No cheerleading

In assessing revival results, wait and hope

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

It's a little over a year since Christians committed to standing up against feminist pressures in biblical translation won a stunning victory. Zondervan and the International Bible Society, facing pressure particularly from Southern Baptists and Focus on the Family, agreed on Memorial Day, 1997, to drop plans to publish a gender-neutral translation.

WORLD's exposure of the "Stealth Bible" plans was both the high point and the low point of the magazine's 12 years of existence so far. We enjoyed the opportunity to bring to the attention of the Christian community a subtle assault on Scripture, and we were saddened by the attacks from those whose plans were frustrated. Overall, we came out of the experience realizing the need to cover news about religious organizations.

For a long time we deemphasized such coverage and used our limited pages to cover the world outside the church, on the assumption that other magazines would cover Christianity today. But, when we realized that some publications were too closely tied to evangelical establishments to do independent reporting, we had no choice but to begin digging into what we knew would be a diet of worms.

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The reason tough-minded religion coverage is so hazardous for many Christian magazines, including ours, is that it hits us where we live. When Promise Keepers ran into economic problems and was also questioned about theological compromise, or when the Brownsville revival was charged by the secular liberal press with staging miracles and cooking the books, some readers expected us to run pieces praising those organizations instead of taking the concerns seriously.

Our goal whenever possible is to follow the lead of our favorite New Testament journalist, Luke, in his emphasis on eyewitness investigation (Luke 1:1-4) and careful accounts. Of course denominational preferences enter into things, but our goal is to see God glorified in all situations. For example, I disagree theologically with parts of Pentecostalism, but I have visited and worshipped in Pentecostal churches that impress me with their refusal to shy away from the offense of the cross. We are thankful for every person who comes to Christ, whatever the means.

The real question for reporters and everyone else is, how can such means be assessed? Iain Murray's fine history, Revival and Revivalism, emphasizes the need to watch for development of a high view of God's holiness accompanied by deep mourning on account of sins; those who are truly transformed should show over time a moral reformation. The classic revivalist George Whitefield was careful not to do any counting of converts: "There are so many stony-ground hearers which receive the word with joy, that I have determined to suspend my judgment till I know the tree by its fruits." His rule was, "A holy life is the best evidence of a gracious state."

As Mr. Murray notes, "All awakenings begin with the return of a profound conviction of sin." That conviction may lead to excitement, even falling prostrate, but there is danger in making such activity the test of faith: "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."

Mr. Murray skillfully contrasts revival-which aims to help people become aware of sin-and revivalism, which aims to produce excitement. Looking at the Second Great Awakening that rolled through the first quarter of the 19th century, he points out: "What characterizes a revival is not the employment of unusual or special means but rather the extraordinary degree of blessing attending the normal means of grace. There were no unusual evangelistic meetings, no special arrangements, no announcements of pending revivals. Pastors were simply continuing in the services they had conducted for many years when the great change began."

So WORLD watches and hopes for the best. Our position is that of ministers in Oneida, N.Y., who in 1827 published a pastoral letter: "Revivals of Religion are a divine and glorious reality ... rejoice in the grace of God which is manifested in the outpourings of his Spirit, wherever enjoyed.... If a revival is attended with faults and blemishes, it is not certain that there is no good in it.... As it would be wrong to refuse to see the good because there are some evils, so it is doubtless wrong to shut our eyes upon the evils that exist, because there is some good."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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