01 March 2023


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 churches which hold a lot of revival services, y’might not be aware revivals are actually controversial among a lot of Christians.

Usually because there are a lot of con men in the revivalist business. A lot of them. Always kinda have been. People discovered eons ago it’s a really great way to make money: Whip people into a religious lather, ask ’em for money, and they’ll give it! More people are familiar with the fictional versions of such people—like Elmer Gantry, or Jonas Nightengale in Leap of Faith. But Gantry and Nightingale were totally based on real people.

Like Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist turned Hollywood actor. He quit Jesus in the early 1970s, but went on a final revivalist tour 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.

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 in revival meetings. Yeah, we’re meant to experience the Holy Spirit, not mere religious mania. But both evangelists and con men want us to lose our heads over God. Some evangelists don’t realize there’s a difference… and frankly, some don’t even care; if it brings you to Jesus, they figure it’s all good! 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, you dope. Not God.

So how do we tell the difference? Duh; fruit. If the Holy Spirit is legitimately involved in any revival, we’re gonna see good fruit. We’ll see authentic behavioral changes. Better emotional self-control. Better all kinds of self-control. 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 God-experiences are 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, and 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.

Whereas naysayers don’t think any of ’em are a God thing. To them it’s all fakery, and all fleshly.

There’s always gonna be fakery.

I actually didn’t grow up in revivalist churches.

Oh, there’d be revivals! I went to youth camps and outreaches, which were always geared to get us kids to come to Jesus. Give us a busy day of activities, feed us, sit us round the campfire, give a fiery sermon, give an altar call, and dozens would come forward to say the sinner’s prayer. Kids came to Jesus at every one of these functions. Sometimes the same kids would come to Jesus yet again, ’cause the sinner’s prayer didn’t take the first time. It happens. But this time we meant it; this time we’d stay Christian! For a week at least.

Sometimes the adults would have the grown-up version of this: A men’s conference, a women’s reatreat, an all-church camping trip to a nearby lake, an all-church weeklong trip to a camp and conference center. Same deal as the youth thing: Activities, fiery sermon, sinner’s prayers.

In my 20s I started attending a church in a revivalist denomination, and they’d hold regular revival services. Every three months or so, some traveling evangelist would visit, exhort the crowds to follow Jesus, and by golly people would come forward and pledge to follow him forever. And often they really meant it.

People got legitimately touched by God. Legitimately called to serve him. Legitimately cured of illness. (I watched a few of these up close. Freaked me out the very first time. Got used to it. Still happens.) Legitimately quit their backsliding once and for all, and from that point forward they take Jesus seriously. Still do!

But in the mist of all this, 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 never follow the crowd, all wind up dressing like one another. And whenever there’s a congregation full of people praising God, repenting, confessing, and getting cured… there are also gonna be holdouts who feel nothing, want nothing, and are wholly comfortable with their pathetic excuses for Christianity, as-is. But they don’t wanna be the only holdout; no more than a Jew who suddenly realizes everybody else at the political rally he’s attending is actually 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 comfortably can.

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 who don’t bring the Holy Spirit with them when they preach revival, but they most definitely 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 really do 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.

I mentioned Leap of Faith earlier. It’s a 1992 comedy movie; Steve Martin plays Jonas Nightengale, and Jonas is most definitely a fraudulent evangelist. The choir who travels with him? They’re legit Christians. But he’s conned them too. Goes from town to town, gets people to give him their money, promises much, delivers nothing but spectacle.

Except this one time, where the Holy Spirit actually cures a kid during one of Jonas’s 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.