Oct22ThuOctober 22, 2020
Renewal or Revival? Yes!
When I was a student pastor in beautiful Cranbrook, BC, about 30 years ago, the local ministerial sponsored a week of revival meetings, led by the Sutera twins, Ralph and Lou. The meetings happened for several nights in a row, and we gathered in one of the larger churches and sang and prayed and were exhorted to make commitments and renew commitments to Jesus. There were a few new commitments and some people were refreshed in their faith in the Lord. It was a bit of a blast from the past, since the methods and style of these meetings seemed to be from a bygone era. I recall from one of the leaders' meetings leading up to the revival meetings there was the suggestion of a nice way to bless the “pastor's wife” was to “buy her a new hat,” which triggered some chuckles even then.
Ralph and Lou Sutera have ministered in this way for decades. They are godly men and have followed a particular and predictable pattern in their revival meetings. But it was not always so. In the fall of 1972, they were instrumental in one of Canada's* true “revivals,” in Saskatoon, Saskatechewan. They had been invited to Ebenezer Baptist Church by Pastor Wilbert McLeod who had been praying for revival for 2 years. From the beginning, the Spirit moved in these meetings, and the meetings continued for 7 weeks, moving to larger places, and finally filling the largest auditorium in Saskatoon (2000 seats). There were many who turned to Jesus, especially young people, and many who were renewed in Him. Love, honesty, forgiveness and healings marked these meetings. These were wonderful times in Saskatoon, with a noticeable drop in crime and social problems during the time of the revival and afterwards.
Canada has not had a nation-wide “revival” probably mostly because of geography! It is too large and the distances are so great! The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) swept north from the eastern seaboard of the US and flowed over the Atlantic provinces, which is the most religious sector of the country even today as a result. But there have been moves of God in various times and places. In the early 1990's, God moved powerfully during the “Toronto Airport Blessing” at a Vineyard Church near Pearson Airport; this renewal was characterized by “holy laughter” and other physical manifestations of the Spirit's presence.
The word “revival” evokes for me images of a particular style of meeting, strongly exhortative preaching, Gospel hymns, and altar calls or invitations. In earlier days and better weather, meetings were held in the open air, or in tents, and people would “hit the sawdust trail,” coming forward to receive Christ.
The word revival refers to “an infusion of new spiritual life imparted by the Holy Spirit to existing parts of Christ’s body”; it means essentially the same thing as renewal. It is about new life coming into people who have sunk down in fervour and passion for God. It's about the spiritual life that God gives being revived in us or renewed in us. Renewal and revival mean the same thing, but for me, the word “renewal” doesn't have the baggage of the particular forms that have long been used in North America.
Genuine spiritual renewal or revival comes as God the Holy Spirit freshly infuses His life among believers. The Holy Spirit is always available whenever we pray and call on Him. He doesn't sleep or go on vacation. Anytime is a good time to be born anew, or be renewed! But there are special times of God's visitation when the Spirit moves powerfully and people long for God and turn to God in greater numbers. Visitations by the Holy Spirit always involve powerful transformations, physical healings, and people being freed of evil influences, relationships being healed, people coming out of the worst kinds of bondages and experiences being healed and set free. God does this kind of work in an ongoing way all the time, but what distinguishes a time of renewal or revival is the sheer speed and quantity of these kinds of transformations. People leave off their distractions and addictions and turn to praying and singing and worshipping and sharing and helping.
Some of the revivals of the past have been very large with tens of thousands coming to open-air meetings. Certainly this was the case with the birth of Methodism in John Wesley's time. The first Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s, called the Evangelical Revival in England) came at a time of very low spiritual vitality and vast and growing social problems as the Industrial Revolution transformed England. The cities were growing very quickly as people moved away from agricultural lifestyles to work in factories, often with terrible working conditions. This was before any kind of labour laws. Work was dangerous, with long hours, child labour, no education for children, and life was hard for the majority of people. At this time, the Spirit of God moved powerfully and people like John Wesley and George Whitefield began to preach in fields or in streets the Gospel of the love of God and thousands upon thousands turned to Jesus or renewed their faith in Him. This open air preaching was unheard of at the time but it attracted all kinds of people who weren't comfortable going to church. In the US, the revival spread like wild-fire, as Methodists preachers rode on horseback from place to place; no church buildings were needed, just people gathering together to pray and sing and seek God.
But renewal or revival is not limited to the pages of history, something odd that belongs to an era in which Christianity was the main western religion. The Spirit moves all the time and regularly sends His renewing life in waves or winds. In fact both wind and water are Bible images of the Spirit's action. The Spirit's renewing is like a deep breath of fresh air, or like renewing refreshing rain. In fact, the same Hebrew word means both “breath” and “spirit.” Consider Ezekiel 37 and the image of a huge army of dead bodies being brought to life and filled with breath or spirit, or of Ezekiel's vision of the river of God flowing out of the temple, renewing the earth. Remember the great wind that blew through the house on in the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Think too of Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
It is in human nature to need to be renewed and refreshed. We all need renewal from time to time. That's why we value anniversaries and birthdays and photo albums. Spiritually, God graciously refreshes his people in waves and gusts of fresh Holy Spirit visitations. Just as when Jesus turned water into wine, he made instantaneous an ordinary process of transformation, so in time of renewal the Spirit's activity seems to be greatly increased.
Many people think we are again in such a time or approaching such a time when the wind of the Spirit is beginning to blow strongly. Many crises around the world, like climate-driven disasters, poverty, war, hunger, terrorism and the like are now deepened and made critical by the world-wide Covid- 19 pandemic. Even in the relative wealth and comfort of North America, some people are asking questions of meaning, what is really important in life?
In this time of pandemic, we sense that people are searching and asking questions and reconsidering priorities, and yet there aren't always clear ways or avenues to reach them with the love of God. But we can pray. Will you join me in praying for renewal? (or revival if that is the term you prefer!)?