I suppose if we had asked around our churches regarding what we would most like to see in 2015 one prominent answer would be a national revival of true religion. Of course, many definitions could be given of revival, although most of them would be related to historical records, which means that there is the fact of revival. There are so many records of such spiritual occasions that only a perverse person would deny they occurred.
Further, many factors related to revival can be assessed biblically, which means that there is a theology of revival. A theology of revival attempts to explain God’s action in promoting his kingdom through the gospel in a more widespread manner than usual. It looks for biblical doctrines that describe, for example, the involvement of the risen Jesus in revival, the work of the Spirit in revival, the activity of the devil in such periods, and the contribution of prayer made by God’s people for such times and in such times. Coming from a country with a very rich history of revival we should be experts on its theology.
A third aspect of revival are features that are absent from some revivals and present in other revivals, which indicates that these features are not necessary for a revival to occur. Most of these things would come into the category of social consequences, and they may be beneficial or not for the community. For example, some revivals are accompanied by great improvements in the living standards of the poor (the revivals connected to 1859 in Britain and America had that consequence). Other revivals are followed by increased persecution of God’s people, resulting in loss of living standards (this happened throughout the twentieth century in communist countries).
A fourth feature of revival is that we inevitably visualise it through our own understanding of it. There have been frequent revivals in the Highlands, particularly in the Outer Hebrides, during the last two centuries and details of what took place in them have become part of our spiritual heritage – and imagination. The knowledge of what God did then creates within us a longing for him to do it again. As I have listened to these accounts during the last four decades since I was converted, I have sensed that many people assume that, when the next revival comes, it will be a repetition of what occurred previously. But while the gospel message will not change and the response of repentance and faith will be essential, there may be features in the next revival that will be totally different from previous ones.
For example, if a revival began tomorrow, what would be the contribution of modern technology?
Revivals in the eighteenth century occurred within the limitations of the time: information containing points for prayer was conveyed by letter that could take months to reach their destination, preachers travelled on horseback or walked between places, and sometimes places experiencing revival were unaware that communities twenty miles away were also enjoying God’s blessing in a similar way (it also meant that some communities were unaware that a revival was taking place anywhere). Revivals in the nineteenth century utilised the invention of the telegraph and the development of printing of books to help spread the revival. A revival thirty years ago had the means of tape recordings and telephones to help it (we may not be familiar with that because we have not experienced a revival in which they were used).
But if a revival comes tomorrow, it is likely that the Lord would use our current technology as one of the means of bringing people to repentance and assurance. Sometimes, we look at the millions of people in our society and we ask ourselves, ‘How can we reach all these people?’ The question usually expects a negative answer. Whether God will bring a revival or not tomorrow, it is obvious that through modern technology the gospel can be preached to millions of people simultaneously. And there is no reason why it cannot be used to bring or spread revival in the communities round our churches.
And if God poured his Spirit out on our nation, it would not be difficult for the gospel to get prime time slots on TV schedules. The forms of media (newspapers, journals) that existed in times of previous revival were quick to report on revivals, and there is no need to imagine that modern media would ignore a widespread revival.
We know that there is a wrong use of a focus on revivals that is similar to how a collector of soccer programmes rereads repeatedly the accounts of the glory days of his favourite football team and pictures in his mind what life was like when it was sweeping all before it. But his team now languishes in a lower league and shows no sign that recovery is around the corner. I have several books on my shelves that describe periods of revivals and it is always a possibility that I can start rereading them with the aim of daydreaming about a golden age when a perfect church, usually my own denomination, was used by God in the spread of his kingdom.
Of course, if I read the volumes correctly I will discover that such a period did not exist. Indeed, the fact that a revival had to come to a particular place indicates that the church there was not in a healthy state. Perhaps surprisingly, it may be the case that a congregation about to undergo persecution may be healthier in a spiritual sense than one about to experience a revival. So while your church could be better, it does not have to be at the top of the ladder in order to experience a revival.
Yet while there is an escapist form of imagination that is very undesirable, there is an essential form of imagination that indicates we are serious about the prospect of revival. Imagine that every individual in your street turned up at your church next Sunday night crying out to God for mercy. (I am not going to describe them to you, because you should know who they are and what their lives are like, or at least you should.) Wonderful, you say! Yes, but what would you say to them on Monday morning as they begin their lives of Christian discipleship? And do you think (in your imagination) that you and your congregation at present are ready for an influx of such people recently transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus? Because if we are serious about wanting a revival, we will be preparing for it.
One thing that we cannot doubt about a future revival is that it will be preceded by earnest prayer. What is earnest prayer like? Sometimes it may be full of articulate theological clarity, but often it is not. In fact, earnest prayer can often be very inarticulate because phrases and clauses are interrupted by sobs and groans before the petitioner can get to the end of his or her sentence. I include my own failings when I say that I have not heard such praying for a long, long time. Why did people once pray in such a way? Because they realised that Jesus was not getting the glory that he deserved in a community. And is that not what revival is all about?