Twenty years ago, a friend invited me to attend a worship event at a church that had been experiencing revival. The church was once a standard-issue Bible church that held the position that the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing, prophecy, deliverances, and tongues, had ceased with the death of the final disciple named in the New Testament. Then those things started happening in the church in around 1999 or so. There was crisis and controversy as some long-time members left, but the church’s numbers exploded with weary seekers like our family.
We’d been looking for over a year for a new church home after our last church imploded. This congregation seemed to have what we thought we longed for in a church: passionate spiritual community, a hunger for the things of God, and a pastor who’d been willing to thoughtfully, systematically reexamine the cessationist theology he’d learned in seminary. We’d been in Charismatic churches before, and it seemed those congregations valued signs, wonders, and goosebump-inducing experiences over thoughtful and faithful Bible study. We were hopeful that this church would be different.
The early days were a little like stepping into a whirlwind. Some of that wind was the activity of the Holy Spirit. And some of it was toxins stirred up like trash in a tornado. We ended up staying at the church for four years until we moved from the area. I served for two years on staff. My husband was an elder. My kids, teens at the time, witnessed some beautiful moments of grace during those years. But sadly most of it was buried underneath the debris of an environment filled with much emotional and spiritual excess that left each one of them with some serious wounds. I continue to grieve that deeply.
It may be more accurate to call what happened at the church a renewal and theological redirection instead of a true revival. Though most of the staff from those days, including the pastor, are no longer at the church, the church is now firmly entrenched in the Charismatic world – taking its theological and praxis cues from the New Apostolic Reformation crew, Bethel Church, the International House of Prayer, and a variety of traveling Charismatic circuit preachers.
Though I am still connected with a few of the people from the church during the years we were there thanks to the signs and wonders of Facebook, I don’t know any of them well enough today to ask them what their reflections are of those days. (If any of you from that Milwaukee-area church happen to be reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how those heady days two decades ago affected your life.)
Here are seven lessons I learned from worshipping in the whirlwind:
(1) Displays of spiritual power tended to trump sound theology. Those who questioned were too often silenced with the equivalent of a “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Lesson: This attitude shut down spiritual formation and created a culture of spiritual immaturity.
(2) Instant, dramatic results were valued above perseverance and faithfulness. Transformation was exalted, discipleship minimized.
Lesson: Even those who’d experienced a dramatic result could not sustain a spiritual life from that transformational moment. Fireworks dissipate. Candles have the fuel to burn for a long, long time. The fire of revival/renewal should be lighting candles, not setting off fireworks.
(3) Prosperity preaching, in the form of naming Scripture’s promises and claiming/demanding results from God over everything from problems to desires, didn’t leave any room for mystery, waiting, or a flat-out “no” from God because the notion of delighting in God and being given the desires of one’s heart (Ps. 37:4) seemed to reduce prayer into a transaction between equal parties.
Lesson: This grave error malforms our understanding of who God is and who we are. There’s much more to say about this one, but for the purposes of this summary, let’s just say that this grave error is not limited to the Charismatic streams of the Church, but is everywhere in American Christian culture and it is a SERIOUS PROBLEM. It is leading people astray.
(4) Concurrent to prosperity preaching, a heightened focus on spiritual warfare tended to communicate to people in the pews that God and Satan were fairly well-matched combatants in a cosmic battle, and we are pawns of one side or the other.
Lesson: Yes, spiritual warfare exists. But the focus, underlying practices, and unexpressed fear of losing conditioned the congregation to see the world in terms of us versus them. It was a logical next step to apply the hubris of this thinking to American politics, and to look for a champion who could protect them and guarantee them a “win”, rationalizing away the leader’s blatant immorality in the process.
(5) Though the pastor was seminary educated, there was a huge disdain for the life of the mind. The mind was viewed as being in opposition to the life of the Spirit.
Lesson: This is the old heresy of gnosticism, repackaged for a modern audience. Jesus called us to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He never, ever elevated one over the others. Nor should we.
(6) Things happen fast and with greater intensity in a whirlwind.
Lesson: As a result of this speed and intensity, it is easy to fall into the temptation to be reactive, not responsive to events as they unfold. A culture of reaction sets up innocent people up to get hurt – and they did. As my husband and I learned when we challenged some of the reactive practices that emerged in the church, whistleblowers (and their children) get hurt, too.
(7) When God moves, a mess often ensues as he upends the status quo.
Lesson: The status quo can be an idol, and it needs to be toppled. We can do this whether the wind is blowing or whether the weathervane is still every time we choose humility and repentance on the daily.
If you’ve been in a church experiencing renewal, or been a part of a revival movement, what would you add to this list?
Cover image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay
8 thoughts on “What remains after the whirlwind of revival?”
Thanks, Michelle, for your good insights. I will not add any more lessons to the list, but just to say from Retta’s and my experience of revival in Papua New Guinea that messiness seems to come with the revival or renewal movement. My assessment for this was that the hearts of humans are still tainted with self-seeking and some will be inner-motivated or motivated by the evil one to exalt themselves or become defensive when they should be humble and repent. Preparation for a move of God should happen in every church which means our leaders need to be aware of the dynamics of what happens. Some of our missionaries were vocal about shutting down what God seemed to be doing, and thus “throw out the baby with the bathwater” so to speak.
You are right in lesson two to point out that “dramatic results were valued about [above?] perseverance and faithfulness” and just because we see drama and power does not mean that these should be sought as an end in themselves. Wise leadership will stress this from the beginning. The manifestations are not the fruit, which is only seen in a transformed life that lives out the truth with patience (Hebrews 6:11-12).
This sentence has so much wisdom: “Preparation for a move of God should happen in every church which means our leaders need to be aware of the dynamics of what happens.” Sadly, some churches don’t believe such a move can happen, and others are so focused on the gifts that they miss the Giver.
Hope you and Retta are well. I’m grateful for your years of faithful ministry – the fruit of transformed lives.
(I’m also grateful for your grammar check! This is the downside of blogging – no proofreader except my readers!)
I really appreciate this post, thanks for sharing it. some thoughts I had were:
That the war of good/evil being so highlighted also led to you’re saved or fallen away forever mentality. Its what therapists call Black and White thinking. People are Saved or not Saved, given one chance and if they repent they better not do anything wrong after that or they are UnSaved. Since its been several years since I was in it, I have learned that sometimes people fall to be purified- not cast out.
And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed.
Many of the people i know that went through a similar experience were devastated when the church split up after a couple years of ‘whirlwind revival’ there had been miracles and there had been real lives changed and lots of love and then it ended badly. There was fighting about authority and leadership almost as if the staff was trying to control it and stay in charge. Partially i think that was done not out of bad motive at first but more because of fear of false prophets rising up, but the bible explains how to deal with that and its not by silencing everyone! That just led to an atmosphere of “no one can question the leaders” And that was the beginning of the end, which came quickly after that because the leadership quenched the Spirit and offended many people that did have something important to say but werent on the approved staff team etc. I guess i am saying they probably did it with a supposedly good motive but shutting people out and using so much authority over others was the wrong thing to do, imo.
Also I learned that when revival happens like a whirlwind some people join churches because of signs and wonders and there is also a sifting later of those that only went because of that.
Like when Jesus spoke to some that followed Him just because free bread. John 6:26-27 Similar to the way the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant- not to become disciples, but so they could have His power. I am glad i was there for the miracles because it really did help my faith but the ones that are still steadfast in Jesus are the ones that appreciated the miracles but kept their eyes on Jesus through them and when the miracles stopped they were ok with that because their focus was on Jesus who sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t. Hope this makes sense.
Something very interesting to me that i didnt realize before is that quite a few of the people in the church i attended are also now involved in “New Apostolic Reformation crew, Bethel Church, the International House of Prayer, and a variety of traveling Charismatic circuit preachers.”
And (I am not being arrogant there are many things i dont know about theology etc) I also noticed that the ones that are following ministries like that didnt have very deep knowledge of scripture in a whole context. They had a scripture here and one there, but not a whole picture so much, and often they learned what they knew on Sundays and Wed nights but didnt read the word much themselves. I think you are spot on when you said “Jesus called us to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He never, ever elevated one over the others. Nor should we. ”
I had a dear friend that once said to me: the Word is the bread, the Spirit is the wine, if you only eat bread it gets really dry and hard to swallow, if you only drink wine you do some really odd and embarrassing stuff. lol
I’ve spent over 2 decades in a renewal ministry that had existed for over 65 years. We’re closing the doors in 5.5 months. Too many want quick fixes and experiences over going deeper in faith. People won’t come to church to learn….
We’re Trinitarian but not Charismatic (as is typically defined). That has hurt us in some ways because of the reasons you’ve listed above. God is still in control. We’ll see what the future brings.
Sandy, your reflections are so helpful in adding to this discussion. Yes, the “in or out, black and white” thinking, lack of theological depth, and authoritarian control are all huge problems. And I share your feelings on this statement you made: “I am glad i was there for the miracles because it really did help my faith but the ones that are still steadfast in Jesus are the ones that appreciated the miracles but kept their eyes on Jesus through them and when the miracles stopped they were ok with that because their focus was on Jesus who sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t.”
Marty, I so appreciated getting to know you when I was a guest on your podcast a while back. I grieve with you over the impending closure of this ministry. May God bring his comfort to you and the others affected by this ending, and guide you to what’s next.
Michelle, as a longtime leader/pastor of ministries that have been impacted or involved in renewal seasons I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your insights here. They carry so much wisdom and valuable insights of lessons learned over the years of seeing the good, bad and ugly. I have the privilege of discipling and mentoring many young leaders at this point in my life all who love the Word and the Spirit. Your observations are so close to leadership lessons that I share with this emerging generation. I tell them that I could write the book on “what NOT to do” lol. Thank you for this thoughtful article and pray you guys are doing well in Florida!
Marvin, what a delight to see your name pop up here! You are writing a book on what not to do as you mentor this next generation. God’s blessing to you and the fam!