In the past few weeks, the prayer and worship movement at Asbury University has captured the attention of Christians across the spectrum of age and theological conviction. There are at least two aspects of this moment that make it stand out as important moment for engaging with students in our local churches, no matter how far from Wilmore, KY they may be.
First, nearly every report from theologians, pastors, students, and visitors alike has highlighted that this movement has centered on students at the university—young people who land squarely in Gen Z. In other words, as teenagers watch videos of these events, they are seeing reports that God is at work and using their generation for his kingdom. We shouldn’t minimize the impact and encouragement of this reality for students across the nation.
Second, social media is playing a large part in the spread and reception of this moment. While many aspects of the Asbury movement mark it as consistent with historic precedent for campus revival, the ability to capture everything on social media is historically unique. Videos, pictures, and testimonies—along with defenses and critiques—hit the web within hours of its beginning and have continued along with the movement itself.
For young people who participate in social media, these reactions—both positive and negative—may impact how they think of religious experience as whole. Teenagers have important questions about how God works and how we are to worship him—and the way we answer can help to shape our students as disciples, or can leave them feeling skeptical. Here are four talking points youth ministers should consider in conversations with students about Asbury and similar movements.
Revival Flows from Authenticity
Perhaps my favorite detail surrounding this unique moment at Asbury is that it all began with an ordinary chapel service, and that the speaker’s own self-assessment was that he had done a poor job. How then can we explain the response that followed?
The answer goes against the basic logic of our technological society: You cannot manufacture the work of God. Revival that can truly be called revival must be an authentic work of God, and there are no substitutes. The work of God at any time or place—at any moment, in any heart—is fundamentally dependent on God’s gracious kindness. You cannot fake a true awakening, outpouring, or revival. It is not to Asbury, the students, the pastors, or anyone else, but to God be the glory. For he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:1-3).
From the testimony of those closest to the events, it appears Asbury students have kept this reality in their sights. Similarly, we do well to remind our students not to be drawn in by every claim of God’s work in a speaker’s voice or a movement’s energy. As we encourage them to see any movement of God, including this one, as a potential authentic outworking of God in this world, we should also teach and model discernment.
We want students always to test that which is spiritually authentic by knowing God’s Word more deeply. There may be people or organizations who will attempt to co-opt this movement for their own notoriety, motives, and justification of certain theological claims. We must encourage students to trust in God’s work, which cannot be manipulated, while also challenging them to measure what they see by God’s own Word. This practice will equip them as they think of God’s work in their own lives.
Revival Forms the Affections
One of the common notions that seem to accompany revivals is a marked intensity of religious emotions. People from traditions like my own can be skeptical of claims to spontaneously raised affections. But we should ask God to help us be open to what he may be doing as we steward this moment with students.
Our emotions are gifts from God by which we respond to him and his world in ways that are not purely rational. This is why the Psalms so often mention God’s servants weeping, leaping, singing new songs, bringing new gifts, falling on their face, and raising their hands to God. We should encourage our students not to fear their emotions, since the work of God in reviving the heart is an emotional affair.
In response to the images and videos of the gathering at Asbury, some students may feel uncomfortable with such demonstrative prayer and worship. Others may experience a sense of self-doubt, as though their faith is only authentic insofar as they are religiously expressive. Both are seeing their faith as dependent on how they act to express themselves.
It is crucial we remind students that affections can look differently for different people, and that true spiritual emotion arises out of a response to God’s truth. Looking again to the Psalms, the most common place we find a heightened emotional response is when the psalmists meditation on the law of God (Ps. 119:111-112). As we talk with students thinking through revival, our encouragement should be twofold: First, do not fear your emotions. Second, be sure to center your affections on God’s truth.
Revival Finds its Way Home
As the events at Asbury have gone on, it seems the spirit of those involved has been to decenter Asbury and for people to carry the flame back to their local communities. Indeed, for a moment to be called revival it should not remain insular—it must spread. Pentecost (Acts 2) stands not only as the most powerful example of New Testament revival but also as the launching point from which the gospel goes from Jerusalem to world (Acts 1:8), forming new churches in new communities. I would argue the first place revival must spread is into the local church.
The Lord has seen fit in this situation to use a university campus for the spread of his glory. But for this moment to have lasting impact like other revivals—such as the Protestant Reformation, the First Great Awakening, or even what we are seeing in China and other nations today—the flame must find its proper place in the worship, discipleship, and practices of the local church (see stories here). The movements we see on college campuses should serve to enliven the church for fruitful worship and mission. The local church is the only gathering of believers God has equipped to carry that flame from one heart to the next, one community to the next, one generation to the next.
The qualities of revival that most stir our hearts—confession to one another before God, freedom from sin, praying over one another, singing songs of worship together, and more—are what Scripture calls for in regular worship by God’s people. As we disciple the students in our ministries who feel compelled by what they have seen at Asbury, it should be our joy to point them to where God has placed his name and promised his presence (Ex. 20:24): his church. As pastors, we should also notice the impact young Christians can have when we invite them to participate meaningfully in worship.
Revival Flourishes in Fruit
Perhaps the most important thing that could be said about the recent events at Asbury is what the President of Asbury Theological Seminary, Timothy Tennant, wrote in his reflections on the events, “Only if we see lasting transformation which shakes the comfortable foundations of the church and truly brings us all to a new and deeper place can we look back, in hindsight and say, ‘yes, this has been a revival.’”
Access to Asbury now happens immediately via technology, but we cannot evaluate true gospel fruit in the immediate. The most important way by which one can look to a Christian movement and claim it as an authentic work of God is by watching its seed plant, germinate, grow, and flourish over a longer period of time. This is not the response of skepticism or cynicism. This is the biblical portrait of discipleship. In John 15, Jesus says, “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
As the parable of the Sower shows us, growth that springs up with no foundation is at risk of withering. And growth that becomes entangled in the thorns risks being choked out. The growth identified as from God receives the seed and spends a lifetime multiplying its growth. We can point students to this reality, offering them hope: The good work God has begun at Asbury and in the hearts of so many others as a result, he will bring to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Meanwhile, we also continue to call teenagers to faithful service to God as that day approaches (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
We also participate in the fruit of this work of God—together with our students—by seeking him, delighting in his Word, worshipping in his Church, and flourishing in the Spirit.
As youth ministers, may this moment sound a call for us to be renewed in the gospel—the good news that God rescues sinners through the finished work of Jesus, filling us with his Spirit. And may we see students in our churches come to know the Lord and be freed from sin, so that one day we may look back and say, “Yes, this has been a revival.”
For more on the recent events at Asbury University, see our recent post on the parent blog: Ask Rooted: How Are You Talking With Teenagers About the Movement at Asbury?