By David L. McKenna
Are we looking for revival in all the wrong places? With high anticipation, we look to world conferences, city-wide crusades, local church meetings and small prayer groups as starting points for the revival of the church. Certainly, they are often the instruments through which the Spirit of God moves to call for revival and change lives in local settings. But when the Spirit of God has swept our nation with the signs of a great awakening, where has revival begun?
Our history shows that the starting point is a small group of students who meet together on a college campus to give themselves to the discipline of prayer and holy living for the sake of revival. Through them, the Spirit of God moves across the campus with convicting power and redeeming grace until the prevailing tone of the campus is literally transformed spiritually and morally. From there, the witness is taken from campus to campus by the contagious witness of Spirit-filled student messengers. In turn, other students carry the flame from campus to church, from church to church and from community to community.
The pattern goes back to the beginning of American history. In the 1740s, a group of students at Williams College in Massachusetts formed the “Haystack Group,” similar in purpose to the “Holy Club” at Oxford, which had been the catalyst for the Wesleyan Revival in England. Like John and Charles Wesley, the students at Williams bonded themselves together in the discipline of Bible study, prayer, holy living and help for the needy. Their target for transformation was none other than Williams College, a campus community whose moral and physical quality had been likened to the “bottom of a bird cage.”
As God moved upon the “Haystack Group,” the students moved upon the campus. The spirit of revival spread through the dormitories, into the chapel and out into the classroom. Then, as the students carried their witness to the church and community, they met a synergism of the Spirit. The conviction for sin prompted by the preaching of such a prophet as Jonathan Edwards and the thirst for righteousness among the congregations came together with the dynamic witness of the students to spread from congregation to congregation, community to community and from colony to colony.
By the turn of the century, the social and moral transformation of the new nation stood as an evidence of spiritual revival. Not only had our forefathers broken the tyranny of political bondage in the American Revolution, but Alexis de Tocqueville, who chronicled our early history, concluded that America was a nation with the “soul of a church.”
In the middle 1800s, a similar pattern of revival sprang from the campus of Oberlin College, converged with the preaching of Charles Spurgeon and provided the impetus, not only for the abolition movement, but also for the volunteer movement in such community agencies as United Way, YMCA, Red Cross and others, which arose out of compassion to serve in the Spirit of Christ. Later, in the same century, the campus again became the catalyst for the spiritual revival that led to the modern missionary movement.
Then, in the middle of the 20th century, J. Edwin Orr noted the beginnings of revival on Christian college campuses such as Asbury and Wheaton, which synergetically connected with Billy Graham, led to such parachurch ministries as Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade for Christ and peaked in the “born-again movement” of the 1970s.
No one can stereotype the stirring of the Holy Spirit. To assume that the college campus is the place where the revival of the church must begin is to deny the truth of Christ. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
At the same time, there are reasons why the wind of the Spirit has blown on the college campuses. As a person who has been a part of the Christian college, university and seminary scene as a student, professor and president for the past 40 years, I think that I know why the Holy Spirit chooses to work among the young. First and foremost, college students are idealists. Hope for a bright future still sparkles in their eyes. College students, since they haven’t yet encountered the bumps and bruises of reality that may later lead to disillusionment, stagnation and burnout, are the chosen vessels of the Holy Spirit for seeing the visions which are promised by the prophet Joel and fulfilled whenever God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.
Coupled with the idealism of the young is their discontent. For some reason, young people of college age are the special victims of the sins and ills of society at any given time. They are also blamed for behavior which is undermining the moral foundations of the past. In my view, they are more victim than culprit. At a recent conference on drug abuse among teenagers, adults identified crack and cocaine as the problems.
Students at the conference listened for awhile and then spoke. The real problem, they said, was the “entry drug” of alcohol. In one of the most telling indictments that I have ever heard on the problem of drug abuse, they laid the blame on the media, which sends the message, “You can’t have fun without alcohol,” and upon their parents who model the message with their own drinking. No rancor poisoned their words.
Rather, we heard a cry for help from those who suffered from the message and the model of alcohol abuse. My experience with college students is that they are equally sensitive and discontented with the sins of the culture and the sin in their own lives.
The idealism and discontent of the young are followed by a refreshing openness to the winds of the Spirit. Theological and denominational litmus tests are still ahead of them. Rather, like the members of the “Holy Club” and the “Haystack Group,” they have a drive for quintessential spirituality based upon the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, holy living and sacrificial service. Of course they are always accused of “enthusiasm” by those of us who require that the Holy Spirit comes on our own terms. The sad note is to hear adults call for toleration because “they will grow out of it.” I hope not. Until the openness to the Holy Spirit which characterizes the young moves through all age groups, there will be no revival.
All of these qualities are put into action by the energy of the young. Let’s face it. Most of us are too tired to be on the front edge of spiritual revival. Not only are we “running down” physically, but we show the symptoms of spiritual fatigue. According to the prophet Isaiah, our contribution to spiritual revival will be a prophetic word from the middle-aged and past dream for the old-aged.
Not that we have no role in revival. If the church is to be revived, Joel assures us that it will be a multigenerational experience which brings together the visions of the young, the prophecies of the adult and the dreams of the elderly. So, rather than stifling the energies of the young, we should set them free with the balance of the prophetic Word and a sense of history. They are the fuel for the engine of revival.
With these thoughts in mind, I have been on a “campus watch” this year. Whether speaking on a Christian college campus or listening to reports of presidents, faculty and students, my ears are tuned for the stirring sounds of spiritual revival. They can be heard. Like the rustling in the mulberry trees, the Spirit is moving among small groups of students on campus after campus across the nation.
Therefore, when we come together in world congresses, national conferences, city-wide crusades and local church meetings with revival in mind, perhaps the priority of our agenda should be to hear reports from the campus. If history holds, this is where revival begins.
David McKenna is president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. This article was first printed in Action magazine, published by the National Association of Evangelicals, March 1989.