Hopeful discernment: the Asbury Revival and sacred Conversation

February 20th, 2023

For the last week, announcements of revival have dominated my social media feeds. What started off as just another chapel service at Asbury College seems to have stirred something in the sleepy little town of Wilmore (or as we called it in my day, “the Shire”). People I know and trust have confirmed that something genuine and beautiful is taking place. The Spirit of God seems to have fallen from above, and students have fallen to their knees in repentance, love, and wonder.

Of course, with a post-Enlightenment people such as us, supernatural claims are predictably (and with warrant) questioned. At worst, these questions come from a place of cynicism and disregard, people who don’t want this to be true or don’t believe it can be true. At best, these questions come from a place of discernment and patience, people who have grown weary of revivalist religion that does not change anything in the world. Whether genuine, disingenuous, or somewhere in between, believers in the revival sometimes feel or react as if their experiences have been attacked by those who do not automatically accept the revival’s authenticity.

Personally, I have neither lost my hope that true revival is possible, nor have I thrown my hat in with even the most trustworthy voices saying something truly divine is happening in Wilmore. Indeed, I think this hopeful discernment places me in a position to suggest something potentially prophetic: The Evangelical, revivalist bent of American Christianity desperately needs the critical distance offered by the Mainline church. And the critical distance of the Mainline church desperately needs the revivalist urgency of the Evangelical movement. 

The claim I make here is not some kind of both-sides-are-right argument. Rather, I think the weaknesses of both traditions suggests that, on their own, they lack something necessary in being the complete body of Christ. If anything, my argument is that both-sides-are-wrong without each other. The church needs urgency. The church needs discernment. The church needs warm hearts. And the church needs Oxford fellows. Were not both of these realities hypostatically incarnate in our Wesleyan namesake? 

If not for the Evangelical, revivalist bent of the Asbury Colleges of the world, the Mainline tradition might still be sludging through the mire of modernity. Awaiting no transcendent hands, Mainline religion might have retreated long ago into its middle-class therapeutic moralism that feels no divine urgency and is content to remain at a critical distance from anything smacking of “supernatural” because they genuinely believe,  “God has no hands but ours.” 

Still, if not for the Mainline tradition’s scholasticism, skepticism, or insistence that Christians should participate with God in “Thy Kingdom Come,” the Asburys of the world might be content settle into their own cloistered spiritual experiences. Just as mired in modernity as the Mainline, conservative Evangelicals would have no social conscience outside of Jesus “in our hearts.”

The Mainline traditions in America need the divine urgency Evangelicals have exhibited. The Evangelical traditions need the intellectual discernment and social urgency the Mainline has exhibited. 

These needs aside, neither seems to think the other offers anything of value. 

And, therefore, neither can see how it fails to be the body of Christ without the other.

Evangelicals will continue to insist that the Mainline has abandoned gospel urgency and the centrality of Jesus (and, indeed, some have). And the Mainline will continue to insist that Evangelicals have abandoned the social elements of the gospel and the intellectual rigor of discernment (and, indeed, some have). 

But a sacred conversation between the two—where we take each other seriously as offering elements of the Grand Tradition that we each might lack—might genuinely be what this revival calls for. It might call the Mainline to see that God has hands that are not ours, hands that are as unpredictable as the wind blowing wherever it wills. The revival might also call Evangelicals to see that without the sustained work and organizing for justice and resistance that comes after the emotional fervor has dissipated, all you had was a strangely warmed heart without a radically changed world. 

So has revival happened at Asbury? I’m hopefully discerning the answer to that question. I hope, yes, that it has. I will, however, wait to see if the revival spreads outward from those campuses into the poor and marginalized living in those horse and tobacco farms surrounding the Shire. Further, how the college and seminary respond to queer students after the revival will say much about the authenticity thereof. John Wesley taught us early and often that any notion of revival that does not radically upturn the seats of power, radically change the lot of the poor and the marginalized is no revival at all. So my prayer is, yes, that this revival is as serious about love for neighbor as it is about love for God.

Still, regardless of what I conclude, both Evangelicals and the Mainline must understand that revival remains ever the work of God and not the work of our feelings or even the work of our hands. Who can discern where the Spirit will go? Who can determine Her paths? Indeed, since revival remains God’s work and not mine, its authenticity is neither helped by the insistence of believers nor is it deterred by the skepticism of the discerning. Thanks be to God for that!

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