For those of us who grew up in Southern Baptist or other evangelical circles, “revival” is a well-known phenomenon, especially for those older than I am. Some remember “big tent revivals.” Others remember special guest weekend preachers at their churches, which is when the children of the church may wonder why the adults are getting all excited about having to listen to more sermons than usual. Still others of us remember altar calls at Christian concerts, where we’re asked to come down to the stage if the Holy Spirit (aided by slow music and serotonin) has moved us. All of these have one goal: getting people to profess faith in Christ.
I myself am a product of such things. It was at an Al Denson concert at the age of 12 when I made that personal decision. There are many people who can point to a similar experience as the start of their Christian walk.
But despite all of that, the age of revivals and crusades also ended up producing a version of Christianity so shallow and devoid of content that it is now imploding and living in contrast to the life and teachings of the very man it claims as the way of salvation.
Listen and watch in the right places for just a short amount of time, and you can witness everyone from prominent evangelical leaders to common church folks support violence, revenge, torture, discrimination and unconcern for the refugee and immigrant. Sometimes it’s overt; other times you might miss it because it’s interspersed between pie recipes and grandkid photos on Facebook.
There are also those Christians who may not be able to get on board with everything that is happening but don’t have an appetite for the arguments or protests, and encourage us more or less to “play nice” and express love through keeping the peace. Although this is usually well-meaning, this picture of a Jesus who was the well-mannered, upstanding community Christian who didn’t ruffle feathers does not square at all with what we find in the Gospels. Jesus wasn’t “nice,” as we often understand it. Jesus called people out and exposed religious hypocrisy all the time — enough to get himself killed.
Wherever we try to understand why Christians would behave in ways or support things that are diametrically opposed to the values of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” I think there is a factor that is sometimes overlooked: the now well-established evangelical culture in which we see our mission as to make converts rather than disciples.
Jesus called for the latter. It’s right there in what’s called “The Great Commission,” along with the charge to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” “Make disciples.” Making a convert is actually not that hard in comparison. There are several proven methods for making converts. You can scare people, Jonathan Edwards style. You can woo people with great music or inspiring messages in your church. You can guilt people. Heck, sometimes churches gain converts just by virtue of a marriage.
Making disciples is harder. It’s lifelong, gradual and not vindicating or comfortable. It’s disciple-making that Billy Graham realized, later in life, was largely not happening when the dust of his rallies had settled. He guessed in 1990 that only 25 percent of those who had come forward to accept Christ (convert) at his rallies actually ended up living any kind of intentional Christian life of growing, serving and becoming more like Jesus. A few studies from the early 2000s show that between 3 percent and 6 percent of people who went forward at evangelistic rallies became part of a worshipping community.
As Scot McKnight wrote, “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”
You still hear people today cry, “We need revival in America!” or “We need to put God back in our country.” What that often means in practice is a desire for the institutional church to have a place of status and privilege such that it can force its will on the rest of society. Since the advent of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” the medium for accomplishing this has been political power, a method Jesus explicitly rejected (Matt. 20:25-28) and is in contrast with the moral authority with which Jesus was said to speak (Matt. 7:28-29).
We do indeed need a revival. They’re right about that. Actually, we need a revival within Christianity — one of discipleship. We need a revival that tears down the thick temple curtain that has separated the teachings of Jesus and those who claim to follow him. We need a revival that smashes the retaining wall that has kept our private religious lives and our political views safe from the moral demands of the preacher and healer from Nazareth.
Jesus was not meant to be the abstract method by which our salvation is attained. He was and is the walking “Word of God” (John 1) into whose life we must live.
Oh sure, we’ve seen movements like “What Would Jesus Do?” It had the potential, but the question was usually limited to personal matters like, “Should I kiss that girl?” or “Should I quit that job?” and not, “Can I support trillions going to warfare while the schools children go to and the air they breathe are left to rot?” There is a reason that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is often quoted but his “Beyond Vietnam” speech is not.
Francis Chan and Shaun King are two founding pastors of megachurches who left their large congregations just around a year apart. They reported shockingly similar reasons for leaving: their production-focused worship services and consumer-driven style of church were not producing disciples. The everyday lives of their parishioners had remained untouched. After King’s departure, he said in an interview, “All these things ‘Christ-ians’ have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means.”
Discipleship means to allow God to form one’s life — one’s real, everyday, actual practices and choices and beliefs — to look more and more like Christ. By extension, this reaches into the systems we create and participate in. This is in contrast to what Thomas Williamson called “easy believe-ism,” who traced it back to the evangelistic revivalism of Charles Finney.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of the one-time decision at an evangelistic rally. You can feel that you’ve just done something life-changing even though your life hasn’t changed. You hear the message that you are loved without the command that you must love.
If Christianity is defined by what I know and affirm about Jesus, then I can quickly be on my way and get back to normal life. If it’s about my normal life being shaped and formed into the way of Jesus, I could, on some days, be counted among those whom Jesus called “blind guides” and “hypocrites.”
Contemporary Irish theologian Peter Rollins has said that Christianity needs to be a “materialistic religion — in that, if it doesn’t change the reality of your material existence, it’s just a meaningless abstraction.”
This is closely related to 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous elucidation of “cheap grace”: “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.”
The problem of un-discipled Christians is not new, but I’m not sure we’ve seen anything in recent memory quite like the well-funded and politically allied easy believe-ism of today.
Yes, we need a revival. We need a making-disciples kind of revival; one that opens the door for the way of Jesus to invade our spending decisions, our family life, and who we choose to care about. The apostle Paul went as far to say that we are “nothing” without it (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
We need a serving-the-least-of-these, justice-seeking, sell-all-you-have, hang-out-with-the-poor, visit-the-imprisoned, feet-washing, self-denying, stone-dropping, enemy-loving kind of revival.