, we need to be more committed to prayer. God moves when hearts are seeking Him and His will. Those who are awake to their need and the ministry of the Sprit are those who will be able to hear and respond when He calls.
What is true of individuals is true of groups and churches. Corporate prayer is key in any worship service, of course. Many churches have a prayer ministry that is lay led. Through prayer chains or special gatherings, churches can encourage prayer as a fundamental aspect of corporate life that increases the sensitivity of the church body to local opportunities to participate in God’s work. This is work for all believers of all ages.
Second, I suggest that the fervor of revival, particularly one led by an emerging generation as so many often are (think the Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s), needs the local church in order to be durable. The overflowing auditoriums we recently witnessed are great. Whether any one church sees a single student from those times of prayer and worship or not, we are fundamentally called toward shaping new generations of disciples of Jesus. The spiritual and emotional heights of intense repentance, worship, and response to the gospel are life-giving and good—but so are the rhythm and discipline necessary to ordinary church life. And one should feed another.
The Local Church and Revival
I recently crossed the threshold of 40; I teach undergraduates, and mainly 18 and 19 year olds, every day. I know I’m no longer in an “emerging” generation. More and more, I am hoping for followers of Jesus who are just entering adulthood to commit to local congregations like those we work with in the PRM while steering away from consumerist and shallow forms of faith that have marked much of my generation. We need church members whose first questions are not “What am I getting out of this?” or “Is this cool?” but are “How is God using this congregation?” and “How am I seeing God leading me to further His kingdom in this place?”
Of course, students—whether touched by these revivals or just working to deepen and live out their faith—looking for congregations in which to invest won’t necessarily be able to jump right in. That’s where we older folks come in. In their book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock describe five traits for resilient young disciples of Jesus that churches can work to cultivate. Key among them are opportunities to serve and intergenerational supportive relationships outside of their families. If they are already bringing passion and will, it is up to churches to provide the spaces for them to be mentored, try (and fail) something new, learn wise decision making, and connect to the historical faith. They are still developing the faith practices that will sustain them and their sensitivity to Lord. And when the 40 and over types are honest with ourselves, we will see our need for the same.
The conviction that we need intentional congregations partnering with intentional young people has been growing on the PRM team for over a year—and is growing among others as well. We recently shared a service learning project in an entrepreneurship class called Plowshare that we intend to develop into an ongoing connection point between Grove City College students and local churches. We will be working on the logistics and necessary partnerships over the coming months to pilot the first group, but we know the project will need congregations willing to provide opportunities (and transportation and lots of food) to students with passion and energy for the church. And it will need students who commit where they are called.
Our hope is that Plowshare model will be simple enough to replicate in other regions where churches recognize their call to seek out the next generation through the high school and college students who feed from fires of revival and who will allow the tempering of service to the local church to refine them for good works for the kingdom throughout their lives.
Born and raised in Topeka, KS, Adam moved east for college and never left. Adam is an associate professor of English and writing at Grove City College. His role as research director and program evaluator for the Project on Rural Ministry stems from his background in social science-based education research. In this role, he tracks the development of programming and learning that occur through the PRM’s initiatives. Adam has published several articles in education journals that focus on the use of language in educational settings.