Should we Call it a “De-vival”?

relevant church

No, it’s not a typo. It’s a word I coined.

Let’s start with a definition of “revival.” A revival is that event in the life of the church when God pours out the Holy Spirit in a “larger” way than normal. Iain Murray defines a revival this way: “A revival is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, brought about by the intercession of Christ, resulting in a new degree of life in the churches and a widespread movement of grace among the unconverted. It is an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit’s operations, an enlargement of his manifest power.”[1] Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who knew something of revivals first-hand, wrote that although the Lord blesses the church with the constant influence of the Spirit, there are “special seasons of mercy.”[2]

So, what is a “de-vival”? I am not using this word as a way of describing a church’s spiritual decay, like we might see among some of the churches in Revelation 1-3. In fact, I’m not applying this word to the church. Instead the word applies to our American and more broadly Western culture.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research and missiologist in residence at LifeWay Christian Resources (Nashville, TN), argues that the church in America is not in decline, “It is just being more clearly defined.”[3] His article is a response to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the Pew Research Study (2012) that caused a stir. Even Newsweek got into the stirring mode, when it published a cover story entitled “The End of Christian American.”  However, Stetzer insists “the sky is not falling.”

What is happening? “The church in the West – the United States included – is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying.”

Not all who check the box marked “Christian” are defining themselves as the Bible defines the word Christian. According to Stetzer’s research, there are three categories of “Christians” in America.

  • Cultural Christians are those who “believe themselves to be Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christian by heritage.”
  • Congregational Christians are similar to the first group, except they have some connection to congregational life. They have a “home church” in which they grew and perhaps married. They might even visit occasionally.
  • Convictional Christians are those who are actually living according to their faith. “These are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, he changed their lives” and they are increasingly orienting their lives around faith in Christ.

It is this last group that is “not leaving the faith.” Yet, the number of people in America who self-identify as “none” (no religious or faith identification) continues to increase. Something is happening in the culture. In my words, a “de-vival” in the culture.

However, a “de-vival” (i.e., decay) in the culture affects the church in a positive way.

Stetzer points out some important implications for the church from his reading of the researched tea-leaves. First, as Christians find themselves marginalized by the decaying society around us, we will be forced to count the cost of being Christian. Since the label “Christian” is already polarizing, it will only be more so as the society “de-vives.”

Second, there will be difficult times ahead for the church. Jesus told us exactly the same thing and then added: “but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Third, Christians will likely lose the culture war. Paul told us exactly the same thing (2 Tim 3:1-7).

Fourth, distinctions between Christians and the “ever-growing post-Christian culture” will demand that Christians and the church “set aside any nominal belief system and become active agents of God’s Kingdom.” The apostle John told us exactly the same thing (1 John 2:15-17).

The church will become bright and distinct in a growing place of darkness as it takes on the character of God’s people, “changed by the power of the gospel and propelled by love, moving into the mission field as agents of gospel transformation.”[4]

A “de-vival” in the culture will be an advantage for the church in mission and clarity. Our gospel will have to be clear, powerful and un-tampered with! Attempts to “pacify” unbelievers with a watered-down message will become a non-starter. No one ever met the glory of Christ in a down-graded gospel.

The “de-vival” of society will work to clarify the meaning of “Christian.” This is where Murray enters the picture again. In his book on revival quoted above, Murray asserts that revivals produce six good things, one of which is “definiteness to the meaning of Christian.”[5] He writes, “When the line between the church and the world has been blurred, and ideas of salvation have become vague and inclusivist, a revival always reasserts the real meaning of being a Christian.”[6]

Could it be that a “de-vival” in our society will mean a “revival” of the biblical picture of a Christian, the follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, “who has received the free pardon of sin and a new life solely through faith” in him?

What will our churches look like then? They will have a different “taste.” They will confidently invite the decaying and “de-viving” world to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8).

 

 

 


[1]Iain H. Murray, Pentecost – Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 24.

[2]Murray, Pentecost, 24.

[3]Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America: Hint: It’s not Dying” [on-line]; accessed 4 October 2013; available from  http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/state-of-american-church.html; Internet.

[4]Stetzer, “State.”

[5]Murray, Pentecost, 175-77.

[6]Murray, Pentecost, 177.

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