by K.W. Leslie, 10 June
REVIVAL ri'vaɪ.vəl noun. A new interest in something old. [In this case religion.]
2. An improvement in the condition or strength of something.
3. Reawakened religious excitement.
4. A worship service meant to reawaken religious excitement.
[Revivalist ri'vaɪ.vəl.ɪst noun.]

If you grew up in a church which holds a lot of revival services, y’might not be aware revivals are controversial among a lot of Christians. Usually because there are a lot of con men in the revivalist business, who’ve discovered it’s a really great way to make money. Whip people into a religious lather, ask ’em for money, and they’ll give it!

You don’t even have to believe in Jesus. Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist turned Hollywood actor, went on a final revivalist tour in the early 1970s and let documentarians watch him behind the scenes—and film how he really felt about what he was doing. It made for a disturbing but Oscar-winning documentary, Marjoe. More people are familiar with the fictional versions of such people, like Elmer Gantry—but Gantry was totally based on real people.

These folks—and too frequently, real evangelists—take full advantage of religious excitement. Too many people confuse spirit with emotion, and can’t tell the difference. This particularly happens at revival meetings. Yeah, we’re meant to experience the Holy Spirit, not mere religious excitement. But both evangelists and con men want us to get excited about God. Some evangelists don’t realize there’s a difference… and frankly, some don’t even care; whatever brings you to God. Others legitimately believe the excitement is the same thing. I’ve personally watched an evangelist tell a woman overcome with excitement, “That’s him! That’s the Spirit!”

That’s dopamine, not God.

So how do we tell the difference? Duh; fruit. If the Holy Spirit is legitimately involved, we’re gonna see his fruit. We’ll see better behavior. Better attitudes. Authentic miracles. A pursuit of truth, not clever sayings and happy thoughts which make us feel good. People following Jesus. Changed lives which stay changed.

And yeah, personal contact with God is exciting! People changed for the better is awesome! But excitement is a byproduct of the Spirit. Don’t confuse it for the real thing.

The reason many people do, is because God is good, and dopamine most definitely feels good. And people will do crazy things to chase dopamine. Like heroin.

Problem is, dopamine happens quickly and immediately… and the good fruit of the Spirit’s activity is a long-term thing. In the short term, we’re only gonna see the preachers, crowds, emotions, reactions. In the short term, the only way we’re gonna know God’s in any way involved with this revival is when God tells us so; when those people he’s gifted with supernatural discernment recognize this actually is a God thing.

Naysayers don’t think any of ’em are a God thing: It’s all fakery, and all fleshly.

There’s always gonna be fakery.

I didn’t grow up in a revivalist church. Oh, there’d be revivals: Some guest preacher might hold an evening worship service, give a fiery sermon, give an altar call, and dozens would come forward to say the sinner’s prayer. But we didn’t hold such services on a frequent basis, or even a yearly basis. They’d happen once in a great while.

Or, more often, the kids would go to youth camp. It’d be a three-day weekend thing, or a weeklong thing: Take the kids off to the woods or the snow, spend a few days in fun physical activities, then hold a revival service. Kids would either come to Jesus, or rededicate themselves to Jesus… and sometime we really did mean it, and stayed Christian! But more often it wore off in less than a week.

In my 20s I did attend a revivalist church, which held weekly revival services. Preacher after preacher would exhort the crowds to follow Jesus—and every service, dozens would flock to the altar and pledge their lives to Jesus, and often they really meant it.

People would be legitimately touched by God. Legitimately called to serve him. Legitimately cured of illness; I watched a few of these up close. Legitimately quit their backsliding once and for all, and took Jesus seriously from that point forward.

And there’d be fakes. ’Cause there are always fakes.

Most people like to blend in. True non-conformism is rare. It’s why all the kids who claim they don’t follow the crowd, all wind up dressing like one another. So whenever there’s a congregation full of people praising God, repenting, confessing, and getting cured… there are also gonna be holdouts who feel nothing. Who want nothing. Who are quite comfortable with their Christianity (or lack thereof) as-is. But they don’t wanna stand out; no more than a Jew who suddenly realizes everybody else at the political rally he’s at is a rabid antisemite. So they’re gonna go through the motions as much as they comfortably can, and get out of there as soon as they’re able.

Some will come forward when asked. Participate when they’re called upon. Shout when they’re told. Fall over when pushed. Repeat whatever prayers they’re told to recite. Then go home and say, “Betcha everyone else was faking it too. Probably nothing real to any of this.”

And just as there’s fakery in the crowd, there’s fakery on the stage. Preachers don’t bring the Holy Spirit with them when they preach revival: They bring spectacle. They bring a bag of tricks which are known to successfully make people excited. They bring the music, and crank up the bass. They shout at all the right times. They flail at all the right cues. They use mentalism tricks to convince people they hear from God. They call people forward, then push ’em backward.

Real revival preachers don’t push. But fake ones have learned it’s really easy to throw off people’s center of balance—then blame it on the Holy Spirit. And if you resist ’em (as I did once with a Kentucky revivalist), they’ll actually rebuke you for “not submitting to the Holy Spirit.” Yeah, that’s not the Spirit, dude; that’s you.

But often authenticity.

Thing is, you can have a fake preacher and a bunch of fakes in the congregation… and the Holy Spirit shows up anyway.

Leap of Faith, a 1992 comedy starring Steve Martin as a fraudulent revivalist, has a scene where the Holy Spirit actually cures a kid during one of his services. (Really annoys him, too.) But I’ve seen the very same thing happen in revival meetings. The preachers were all kinds of shady—and people authentically came to Jesus anyway. Got cured anyway. Got their lives changed regardless.

There are watchdog groups who insist nothing good can come from fake revivalism. Nothing. It’s all the fruit of a poisonous tree, and God would never honor such things. And while the “fruit of a poisonous tree” argument might work in courtrooms, God doesn’t give a crap about it in the real world: He’ll work with what he has, and save people anyway.

The real thing can easily stand up in a roomful of hypocrites and lead people to the truth regardless. Jesus did it in synagogue every Friday night.

I’ve seen people come to Jesus despite a fraudulent revivalist, and stay Christian, and the Spirit grew great fruit in them. I’ve seen kids come to Jesus despite a roomful of their hypocritical peers, and they stayed with Jesus while all their friends fell away when the warm fuzzies wore off. God is almighty, and can do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it: If he wants us saved, he doesn’t care if we’re surrounded by bunko artists. After all, even in a room full of authentic followers, it’s not they who lead us to the truth: It’s the Holy Spirit. That’s his job. And no one can stop him from authentically touching people when he so chooses.

So yeah, if self-appointed watchdogs wanna catch and point out frauds, they’re welcome to. They’re encouraged to. Let’s get the frauds out of Christendom! Bad behavior needs to be exposed.

But the real thing—true revivalists, who really do know the Spirit and follow him into the churches he wants to revive—abounds. There are tons of true followers. They’re not trying to provoke fleeting emotional outbursts, nor trying to gain notoriety as mighty prophets who bring the Spirit with them. They want what God wants: Real change, real repentance, real fruit, and real worshipers. They leave behind real Christians in their wake. Bring ’em on.