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How do Great Awakenings get started?

The following article is what was cut from my introduction to The Boston Awakening magazine.

The traditional view is that Great Awakenings are sovereign moves of the Holy Spirit in specific regions at set times. First Great Awakening leaders such as Jonathan Edwards called these phenomena “surprising” and “supernatural.” They often quoted the words of Jesus regarding personal regeneration, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8).

Although leaders of the First Great Awakening, such as Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennant, did not claim to have originated the move of God known as the First Great Awakening, their names are so associated with the event that historians often imply that they were the cause of it.

In the 19th century, Christian leaders leaned away from a Calvinistic perspective and took a stronger “free will” approach claiming that under the right circumstances mass conversions could be produced by revival preaching and “new measures.” Revivalist Charles G. Finney once preached that “Revival is no more a miracle than a crop of wheat.” In his opinion, revival was simply the “natural” and expected outcome when the right “measures” were used. Non-religious historians and sociologists explain that Great Awakenings are the product of various convergent conditions that produce a mass religious phenomenon. Religious movements appear to occur in waves, not because of “surprising” or “supernatural” causes, but because of the cyclical flux of historical trends. If this were the case, then we ought to be able to predict when revival and spiritual awakening will occur by simply observing the trends.

Another problem is that the definition of “revival” has changed over the years. We tend to apply “revival” to individuals rather than to the Church. Individuals are not revived; they are regenerated. Being born-again is a sovereign act of God given by grace to people who were spiritually dead in their sins. A Christian who has lapsed into serious sin needs repentance.

Sometimes this is called “personal revival.” However, from a sovereign grace perspective, “regeneration” is for unconverted sinners, “repentance” is for Christians, but “revival” is for the Church. Revival is needed in the Church whenever there is a large number of unconverted church members and Christians who have fallen into habitual sin. In the 1700s, “revival” was associated with mass conversions that led to a complete transformation of society.

Toward the end of the 1800s, “revival” began to become associated with the evangelistic meetings held by men such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday. Some critics have pointed out that although these “revivals” have met the criteria of mass conversions and remarkable church growth, these could be considered normal activities of any generation of Christianity. Further, none of the so-called “revivals” of the late 19th and 20th centuries have affected the cultural landscape to the same degree as did the 18th century Great Awakening.

One thing is certain: if a Spiritual Awakening can be produced by human beings, no one has been able to produce one for at least 100 years. In light of this, why would a movement call itself: “The Boston Awakening”?

There are several possibilities from a biblical perspective:

1. There is nothing unusual going on in Boston.

2. The growing number of committed Christians is explainable by comparing it to the religious demographic of the rest of the country. As more students and immigrants move to Boston, they bring with them their normal spiritual experience. Boston is simply “catching up” with what is happening elsewhere.

3. The growing interest in spirituality is actually the beginning stages of an Awakening. Only time will tell if this movement will grow to the impact of the 18th century Great Awakening

4. A type of an Awakening is already here. It is the responsibility of existing Church ministers and leaders to transform the current pietistic “revival” into a Great Awakening – a cultural reformation that will impact the entire region and the world.

I believe that the fourth possibility is the current situation. There is never any shortage of opportunity. How do Great Awakenings get started? As the Apostle Paul preached, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26,27). If God chose the places and times we should live, then each one of us is responsible for recovering His testimony in our own life, church, city and generation.

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