Revival Time

by Mark C. Mattes, Grand View College, Des Moines, Iowa

With two "great awakenings" and numerous outbursts of religious renewal on smaller scales, Americans are addicted to revivals.  There is no better way to fix America's immorality than through a revival.  Unfortunately, of late, no matter how hard one tries to manipulate a revival, they don't just seem to take.  Over the past four decades the American population has doubled, but church commitment has plateaued, even declined.  Yet, the illusion that revival can cure our ills remains.

Even Lutherans want a revival.  Lutherans are either "Ablaze" or "Book of Faith" people.  Surely these movements can light a flame that will shore up churches in decline.  Both ventures come across like attempts to engineer revivals  Thereby, they are true to Charles Finney, the revivalist par excellent, for whom revival was "not a miracle."  Revival is not a miracle because, if you establish the proper conditions, it can be manipulated.

No doubt revival has been successfully manipulated in various congregations.  If manipulating through guilt-"turn or burn (in hell!)"-doesn't seem to coax as it once did, the flattery of enhanced self-esteem or secure parenting does.  Americans don't believe that fellow Americans will end up in hell.  If they are to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, it can only be because he will enhance their self-esteem, social prestige, or parenting skills.  Why scare people with hell when you can supplement their self-help?  Contemporary revival congregations have done away with the mourner's bench and the sawdust trail and have substituted slick multi-media presentations in upscale theatre style venues, complete with seats accommodating drinks, and gimmicks such as driving motorcycles into the "sanctuary."  Gone are revival song books.  Praise ditties, sung by the "praise band," are projected onto the ubiquitous screen. 

The long, hard struggle for "liturgical worship" against the inroads of Pietism, Rationalism, and Revivalism is brought to naught by the pragmatic assessment of manipulative persuasion.  A sermon that could have been scripted by Dr. Phil or Oprah Winfrey touches "felt needs" more than "traditional worship" could ever do.

It is not as if revival is totally foreign to North American Lutheranism.  Certainly the heritage of the General Synod was open to the mourner's bench and it altered the sacramental theology of the Augsburg Confession in this light.  The heirs of Hans Nielsen Hauge fostered a "Lutheran Evangelistic Movement" which at one time had some religious influence in the upper Midwest.  In my first parish, which had been established by the Haugeaner, I was told the week before "Baptism of Jesus Sunday" by a devout laywoman, "pastor, you aren't going to preach on baptism are you?  Everyone in this congregation is baptized but most are not saved!"  (Of course, to this woman's consternation I preached on baptism!)  Even The American Lutheran Church (1960), for almost a decade after its origin, officially recognized the "Office of Evangelist," institutionalizing this very Hauge spirit, until inroads from the Charismatic Movement brought it into disrepute.

What are the fruits of revivalism?  The European context is markedly different than that of the American, given that it is far more secularistic.  Secularism is no less religious than traditional Christianity, even though it fails to admit this.  Secularism bills itself as a "scientific approach" to life.  However, its ideal-seek pleasure in moderation, and you need not fear judgment after death since we are wholly composed of atoms which disperse upon death-is nothing other than Epicureanism revived.  In this outlook, truly free, autonomous men and women are free from the oppressive ideologies and hierarchies of the church.  Ironically, revivalistic pietism perhaps fed such secularism.  Revivalism always undermined the institutional church as dead; the institutional church is composed of unconverted preachers, repetitious liturgy, and cold sacraments.  God is really present at the prayer meeting, not the church, for the followers of Spener, Hauge, Beck, and Rosenius.  Thereby, the church was undermined by those who purported to be her friends.

In a similar way, revivalistic congregations amongst the ELCA or the LCMS seldom take in the unchurched, as they so often claim.  They usually take in the disgruntled from other congregations.  Revival almost never reaches the unchurched.  It isn't designed to do that.  It is always designed, from its perspective, to turn a dead church around.  That it historically takes on a national presence in America is because even though Americans don't have an official state church, religion has been so deeply one with culture, due to the Reformed heritage of this country.

Luther sought to reform a corrupt church.  His reform centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ as sheer promise in contrast to law as accusation.  It was grounded in the objective word of truth, in contrast to both the Schwaermer of Rome (the Pope as the interpreter of scripture) or various "spiritualists" who wanted to ground human confidence in spiritual exercises.  He knew that Adam and Eve were the original "enthusiasts" and that part of their original sin as bound up in such god-within-ism.  Revivalism tries to manipulate the will by making it want to will.  As such, it shows that we only ever, as sinners, are bound to our wills and not to God.  We are captivated to ourselves.  Our piety is part of the problem: it keeps us in charge.  And our conscience at its best will have nothing to do this lie.  Revivalistic pep rallies toy with God.  And the God of Jacob will have nothing to do with us enthusiasts other than to engage us in a life or death struggle.  In many senses, spirituality is a disease-God is not here to help me cope but to bring me to my demise, my end.  Only in that way can a new person be reborn in faith, as trusting in the word of scripture.

Blazing or Bible-thumping denominational bandages will not be able to cure our membership slumps.  C. F. W. Walther knew that the elect were in God's hands and that as God is God, the elect would be saved.  Since that is the case, the most important part of our ministry is out of our hands.  It is God's church not ours.  It is God's elect not ours.  And, we can be quite free in letting God run his church as he pleases.  Can we really trust the word that has been entrusted to us?

No amount of manipulation of others' consciences will save the church, and indeed, will do the church in.  True enough, we are to be urgent in season and out of season.  But our urgency is not based on a neurotic need to inflate membership roles but to share, as one beggar to another, where bread is to be found.