What will revival look like in 21st century?

‘I am not into religion’ said Joanna Lumley, ‘but I am into spirituality’.

There are those who say that Joanna Lumley is not unique and that ‘it’s cool to be spiritual’ today. Phil Rankin in ‘Buried Spirituality’ found it with young people he interviewed all over the country, as did the BBC ‘Soul of Britain Survey’ which found that 70% of the UK population believed in God. Another survey found that 34% of people outside church are happy to say that God has answered their prayer, suggesting that an autonomous spiritual interest and experience is alive and well, even if few of these people go to church.

There are those who even suggest that this interest can be called a ‘Spirituality Revolution’. The significant secular work of David Tacey in his book of that name is one example, while Heeles and Woodhead on research in Kendal called ‘Spiritual Revolution’, is another. They distinguish between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’, as per the Joanna Lumley quote and another lady who said, ‘I am a spiritual person so I didn’t want to get married in church’.

If there is such a thing as a spiritual revolution, and I am aware that there is some debate about it between different researchers, this poses a huge challenge and opportunity for the kind of traditional, ‘inherited’ mode of ‘church’ which most people associate with ‘religion’ and ‘going to church’. Could the ‘revolution’ lead to revival?

This is the background to the question Roger Johnson asked at a recent presentation of the workbook Equipping your church in a Spiritual Age, produced by the Group for Evangelisation (GfE) of Churches Together in England. The companion books, Beyond the Fringe and Evangelism in a Spiritual Age, explore the interest in the ‘spiritual revolution’; though all of them fall short of suggesting that Christian revival will automatically follow.

However, the Group for Evangelisation, like Roger, has looked with interest at how churches have been able to share the Good News of Jesus Christ together. Nurture courses like Alpha; the Mission Shaped Church report and the rise of Fresh Expressions are significant growth factors. We might well go on and ask the question, ‘could Revival follow?’ What is God doing and how might the churches respond? All of which leads to Roger’s question, ‘What will revival look like in the twenty first century?’

Before answering the question, we just need to step back and answer one or two more first, like ‘What is revival?’ and ‘Is it a good thing?’. ‘Revival’ is not a word found in the Bible, and there are many people like ‘The Gloomy Dean’, William Ralph Inge of St Paul’s Cathedral, who said years ago: ‘Revivals are shallow things, since they aim at reproducing what never existed or what has perished with the age that gave birth to it’. Indeed, I have heard it said of the famous Welsh Revival: ‘by 1914 only the same number of people attended church as before the Revival’.

Surely we do not want a revival that leaves us in the same state as before; but we do pray for revival that is Jesus-centred, demonstrated by spontaneous conversions and leading to new congregations which will have a lasting impact, not only on the new Christians but also on the communities they serve under Christ - which is what I mean by revival.

There are ‘green shoots of recovery’ in church life today. Christmas carol service and Cathedral attendances are going up. One in 5 UK churches are growing and Christian Research notes that 2 million people have now done the Alpha course. In their newsletter, quoted by the Daily Telegraph (27 Feb 2006 website), ‘More than 1,000 new Christian churches have been created over the last seven years, double the number of Starbucks coffee shops’.

Regarding church planting, the Group for Evangelisation was one of the co-sponsors of Mission21, a major conference which recently brought 550 people together who are involved in church planting and fresh expressions. This is a significant movement of people. Every initiative is different, as illustrated in the directory page of ‘freshexpressions.org.uk’, which emphasises that if revival does come, it is different in every context. Café Church; Children’s Church; Youth Congregations, and the starting of an OAP’s Friday afternoon service, are all examples of new life.

Another sign of growth, and indeed local revival, is the rise of various ethnic congregations like the ‘black majority churches’. This is demonstrated by the Glory Church on the Barking Road in the East End of London. I was recently there when 700 people turning out on a Wednesday evening for a prayer meeting. Now, prayer has always been one of the essentials in revivals seen all over the world, and it may be that with all the prayer initiatives like 24/7 and Pray without Ceasing, revival will come in all sorts of people groups in these islands too.

I (naively?) believe that we could see ‘revival’. We had a lot of prophesies in the 1980-90’s about what God was about to do, and many of us are still looking for it. Revival could come in various forms, so why not from the interest in spirituality of people outside church?

A Christian ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ fair held recently in conjunction with GfE by Coventry Cathedral on May Day attracted hundreds of people who don’t go to church among the 2,000 on site. This was clearly backed by 24/7 prayer networks and people found Christ. This event could be replicated across the country providing a good opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with people who are already interested in him.

I think we do have to take the spiritual interest of people outside the church seriously, even if we disagree with some of the things they like to do. It may not be a ‘revolution’ but the spiritual interest is significant and needs to be added to the other main agendas of declining congregations and increasing secularism of society. If we put together the significant prayer initiatives, the renewal of the church, the nurture courses, the church planting and fresh expressions, as well as the growth that is taking place in the traditional church, I think we could see revival. So what might it look like? These are my suggestions for your comment.

Certainly revival won’t look like it has before. It will be different in different places. Many people might experience ‘spontaneous conversion’ though few will join our traditional way of doing church for fear of being ‘religious’. Prayer and meditation groups with a fluid membership are the most likely ‘shape’, perhaps predominantly female and often meeting during the day. Many will find health and fitness centres the natural place to congregate where meditation and exercise come together. We need certain sorts of gifted evangelists to bring this ‘harvest field’ fruit.

Other meeting points could follow an explosion of the healing ministry offered in ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ fairs and holistic ‘well-being clinics’. The queues of spiritual seekers in Coventry Cathedral at the Dream Interpretation, Prophecy and ‘Discovering your Halo’ stalls are to be taken seriously, and prayer offered in the name of Jesus. From this, regular prayer ‘sessions’ might follow, with consideration of the Bible stories of people finding wholeness and healing.

The growth of pub evangelism described in the Grove booklet Pints of View, and the ‘Hot Potato’ evening where someone takes a difficult topic and speaks before a discussion forum, are means by which groups might become established that people consider ‘church’, in a way which might appeal more to certain types of men. The ‘pampering evening’ of our local church mission weekends was particularly well attended and the evangelist’s message appreciated. Such events need to become part of the ongoing life of a church, out of which spiritual seekers can find a spiritual home and be drawn more to Christ.

In all of this we need the ‘mixed economy’ of inherited and emerging church. We also need new evangelists who can make the difference, so pray without ceasing for the Lord of the harvest to send out his labourers - and then who knows what might happen?

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