Revival means many things to many people. I mean it to describe a situation where large numbers of people are fired up to seek God fully, yearn for obedience, confess sin in their life, and experience the joy and freedom of walking with God.
History shows us that there is no exact prescription for revival. It is an act of the sovereign God, and we can’t dictate what he should do and when he should do it. I have been praying for revival in Sri Lanka since 1975. Only once, while attending a conference, have I seen something close to revival. But I continue to pray that, in my lifetime or after, the Lord would send his showers of blessing upon our people through revival.
Seven Marks of Revival
While we cannot dictate to God what he will do, history shows us that there are some things that happen before and when revival comes that are worth noting.
As all the revivals in the history of the church show, the preaching of God’s word is a key ingredient. The Holy Spirit often lights the flames of revival when pastors systematically and faithfully preach the word. Often, pre-revival preaching is characterised by a call to total commitment to God, repentance, and the extolling of the beauty of holiness.
The great historian of revival J. Edwin Orr has made famous the statement, “No great spiritual awakening has begun anywhere in the world apart from united prayer —Christians persistently praying for revival.” This is what the disciples of Christ did before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). People with a burden recognise others with a similar burden, so they join in and pray. Many of the great revivals were preceded by united, persevering prayer by people who shared a similar burden for revival.
Unity is often the trigger for revival, and sometimes the result of revival. Once, when Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere was preaching in South India, his interpreter, Samuel Ganesh, felt convicted of the need to make peace with a person in the audience. He took leave from the preacher, went to the audience, and made peace. This triggered a process of person after person making peace with each other. Revival had come; there was no need to complete the sermon. Bishop Festo left room for the Spirit to do his work.
The Bible speaks of the urgency of believers being united (John 17:21, 23; Ephesians 4:1–3). One of the most important callings of leaders is to yearn and pray for unity and do all they can to facilitate it. The Holy Spirit can use a leader’s yearning to trigger revival. Those who pray for revival should make sure that they have done all to be at peace with others.
The famous revival prayer, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6) suggests a tone of earnest desire. Revival is preceded by people seeking God with all their heart and wanting to see God’s glory among his people.
My favourite example of such praying is the students at Pandita Ramabai’s school in India. The students prayed fervently, and God answered by reviving them and many others through them. The young Evan Roberts, whose ministry triggered the Welsh Revival, often prayed, “Bend me, O God.” We are open to whatever it takes for God to be totally in control of our lives!
Some so-called revivals have been characterised by exotic experiences without much emphasis on repentance. People go like tourists to such places to see what is happening. I wonder whether we could call that revival. After the revival at Asbury College and Seminary in 1971, many students came to the bookstore to return things that they had taken without paying. That is a powerful sign that they had become right with God.
Preaching against sin before the revival often contributes to revival and influences what sins are confessed. In the history of the church, there were times when some sins were neglected in revival preaching—like sexual impurity; exploitation; and race, class, and caste prejudice. This has resulted in revived churches perpetuating sins that the revival should have addressed. In other revivals, like the eighteenth century Wesleyan revival in the UK, revival helped influence social reform and attack injustice.
The revivals associated with the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards had people falling down with somewhat violent reactions under deep conviction of sin. We need to be open to God’s surprising works and be careful about stifling them. But we also need to remember that, after some time, these phenomena can become rituals that have lost their original meaning. Sometimes these phenomena can be taken to extremes that make them unbalanced and unbiblical.
While revivals usually result in the awakening of Christians, they are also accompanied by a powerful witness to those outside the church. Unbelievers see the power of God at work in the revived Christians, and these Christians are emboldened to share their faith. The result is that large numbers of people are saved. So, effective evangelism generally accompanies genuine revival.
In Wales, it was a group of young people under seminary student Evan Roberts, who came home from seminary to seek God, sensing that he had lost his fire. Roberts started a prayer group that grew and grew and became a nationwide movement, resulting in about 100,000 people being converted and joining the church.
In the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, two single, housebound ladies in their eighties prayed earnestly for revival. At the same time, in another part of their island, seven young men met regularly to prevail in prayer until revival broke. In Korea in the early 1900s, God spoke to the leaders of the church and revived them first, which then led to a national awakening. In an Indian girls’ school, it was the prodding of a devout leader, Pandita Ramabai, that fired up students to prevail in prayer and trigger revival. Five university students in the United States gathered at a haystack and prayed for missions and helped give birth to the great missionary movement of that nation.
Do not lose heart, dear friends. Keep yearning for a great visitation from God. The seven young people in the Hebrides Islands made Isaiah 62:6–7 their watchword as they prayed for revival: “You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.” Let us take no rest, and give no rest to God until he sends revival to our people.