By Craig Keener
February 16, 2023
“I thought you were praying for revival. What are you doing downstairs?”
With those words, my wife summoned me from my basement last Wednesday evening, where I was working on a very long book and neglecting what was happening on the campus of Asbury University. I teach at neighboring Asbury Seminary. And if you’ve following the news, you know that people have been streaming to the university—and now the seminary—to witness and experience what some are calling revival.
After my wife’s prompting, she and I quickly headed to the back of Asbury’s Hughes Auditorium to pray. We found the worship service that started that morning had neither stopped nor declined. On Saturday, we found seats in the balcony. The university’s 1,489-seat auditorium was packed.
On Sunday, the spirit of worship felt deeper, and I felt more aware of God’s awesome holiness.
By Tuesday, Feb. 14, long lines waited outside the auditorium, where amplifiers allowed the music to be heard. When I finished my evening class at the seminary, the overflow crowds had filled the seminary’s Estes Chapel, which seats 660, its McKenna Chapel, which seats 375, and spilled over into the building shared by the local United Methodist and Vineyard churches. (I was informed that had already begun the preceding night.)
Some voices in social media are hotly debating whether this should be called a revival or not. Since the term is an extrabiblical one, my thinking is, “Who cares what we call it? Let’s celebrate what God is doing!”
Different events labeled revivals in the past few centuries have looked different—from dramatic weeping to dramatic joy, from massive conversions to empowerment for missions, leading to even more conversions.
Calvinists dominated the First Great Awakening, the Hebrides Revival, and the West Timor Revival. Wesleyans dominated the Second Great Awakening, the Azusa Street Revival, and the 1950 and 1970 Asbury Revivals. Witnesses from the West Timor Revival reported a sound like a rushing wind. Witnesses from the revival at Pandita Ramabai’s orphanage in India reported tongues of fire. Miraculous signs accompanied evangelism in the Shandong Revival.
Why should an infinite God fit our boxes?
What we find in the Book of Acts are outpourings of the Spirit (for that wording, see Acts 2:17-18; 10:45, but other terminology, like the Spirit falling on or filling people, is also used).
In Acts 2:17-18, Peter describes their new experience of the Spirit as prophetic empowerment to speak for God. In 4:31, God fills petitioners with his Spirit for boldness to continue speaking for him. Other collective experiences appear in 10:44, 13:52, and 19:6—not to satisfy our merely historical curiosity, but to whet our appetite.
One characteristic Luke reports in connection with the first two outpourings is concern for the needy (2:44-45; 4:32-35). This observation suggests that these outpourings involved not simply an initial emotional experience (though some did—see 2:13!) but a deep, long-range impact in how Jesus’s followers treated one another, related to what Paul calls the “fruit” of the Spirit.
During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards noted visions and “manifestations” such as falling to the ground and weeping. He also noted that, while some manifestations were human responses to the work of God’s Spirit, some were imitations or worse. The long-term fruit of the revival, he pointed out, is about how we live.
A week into what is happening at Asbury may be premature to talk about long-range fruit. That said, if this latest phenomenon fits the pattern of previous Asbury revivals, we may expect a generation of laborers raised up for harvest. Some of the revivals noted above lasted for several years or even decades. Continuous worship at earlier Asbury revivals have sometimes lasted just a week or two, yet with profound effects that fit a pattern in the history of revivals on college campuses in the U.S.
The history is extensive. By 1823, most U.S. universities and denominations set aside a day of prayer for colleges. This tradition fell away through much of the twentieth century. But this year, a concerted day of prayer for colleges has been scheduled for Feb. 23, with Francis Chan leading a simulcast. The host campus for this Collegiate Day of Prayer, in honor of the 1970 Asbury Revival, is Asbury University.
This was not in the gospel choir’s mind on Feb. 8 as they simply kept worshiping the Lord. But at least some of us suspect it’s providential.
What is happening at Asbury began spontaneously and unexpectedly. But spontaneity does not mean lack of preparation. Anna Gulick, a French professor at the university during the 1970 revival, reported that many students had begun praying among themselves before cries of repentance broke out in chapel. Similarly, people within the Asbury community have been praying for decades that God would get the campus ready.
Connection with prayer is a common (though not universal) characteristic of both corporate and individual experiences of the Spirit in Acts (see Acts 1:14; 4:31; 8:15; 9:17). When I teach on this theme in Acts, I first highlight Jesus’s promise in Luke’s first volume that God will answer prayers for the work of his Spirit (Luke 11:13).
A number of new seminarians over the years shared that the Lord showed them revival coming. Zach Meerkreebs, who preached in the original chapel service that hasn’t stopped, mentioned that he felt something like this coming a year ago.
I meant to be supportive of these expectations. But as years passed, I wondered if an outpouring of the Spirit would happen on any significant scale while I was still here.
Others, however, such as visiting scholar Hong Leow, remained vocal and insistent. Hong prayed and fasted for such prolonged periods that I grew concerned for his health. Last week, he flew back to witness the fruit of his prayers.
Hughes Auditorium feels like a holy place at the moment. But in Scripture, God’s people are his temple. Whatever other places might be special to us in some respects, we are his most sacred place, and we don’t have to be near campus to welcome and honor God’s presence.
When I first visited Asbury Seminary to interview for a position in late 2010, I peeked into the university’s vacant auditorium. My eyes fell on the words emblazoned indelibly on the high, back wall of the sanctuary, “Holiness to the Lord.” At that moment, I felt a wave of the Spirit, like some special vestige remained from the earlier outpourings. But despite the currently filled auditoriums, it’s not about the place. It’s about holiness to the Lord.
Any reader of The Roys Report, Christianity Today or even secular media knows that a lot goes on in the name of Christianity that isn’t very Christian. The same is true in the history of revivals. God is God, but people are still people. One generation’s unique behavior during some revival can become the next generation’s tradition—and the following generation’s legalism. Some claims of revival are attempts to stir up emotion or create hype. And those who want a name for themselves often hijack movements that God initiates among the lowly.
It’s no surprise, then, that there are threats to the integrity of what is happening at Asbury. Some may come for hype or to seek attention for themselves, though hopefully they will leave with something different.
Administrators, campus ministry staff, and student leaders have been working overtime, sometimes on little sleep, trying to guard the movement’s integrity and focus. The leaders don’t want the focus to be about them or about Asbury. When President Kevin Brown addressed the assembly on Saturday evening, he prefaced his powerful comments by indicating that he was almost afraid to speak, lest he interrupt the holiness of God moving among the students.
And that is the correct posture to take because this is not about us, but about Him and His holiness. He alone is worthy of honor. He has made his presence felt. And in his presence, no flesh may boast.
Dr. Craig S. Keener is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He has authored numerous books including Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (2021, Baker Academic).