By Rev’d Dr. Chris Moore – Rector of Fownhope, Mordiford, Brockhampton and Woolhope with Checkley
Just last night I picked up a book I haven’t read for quite some time, knowing that it would provide me with a few hours of encouragement. The book, Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray, deals with the history of American Evangelicalism between 1750 and 1858 and in particular charts the shifting understanding of what have become known as Revivals; the periodic and often unexpected outpourings of the Holy Spirit which issue in a great number of conversions. Conversions which endure.
The period coincides with the industrial revolution, and this brings its influence on the understanding of mission. Then, as now, they lived in a technological age, and for most problems there is a gadget. Solutions are sold and results are guaranteed. Sicknesses are medicated and symptoms are treated. Marketers are employed and products are sold. In the end, we tell ourselves, we can overcome any problem and work something out.
This thinking fed into the theology of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and was most clearly expressed by one Charles Grandison Finney. A man whose influence was so far flung I came across a signed photograph of him in an antiques shop in Leominster.
Finney came up with a number of initiatives to promote conversion. ‘Anxious benches’ were introduced so that those who were moved by the sermon could be brought together for further prayer. Drama was introduced into the preaching, and names were named. The Altar Call was instituted, and Finney would plead for people to come forward. These were amongst the ‘New Measures’ which caused so much controversy at the time.
But why? Surely anything which brings results is to be encouraged, and certainly many did follow Finney’s lead. In fact, if you were to think of an evangelistic meeting today you might expect to see many of these elements in place.
Perhaps one way to get to the issue is to look to the New Testament. Pentecost is preceded by a period of waiting. Before significant events in His life, Jesus retires to a mountain to pray. The martyrs in Revelation wait and cry out ‘how long’. And what of dear, faithful Anna who after long years of prayer was blessed with a glimpse of the infant Savour? “She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38).
This is the point: a revival is a work of God, not the work of a planning committee. It is prayer which is the great engine room of mission, not plans, finances or events. To our knees, and not our committee tables!
Finney’s New Measures did have results, but often they were produced by emotionalism rather than a move of the Spirit. There was excitement, to be sure, but over time results did not endure. The impetus was good, but was in the end it could be viewed as another technological product of the industrial revolution. Were there true converts? Of course there were. So what is the problem?
In his introduction Murray cites the Dorset born John Angel James, a man who was stout of both heart and body, and in 1861 wrote: “I do not desire, I do not advise a bustling, artificial effort to get up a revival, nor the construction of any man-devised machinery… I want God’s work, not man’s… I want no revivalist preachers.”
Here is the point, and here Zechariah 4:6 must be heeded: “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of hosts”. This is a work of God, and this should be an encouragement. All we can do is exercise the small mustard seed of our faith, it is God who seeks the lost. Yes we share the Gospel with others but we do so knowing it’s power lies in the divine Trinity, not in our persuasiveness.
By all means let us long for many to come to faith in our city, county and nation but let us first begin with prayer. Let us bend the knee before the Lord of the heaven, and pray for an outpouring of His Spirit. Let us not be outdone by that persistent widow of whom Jesus spoke! Let us pray first, and then preach.
And let us finish with a quote of that great Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. When addressing his students he said:
“We generally make our worst blunders about things that are perfectly easy, when the thing is so plain that we do not ask God to guide us, because we think our own common sense will be sufficient, and so we commit grave errors; but in the difficulties, the extreme difficulties, which we take before God, He gives young men prudence, and teaches youths knowledge and discretion. Dependence on God is the flowing fountain of success. That true saint of God, George Muller, has always struck me, when I have heard him speak, as being such a simple, child-like being in his dependence on God; but, alas! the most of us are far too great for God to use us; we can preach as well as anybody, make a sermon with anybody, – and so we fail. Take care, brethren; for if we think we can do anything of ourselves, all we shall get from God will be the opportunity to try.”
Oh, and that picture of Finney? It’s still there. I didn’t buy it.