Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It only takes a spark: The Role of Community in Sustained Revival and Renewal

. . .and soon all those around are caught up in it's glowing." Those are the first words of a song we all loved to hate growing up. These words of the classic "Pass It On" captured the sappiness, the maudlin and mawkish emotionalism of the brand of fundamentalism in which we were raised. Revivals were scheduled with special speakers (usually a prophecy conference!) Revivals for kids were codenamed "summer bible camp." As we left the fundamentalism of our past and embraced the robust intellectual and theological foundations of Reformed Theology we ran smack dab into the wierdest character. He was an American. He was a philosopher. President of an Ivy League College. And a revivalist. Can you name that preacher/pastor/theologian/revivalist? Yup. Jonathan Edwards.

I've recently been going through my Edwards volumes after listening to a great set of tapes (!) from a Desiring God conference on Edwards back in the early 00's of this century. (Brian, thanks for loaning them to me!) In his Narrative of Suprising Conversions (in Jonathan Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, 1994 paperback printing), he introduces us to several characters who experience revival and are quite changed to the suprise and joy of their neighbours. As several people had been changed and shared the inner workings of how God changed their frame of mind and heart, others were freed up to share the things of God publicly and many times with their minister.

This is Edward's summary of the mixed effect of people openly sharing their "testimony" of God's recent work:

. . .It is very much he practice of the people here , to converse freely one with another about their spiritual experiences; which many people have been disgusted at. But however our people may have, in some respects, gone to extremes in it, it is, doubtless, a practice that the circumstances of this town, and neighbouring towns, have naturally led them into. Whatsoever people have their minds engaged to such a degree in the same affair, that it is ever uppermost in their thoughts, they will naturally make it the subject of conversation when they get together, in which they will grow more and more free. Restraints will soon vanish, and they will not conceal from one another what they meet with. And it has been a practice which, in the general, has been attended with many good effects, and what God has greatly blessed amongst us: but it must be confessed, there my have been some ill consequences of it; which yet are rather to be laid to the indiscreet management of it than to the practice itself; and none can wonder, if among such a multitude some fail of exercising so much prudence in choosing the time, manner and occasion of such discourse, as is desirable. (pp. 53-54)

Edwards is defending revival against a wholesale discounting of it on account of the abuses present in any kind of large scale, or for that matter, small scale, change in the local community. People in Edwards day, though they shared his theology, could not share his enthusiasm for this work of God because they saw it as out of control, emotional, and in a sense, sociological. Many critics of Pentecostalism, myself included, tend to say "How can that many people all have the same gift?" The sameness of experience tends to make us doubt it's authenticity. Edwards simply says, some have not exercised self control, and some shepherds have not discretely managed the free flowing of sharing. I have to admit that I'd love to have more public sharing of what God is doing, except that a very small number of people would ruin it for everyone else since they don't know how to choose the "time, manner and occasion" and should I add length and sensitivity of items shared.

There is great power in shared spiritual experience. Sometimes it provides a temptation to contrived experience, but nonetheless, the communion of saints is meant to incite, excite, and elicit the recounting of God's recent faithfulness to one another. This is the power of the small group and spiritual formation movement. There is indeed great pressure to share, but sometimes we have misjudged the magnitude of what God has done, what we have learned, and how we have changed. We might think it too small to share, yet the community is there to in one sense judge the validity and encourage ("spur one another to love and good deeds" etc. Heb. 10.25ff) those good things we are receiving out of his bountiful mercy. This last statement challenges the sovereignty of the self in contemporary Evangelical piety. "You mean my private revelations from Jesus and my high opinion of myself is not the last word!." Exactly. Psalm 73 and many other Psalms talk about the role of the worshiping community in forming our operational theology and our confessional theology. Many pundits have quoted (the source escapes now) of someone belonging to the "church of Sheila." Personal revival is a triumph of grace. This triumph is to be shared and tempered with the body in mind (rejoice with those who rejoice, etc.)

Blogging might be the closest thinkg to shared experience of revival. Meeting at that depth in the real world is increasingly difficult. Our fast pace might keep us from the earth-moving, formative communities that the early Methodists and Northamptonites enjoyed after God moved in their midst. Our pride might keep us from sharing our small or big progress in growth in grace. Recently I was struck by Christ weeping over Jerusalem: "How I wanted to gather you, but you would have none of it." As a shepherd, pastor and teacher, I want to gather people together to enjoy the power of shared covenant commitment to see the Word and Spirit meet and the sparks of revival burst into flame. Some sharing is cheesy - - concocted, "campfire testimonies." Others are groaning with something to deep for words but which is Spirit-borne, profound and long-lasting. Others are quite free and we are in awe of what God has done.

Let me know what you think of these first thoughts. I'll post more as I read Edwards on the role of community in revival.


David said...

The closest we Lutherans get to actually having a revival is Vacation Bible School. Perhaps it is our German/Scandinavian heritage that keeps us from showing how excited we can be spiritually. There is, however, a new interest among Lutherans for exploring ways of experiencing spiritual growth. In many ways this is like the personal revival you speak of, and it has led many to participate in other forms of group spiritual growth such as contemplative prayer services. It is refreshing to see this revival of shared spirituality in the Lutheran Church; not that it has been absent, but it has been kept very quiet through the years.

Nan said...

Great post Mister Man. I really enjoyed it.