Friday, February 24, 2023

Some Thoughts On Asbury

I’ve waded through a lot of hot takes, knee-jerk reactions, profound reflections, critiques, praises, and personal testimonies the past two weeks concerning the events in Asbury. First, I will overviews what’s happening (or by the time I publish this, ‘happened’) at Asbury. The overview will not be unbiased, as I am going to push back against some of the outsiders looking in based on what I am reading from the insiders looking out. Second, I will offer some observations about how to put theological guardrails around moments like these so that good movements of God don't go bad.

It began after a chapel message that the speaker thought had completely flopped. I listened to the message.[1] It was an excellent challenge about the importance of loving other people as Jesus would have us love them. It started like this:
“I hope you guys forget me but anything from the Holy Spirit and God’s Word would find fertile ground in your hearts and produce fruit. Romans 12. That’s the star, okay? God’s Word and Jesus and the Holy Spirit moving in our midst, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
After he challenged them to love others with the love of Jesus, he noted that doing this sounds impossible, and it is – unless we have Jesus. He reminded the students that our ability to love others well will come from the love Jesus has shown to us flowing out of us; in my words, we can only pay forward what God has given to us through Jesus. He gave them a particular challenge: if you are having trouble loving others well, you need to pray that you understand and experience the love of Jesus. That’s the only way it will work.

I’ve heard some criticism of this sermon for not preaching “the whole gospel.” Listen. It was one of three-times-a-week chapels at a Christian college. This sermon had a particular focus on a particular morning. It was great. Speaking as a pastor who preaches a lot, if someone would take one isolated sermon and judge me or our church based on that one sermon, I would find it grossly unfair. Same with the times I've spoken in chapel at the local Christian high school. It’s like judging the plot or message of a book based on one chapter. Sermons (and chapels at Christian colleges) occur in a much broader context. Speakers don’t cover everything every time.

The next unexpected spark in what would become a fire[2] was a public confession/repentance from a student shortly after that message. I don't know what this student confessed, but if it built from the message, it was inspired by a conviction to love others well. One student reported that, in the following days, she observed students who couldn’t stand each other praying together and reconciling.[3] That tracks with the focus of the sermon.

It quickly swelled as a grass roots movement characterized by repentance and personal renewal/refreshing. Remember: the focus was on the importance of understanding and experiencing the love of Jesus – which is what many are reporting to have felt strongly. To criticize this moment for not necessarily going beyond that seems to me to be unfair. Meanwhile, there wa a lot of Scripture reading interspersed, a sermon every night, clear calls to repentance,[4] and people making first-time decisions to follow Jesus.

What’s happening seems to have tapped into particular longings. I will quote one Asbury student whose voice stands in for many of the interviews I have read:
“"It's been a really hard couple of years, and not just for me but for a lot of my friends, and I just felt like the Lord was releasing me from a lot of bitterness and anger that I've had just about all kinds of stuff, even some of it towards God and so I would say for me personally, the biggest word I can use is that it's been a very, very healing experience for me."[5]
A theology professor at Asbury’s seminary noted,
“The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle…

Sometimes God does what Jonathan Edwards called “surprising work” and what John Wesley referred to as “extraordinary” ministry. I firmly believe that much of what is important and vital in the Christian life happens in the everyday moments—in the daily disciplines and liturgies…in the in-the-moment decisions to pursue righteousness, in acts of sacrificial love of neighbor, in prayers breathed in quiet desperation.

I know that these “extraordinary” acts of God are no replacement for the “ordinary” ministry of the Holy Spirit through Word and sacrament. Likewise, the “surprising” works of God are not a substitute for the long road of discipleship. If that were the case…we would be dependent on this experience—rather than the Holy Spirit who graciously gives the experience—to sustain us.

But I also believe that we should be willing to recognize and celebrate these astounding encounters with the Holy Spirit. Our Lord promises that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will be filled. He promised that he would send “another Comforter” - and indeed that it would be better for him to go away and send his Spirit. And anyone who has spent time in Hughes Auditorium over the past few days can testify that this promised Comforter is present and powerful.”[6]
I’ve read some dismissive remarks: “It’s just personal refreshment.” Oh, do you mean that the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – is comforting (as the Spirit always does)? Sometimes the Good Shepherd leads us beside still waters and restores our souls. People are experiencing God’s loving grace of in seasons of desperation. God forbid we dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit in comforting and refreshing people.

The leadership of the college has been rejecting celebrity involvement. There are no faces you would know on the stage.[7] The student involvement is organic, and from all accounts, humble. There is no one person who is the face of this – nobody (that I have seen) has reported going there to see or hear Person X. The leaders are actively stopping people who start to “hijack the meeting.”[8] Lawson Stone, a professor at the seminary, said in an interview, 
“Word comes that on Wednesday a group will be in town trying to preach and hold meetings that, to say the least, do not embody the humility, peacefulness, and focus on Jesus that has characterized recent days. The institutions have made it clear they are not welcome, but they assert their "right" to come and speak.I would like to suggest we give them the Deuteronomy 13:1-4 treatment: IGNORE THEM. To a false prophet, to be ignored is almost worse than death. Don't engage them, don't be uncivil to them. Just ignore them…Let's beware of any voices that direct us to anything other than Jesus.”[9]
The leadership of the college has kept good structure so that things are done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). They have an ABC structure to testimonies: All glory to God alone; Brief, and Current. “When the chapel staff opened up the microphone for testimonies, they started vetting them first… “Saturday and Sunday, we were asked all day long, ‘Can I give a word? “Well, tell us your word first.”[10]They protected what was happening from other potential derailments as well.[11] From an article in Christianity Today about how the leadership at the college was working hard to steward this gift God had given to them:
The shofars didn’t start until Saturday. With them came the would-be prophets seeking to take center stage at the Asbury University chapel where students had been praying and praising God since Wednesday morning; the would-be leaders who wanted to claim the revival for their ministries, their agendas, and celebrity; and the would-be disrupters, coming to break up whatever was happening at the small Christian school in Kentucky with heckling, harangues, and worse…

When someone started blowing on a shofar…the chapel staff didn’t have a protocol for that exact situation, but they knew what to do. They asked the person to recognize the way God had showed up in the chapel and be faithful to the sweet, humble, peaceful spirit of the outpouring. They did the same thing…when someone started praying loudly and aggressively. And again when someone started attempting an exorcism—not arguing about demonology or citing university rules, but invoking the authority of the outpouring itself.

“We want to be true to how the Holy Spirit showed up with our students,” said Baldwin, the vice president of student life. “We experienced joy. We experienced love. We experienced peace. There was lots of singing and testimonies. Those became our signposts. This is how, in front of our eyes, we are seeing the Holy Spirit come upon our students, and we want to honor that.”
They have also worked to turn internal renewal into action: if God does a work in you, it’s going to translate into how you live. This is important (and I will come back to this). Lawson Stone, a professor Old Testament at the seminary, said that they are shifting from a “come” mode to a “sending” mode.
“It's winding down the public services on the campuses…but… the focus needs to shift to resuming lives of fruitful service and…heading out across the country with the gospel. We can't stay on the mountain indefinitely. Some will try to put up tents for Moses and Elijah, but the leadership in town has felt strongly that the time has come to get to work, get back to work, albeit on a new level.”[12]
When the main campus got full, the college leadership restricted access to primarily their own students, and then those under 25. Meanwhile, other churches in the area opened up their auditoriums, which I like. Now the broader church community is involved. This is good, as people need to be connected with local church communities. If this results in Wilmore, Kentucky suddenly being full of people inspired by the love of Jesus, all of those churches will be needed to accommodate attendees.

Asbury is seeking to return to a normal college routine in terms of classes, etc. though there are still venues in the college and the town that are open for people to use. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that students weren’t skipping their classes or bailing on classes. Professors report they were responsible in the midst of all of this divine disruption. The student paper is already writing articles about “When The Dust Settles.”[13] They recognize they’ve been given a gift to steward, and they want to do it well.

* * * * *

So far, this all seems good to me in the Big Picture.[14] If you shine a spotlight on some moments or some individuals, you can certainly find things that will make you uncomfortable at best or upsetting at worst. That’s inevitable, but – to use a puzzle analogy - I don’t want to form an opinion of the Big Picture because a couple pieces of the puzzle don't fit well. If those pieces begin to characterize what’s happening, that’s different. As far as I can tell, that’s not happening.[15]

If I have concerns, it's not about the impact this is having on those who are there or the manner in which it has unfolded. It has more to do with how good things can go wrong. I offer the following as a protection - guiderails, if you will, to put up so that which began well can continue well.


Maybe this is semantics, but I’m not sure I would use the word “revival” just yet. Right now, it seems more like a refreshing or renewal - which is still a really good thing! A friend described what’s happening as an awakening, which I think is fitting. Asbury’s website is comfortable with people calling it what they want, such as “revival, renewal, awakening, outpouring.”[16]

The reason I make this distinction is this: when we see what we usually call revival in the Bible, it involves more than saying words of repentance - which has been happening, and is a good start, to be sure. But biblical repentance always results in a radically changed lifestyle. The biblical image is that of someone going in one direction, then turning and going in another direction. The reality of repentance is confirmed by ‘fruit,’ and that takes some time to see. The President of Asbury has noted this as well.
The desire is to “mainstream” renewal into the very fabric of our lives so that we are transformed right where we live, and work and study. We all love mountaintop experiences, but we also know that it must be lived out in all the normal rhythms of life…We have to live into this desperation for God to do what we cannot do. We have to live into transformed relationships. We have to live into new patterns of life and worship.

We will know that revival has truly come to us when we are truly changed to live more like him at work, at study, at worship, and at witness…we should let God move us to a permanent place of transformation before God and the eyes of the watching world. In that sense, we are seeking to take what is clearly an abnormal move of God and ask how this can become normalized in a deep way.

Someday, we will look back on these days and thank God that he visited us in ways we will talk about for years to come. But, what we are doggedly seeking is not lasting memories, but transformed lives long after the lights go out in Hughes auditorium…

In short, it is not about “this place” or “that place” whether Wilmore or any other city. It is about Christ himself. None of us “owns” this awakening. But all of us must own in our own lives His work and his gracious beckoning to that deeper place.”[17]
It sure looks like this awakening is landing with potentially life-changing impact in people, but there’s a reason I use the world ‘potentially.’ What is going to change in people?

  • Will the slanderous gossip now use their words to affirm and build people instead of tear them down? 
  • Will the person with unhinged anger become known for gentleness? 
  • Will the person who despised and hated others become known for loving them, praying for their good, and treating them with dignity? 
  • Will they now be radically generous when they were previously stingy? Luke reports the first two outpourings of the Holy Spirit in Acts were followed by concern for the needy (2:44-45; 4:32-35). 
  • Will the person who used other people for their pleasure now learn to honor and protect them? Will the liar become known for truth, the arrogant for humility, the divider for peace-making?Will we see an increase in the fruit that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? (Galatians 5:22-23)

These are not changes we see in a moment; these are habits over time that establish who we are. Craig Keener wrote,
“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.”[18]
Or, as one pastor put it, “How do you tell if it is really a work of God? It’s not how high you jump, it’s how straight you walk when you land.”[19]

I can’t tell you how many emotionally moving experiences I had in the context of church life. I look back on all of them fondly, because I loved what felt like sweet moments in the presence of Jesus. But I also have to acknowledge that they typically changed me for a week or two. I was refreshed, but I wasn’t revived. Feeling the nearness and conviction of God in a moment is very different from taking hold of the kind of radical repentance that leads to the kind of worship that goes beyond the songs I was singing.

My hope and prayer is that this is, indeed, what we see on the other side of what is happening in Asbury. So far, there is good reason to believe we will. The reports say that both students and faculty are focused on how turn this experience into action. But…maybe let’s wait before we assume something that has yet to be seen, while praying for its fruition.


I read this in an article from someone who visited from another Christian college:
“Well everybody at [said Christian college] right now, including all the executive vice presidents, are all crying out for revival - they're having extra prayer services over there right now. They want the presence of the Lord on campus so we're just so thankful that they sent us here to get whatever we can to bring back.”
I don't see in the Bible that we are told to go somewhere and bring something back.[20] When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus about the right place to worship, Jesus said – and I paraphrase - “It’s not about places.” God is here, now, working in deep and profound ways. In moment of outpouring like we see in Asbury, people become more aware of God’s presence, but that says something about our awareness, not God’s presence.

What are we to bring back? Is it not simply the message of the gospel? And do we not already have that? If God moves you to go somewhere to experience what’s happening, by all means go. But you don’t need to bring ‘it’ back. Just bring yourself back, renewed in holiness, righteousness, and obedience, bringing with you a deeper love for God and others.


This is not the fault of Asbury at all, but I wonder if we are going to have to fight the tendency to assume that any work of God is going to look like what is happening in Asbury. I think it could be easy to look around us and wonder, “What’s wrong with us that God isn‘t working in the same way here?”

I have been in church all my life, and I have seen and experienced different times of refreshing/awakening/revival: concerts, speakers, small groups, Bible study, sitting around a campfire. A college or church or school could replicate everything Asbury is doing outwardly and have very different outcomes because what it looks like is not a template for all of us to try to replicate. It was an unexpected (though not unanticipated) moment for that people, that place, and that time.[21]

Might others experience something similar? Absolutely. They have and they will. But we don’t have to go get what’s there and assume revival happens when that experience is replicated.

I’ve seen this danger when we talk about who’s a ‘good’ worshiper when the music is playing. Is it the person raising their hands or the person sitting quietly? Is it the exuberant or the quiet? Is the loud singer more holy than the one who doesn’t sing? God forbid we make judgments about the quality of a person’s musical worship experience or the status of their heart just because they look different than us when we are singing. One student at Asbury wrote:
“Across campus, there is already a toxic stigma of “revival shaming.” I’ve heard things such as, “How many hours have you been here? I’ve been here all day. I am sooo exhausted. I even skipped class.” What do you notice in these comments? Jesus is usually not mentioned. We must be careful with self-centered responses based on who is “showing up for Jesus” and who is not.”[22]
Now, let’s expand that. Is there a way a revival must look? Other than long-term fruit, I don’t think so. We have seen just in U.S. history how different revivals or moves of God have looked in different places and generations. Our churches and schools are not Asbury. We shouldn’t assume we are not being or have not been revived if we don’t replicate what is happening there.

When we surrender our lives to the Lordship of Christ, God ‘vives’ us through Jesus. We who were dead in our sins were brought back to life. God is constantly ‘reviving’ us, working in us through His Word, His Spirit, and His people to restore what’s broken, heal what’s wounded, and bring us back to life when we choose sin and its wages. It's not always obvious, but God is always at work making us the kind of trees that bear good fruit. As one participant at Asbury noted,
“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.”[23]
Suzanne Nicholson, a Professor of New Testament at Asbury University, wrote about her experience there in “When Streams Of Living Water Become A Flood: Revival At Asbury University.”[24] After talking about her experience on campus, she offered a couple analogies for what was happening, with this being her favorite.
My favorite image, however, arises from Psalm 1:3: those who delight in the law of the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” Believers who regularly commune with the Lord through prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, receiving the Eucharist, and other means of grace are the trees planted by streams of water, receiving their nourishment.

But occasionally we need flood waters to spur new growth—not the destructive floods that wipe away homes, but rather the essential spring flooding of the Nile that brought much-needed water and nutrients to agricultural lands in the ancient world….The Holy Spirit has graciously sent gentle flood waters to revive us, reshape us, and empower us for the work ahead…We are drinking deeply from this refreshing gift.
She closes with a hopeful challenge:
The challenge will occur, however, after the flood waters recede. We must not forget that we are still streams planted by living water. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, even if we experience God in different ways on different days. We cannot forsake the normal means of grace in search of floodwaters alone.

It will be important in the days ahead for local faith communities to disciple those who have found new life as a result of this outpouring. We will need to teach Scripture in depth and provide small-group support and accountability in order to help people make sense of what they have experienced and challenge them toward deeper relationships with Jesus.

This flood we are experiencing today is meant to revive us for a purpose— to share the joy and the love of God with those living in a dark world. As this revival has been occurring, we have simultaneously watched tens of thousands of dead being pulled from the rubble after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. We have witnessed several more mass shootings, including one on the campus of Michigan State University.

We continue to see famine and poverty, addiction and despair, racism and sexism, abuse and ailments across the world and in our homes. We need this refreshing of the Spirit more than ever as a testimony that God has not abandoned this dark world. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). This is the hope for a world gone wrong.

Our experience of this hope empowers us to go and preach the good news to the dying and the destitute, not only through our words, but also through our actions. God calls us to perfect love of both God and neighbor. If we keep this refreshing Spirit to ourselves, then we have missed the point. God has given us shalom—wholeness and healing and flourishing—so that we can bring the love of God to others.

If we proclaim the love of Jesus but do not demonstrate God’s love by helping the poor and destitute, then we are nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1). God forbid that we turn these songs of praise into nothing more than a noisy interruption.

[1] “The Chapel Service that Launched the Asbury Revival 2023.” Youtube.

[2] I saw one critic offer the following complaint:” If being spontaneous is so valued, then why does the Asbury Collegian defend intentionally scheduled revivals and report student polling data about whether planning revivals is right?” I think said critic is missing the point. First, they clearly don’t ‘value’ the spontaneous way in which it happened – as their scheduled revivals show. This didn’t happen because they planned it, almost as if God will do what He will when He wills. Huh.

[7] “There were also Christian leaders who went quietly, just to pray and participate without trying to take the stage. Kari Jobe, the contemporary Christian music singer who won a Dove Award …went to Asbury and went down to the altar. Several students prayed for her, according to Asbury staff, without appearing to know who she was. A leader of the Vineyard Church came and went without announcing anything on social media.”

[10] “‘No Celebrities Except Jesus’: How Asbury Protected the Revival.”

[14] Check out “Ordinary and Extraordinary: A Day at the Asbury Awakening.”

[15] I’m not sure where to note this, so I will note it here. I have read rather harsh criticism along the lines of, “No way a real revival is happening at Asbury. It’s too conservative/liberal in its theology.” Okay, you think Asbury needs revival, then. And now you don’t think it can have it because…it needs it so much? Do people have to not need revival before they get it? Sigh. Also, here is their statement of faith.

[17] Quoted in “The Asbury Revival Then And Now.”

[18] “What Is Revival – And Is It Happening At Asbury?” By Craig Keener.

[20] SIDE NOTE: Before technology and easy transportation, people didn’t hear within 24 hours about what God was doing somewhere else. There was no live stream or Instagram posts. People couldn’t do a day trip from 100 miles away. If they came from another country, they had to take a boat, not a plane. The local revival stayed local for a while. When revivals happened for years, others would go see what was going on, but even then the cost was high enough that it weeded out what I heard a podcast host describe as “revival tourists,” the ones taking selfies at a revival. 

[21] From Madison Pierce, as student at Asbury Theological Seminary: “I find it interesting that God would mark this outpouring with: A tangible sense of peace for a generation with unprecedented anxiety. A restorative sense of belonging for a generation amidst an epidemic of loneliness. An authentic hope for a generation marked by depression. A leadership emphasizing protective humility in relationship with power for a generation deeply hurt by the abuse of religious power. A focus on participatory adoration for an age of digital distraction.  It feels as if God is personally meeting young adults in ways meaningful to them. My generation was formed differently then previous generations, and so the traits of this revival are different then revivals of old. The new outpouring is not the signs and wonders nor zealous intercession nor spontaneous tongues nor charismatic physicalities nor the visceral travail. It is marked by a tangible feeling of holistic peace, a restorative sense of belonging, a non-anxious presence through felt safety, repentance driven by experienced kindness, humble stewardship of power, and holiness through treasuring adoration.” 

[23] “What Is Revival – And Is It Happening At Asbury?” By Craig Keener.

No comments:

Post a Comment