Side Effects of Revivalism part one
You sit down with the doctor and he talks to you about a new medication. It will get rid of your skin irritation. However, it will cause migraine headaches, blurred vision, and severe stomach cramps. I think I’d take the skin irritation.
The lure of revivalism is amazing short term, tangible results. Churches have experienced a burst of conversions that overflowed their seating capacity. Sometimes they have had those events and then saw nothing like it ever again. Some haven’t ever seen it, but they’ve read about it. Who wouldn’t want it if it were available?
Revivalism doesn’t advertise its peripheral effects. However, it has several. We’ve already talked about whether revivalism is even revival. That’s bad enough, but then the side effects.
Iain Murray in Revival and Revivalism writes (pp. 163-164):
From attitudes of indifference, or of cold religious formality, many are suddenly brought by the hearing of the truth to a concern and distress so strong that it may even be accompanied by temporary physical collapse. The phenomenon of hearers falling prostrate during a service or crying out in anguish is not uncommon at the outset of revivals. . . . A revival is, by its very nature, bound to be attended by emotional excitement. But the course of a revival, together with its purity and abiding fruit, is directly related to the manner in which such excitement is handled by its leaders. Once the idea gains acceptance that the degree of the Spirit’s work is to be measured by the strength of emotion, or that physical effects of any kind are proofs of God’s action, then what is rightly called fanaticism is bound to follow.
Murray talks about revivalism in Kentucky during what is called “the Second Great Awakening” (p. 177):
We have considered the general detrimental effects which accompanied the awakening in the churches of Kentucky, and noted how these effects gained strength on account of the low level of biblical instruction that was prevalent. Ideas popularized by the spirit of the age were too strong to be counteracted by preachers who were too few in number, or inadequately prepared for a situation of such an extraordinary character.
Murray mentions the “detrimental effects which accompanied” something that was known as a revival. I have my own observations about the harmful side effects of revivalism. I believe that a common assumption today is that these effects are seen almost entirely within a certain branch of fundamentalism. I see revivalism in evangelicalism — including what is considered conservative evangelicalism.
People probably have their idea of who is sanctimonious—anyone with stronger standards than they. I support church-wide application of biblical principles. However, I have noticed a rigidity, tightness, or edginess that often characterizes revivalists. So much is dependent on their getting everything aligned correctly for revival that they obsess over administrative minutiae. Often from top to bottom, revivalists feel a guilt for holding back revival. The Achan in the camp must be found and dealt with harshly.
Much of the Christian life is external. We must obey God in our body, which is His. Externals have gotten a bad rap especially recently. However, because “revival” in revivalism so hinges on a certain performance by us, a wrong emphasis is placed on the externals, resulting in a kind of hyper-externalism.
Young people in hyper-externalism learn how to perform in order to fit the required appearance. They know how not-to-get-in-trouble. They know what it takes to be a good boy and girl. They train themselves to conform to the rules. The strong one could actually be the weak one in this system. The “strong one” may not develop at all in his love for God and scripture. He may just be the one who knows how to toe the line better than others. He knows how someone becomes considered good.
It’s not that internals are ignored completely with revivalists. It’s a matter of not following the emphasis of scripture, which starts on the inside and works its way out. Since so much depends on us in revivalism, keeping everyone in line becomes the challenge, rather than developing the internal convictions and the affections for God. Keeping standards high is seen as the means by which other revival-receivers have obtained their coveted experience. The standards are seen as a means to get God’s blessing.
There are two extremes to externalism. One moves the way of better-than-thou rule keeping. The other travels the road of “I’ve got more freedom than you do.” I call it left wing legalism. It’s probably akin to the Samaritan religion. The left winged legalist focuses on externals as much as the right winger, just in taking about every possible liberty that he can with almost no limitation. And he talks about his liberty all the time, reminding people how free he is by mentioning the movies he went to, his favorite rock band, his latest micro-brew, and the beauty of his goatee and mustache. This guy may be someone who was once a right winger and now he’s proud to be a left winger. He changed uniforms, but he’s still on the same team.
Rituals are not the sole domain of revivalists, but ritualism is a side effect of revivalism. I call it a “punching the time-clock” mentality. We must perform as Christians. Actions are important. However, we are not to be performance based. In revivalism, you’ve got to jump through a certain number of hoops to get the blessing of God. God holds us to the demands of a certain degree and quantity of performance, withholding His special working until we reach the tipping point.
Many revivalists just give up on attempting to fulfill all the criteria required to get God’s special favor. The bar seems to keep getting moved or God has entrusted only a few deserving ones with the special endowment of His power. Once they see that they’ll never find the pebble under the shell, they give up on the inside and start painting on their Christian life. You could call it “paint by numbers” Christianity. They become faithful to the ritual of being a Christian, playing the game, going through the motions. They assume it’s their duty. Lost is joy and love.
Inordinate Human Ingenuity
I read a lot of explanations from evangelicals on their music. They betray their revivalism in what they say. Here’s a typical statement of someone who wants to leave fundamentalism and go to evangelicalism because he doesn’t see enough emotionalism in the “worship”:
While worship can certainly be “overdone” and focused purely on emotions in more contemporary services, Fundamentalism goes to the other extreme. There needs to be balance here and, unfortunately, I’ve attended exactly 2 services in any Fundamentalist church that managed to strike this balance. . . . We are careful to ensure that the emotions are not engaged during the song service because we believe emotional engagement is wrong….unless of course it’s time for the invitation. The command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (these address the will, emotion, and intellect) doesn’t seem to apply in the church service. We want to engage the will and intellect, but the emotions need to be put down. You will never see hands raised in worship in an IFB church (unless there is an “outsider” visiting), nor will you see anything other than dry eyes at any point during the “worship” service. The church service tends to be a very regimented, dry, rote, obligatory occasion.
What I find very interesting is the emphasis on externals and emotionalism as signs of genuineness. Notice the quote from Murray above, the last part in which he says:
Once the idea gains acceptance that the degree of the Spirit’s work is to be measured by the strength of emotion, or that physical effects of any kind are proofs of God’s action, then what is rightly called fanaticism is bound to follow.
For those who embrace such beliefs will suppose that any check on emotion or on physical phenomena is tantamount to opposing the Holy Spirit.
Later he writes (p. 209):
And in their [wise pastors] view, to lay importance on outward signs of conviction, such as tears, was a sure way to confuse the natural with the spiritual. They also knew that if displays of emotion were allowed to go unchecked in large congregations then, by a principle of natural sympathy, others would soon be affected. The consequent heightened emotion, far from advancing a true revival, could well bring it to an end.
One of the problems with the contemporary “worship” is that it choreographs the emotions with the music. This was a characteristic that Edwards dealt with in his Treatise on Religious Affections. He showed how that scriptural affection starts with the mind, not the body. The latter could be called passions, which is not the quality of the love for God. The mind feeds the affections, which results in an act of the will. Obviously Edwards didn’t have a problem with affection. He criticized the manipulation of it which occurs today with the productions of contemporary Christian music. The problem is not the emotions, but how it is that the emotions are influenced. Targeting them is an act of the flesh.
The nature of contemporary music, which is fitting of the culture from which it was spawned, is emotional. It is intended to make people feel something. This should help you understand the existential nature of this spirituality. It isn’t spiritual worship, which is what scripture requires. It is a feeling that makes someone think he is being spiritual. Because the feeling exists, it must be the spirit. But the feeling was produced by the music. It didn’t come through the mind, but through the body, the flesh. And if it is being sent to God, consideration of making us feel something should be the furthest thing from our mind and will. This is what corrupts the worship to the extent that it is false worship.
I’ve talked about revival being “to be made alive,” so that when revival is occurring, sinners are being converted. Preachers were not satisfied with only the preached Word as a basis for conversion. They wanted more numbers, so they began enacting certain measures that they found worked at seeing more professions of faith. New means were invented to ensure that those hearing would make a decision. The purpose was to get a physical response, either by walking to the front, to an anxious room, or by joining in a scripted prayer. Murray talks about the argument that was used by preachers at the time of the so-called “Second Great Awakening”:
If only some souls are saved by the use of these new measures, we ought thankfully to own their power, and give them our countenance. Conversion is so important that if any cases prove genuine is that not enough to justify the method?
(to be continued)