Source: Public Orthodoxy
On February 8, the students who gathered for a regular worship service at a chapel of Asbury University, a small Christian college in Wilmore, Kentucky, found themselves unable to leave at the service’s end. They continued to pray with their hands extended, making public confessions of repentance and praise, for hours. The nonstop service has gone on in this manner for two weeks, with over 50,000 people from other states and even other countries traveling to Asbury to experience the “outpouring.” When the university authorities had to close the service this Sunday, February 26, the Asbury Outpouring sparked nascent revivals in Ohio, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
Asbury University is a college in the Wesleyan theological tradition, which has an established history of revivals. Revivals have previously occurred on the Asbury campus in 1905, 1908, 1921, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1992, and 2006. Early Methodism was a vibrant missionary movement, which featured the revivals preached by such leaders as Francis Asbury and John Wesley. The revivals were prayer meetings accompanied by the outpouring of strong emotions, tears, confessions of guilt, professions of faith, and typically ending with “altar calls” or invitations to rededicate one’s life to Christ. The converts embraced revivals as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of the individual and the church, often in response to specific crises. The critics often scorned the revivals as forms of mass hysteria and as expressions of unbridled emotionalism (or “enthusiasm,” as it was called in the nineteenth century).
The Orthodox observers, when they pay attention to what is happening in Protestantism at all, are often skeptical. At the level of cultural forms, the nineteenth-century-style revivals seem alien to Orthodoxy. Cradle Orthodox from the traditionally Orthodox countries have a hard time appreciating revivals because they are not a part of their religious background. Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are weary of revivals because they associate them with something distinctly “western.” The readers of this article are likely to find themselves in one of these two groups.
However, when we get behind the veneer of cultural forms, there is a depth at which the Orthodox might find in their own ecclesial experience certain points of contact with the Protestant revivals. For example, in our monastic tradition, the hesychasts have attempted to practice St. Paul’s precept to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5: 17) quite literally. We might recall that the protagonist of the nineteenth-century Russian spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Tale finds himself reciting the Jesus Prayer thousands of times a day, continuing into the night. As a result, the pilgrim receives the gift of tears and experiences overwhelming joy and the abiding sense of the presence of Christ. Even those skeptical about the pilgrim’s historicity will admit that the tradition of incessant prayer was an important element of Orthodox monasticism. In the fifth-century Greek East, there was a monastic movement of “Akoimetoi,” or the sleepless ones, who held their services nonstop, day and night, like the students at the Asbury University’s chapel. The “Akoimetoi” movement became influential in Constantinople when the famous monastery of Studion became its center.
The second equally important example is the services of Great Lent, which we are entering this week. These services tend to be longer than those served during the rest of the liturgical year. During Holy Week, the length of the services grows, from the Bridegroom Matins to the Service of the Twelve Gospels, to the virtually continuous service culminating in the paschal all-night vigil and festal liturgy. These services were gradually composed and edited by the generations of Byzantine Christian hymnographers and church leaders who, like the students at Asbury Chapel, did not want to leave the church. While these lengthy services reflect this initial “charismatic” maximalism, with the change of leadership and “routinization of charisma” (to use the expression of sociologist Max Weber), the length of the services came to be perceived as onerous, necessitating adaption and abbreviation. We should also point out an obvious difference between Orthodox Lent and the Asbury Revival: the former is a regular, annual cycle of services prescribed by the lectionary; the latter is a spontaneous and unplanned event. An authentic revival cannot be orchestrated. However, the same Spirit can be on the move both in the simplicity of a spontaneous revival and in the liturgical richness of a regular Lenten service.
During a deeply formative period of my life—in my twenties—I was privileged to study with the late William J. Abraham (1947-2021), a world-class theologian and philosopher, a Methodist pastor and missionary, and a saintly person, all-in-one. Because I accompanied Billy Abraham on his missionary journeys to places as far apart as Kazakhstan and Costa Rica, I have a first-hand appreciation of the Methodist prayer meetings leading to more modest and local outpourings of the Holy Spirit. These experiences have affected me almost as profoundly as the ecclesial experience of my own tradition. In addition to my personal experience, there are other reasons why the Asbury Revival should inspire cautious optimism.
The Asbury Revival exhibits certain initial signs of authenticity: it started without the special effects of contemporary mega-churches and without the participation of celebrity preachers, with little media hype, in modesty and simplicity. Currently, there is no evidence of profit motive behind the endeavor or of any organized attempt to coopt the event politically to serve this or that agenda. The most significant test of authenticity will be the fruits that this revival will bear in the life of the church. I hope and pray that many lives will be touched, that some young people will hear a call to ministry, and that the authenticity of this call will be, in turn, tested by time as well as by their churches’ structures of discernment.
The Holy Spirit, like wind, “blows wherever it wills” (John 3:8), including the Asbury Chapel. As Catholic and Orthodox Christians are entering Lent, we should also be ready for the Holy Spirit to visit us, quietly, if not in the fire of the revival, then in the “gentle whisper of the wind” (1 Kings 19:12). If Lent is to become a time of genuine renewal, not just pious routine, we should all strive to welcome the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
Paul L. Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy in the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas and Founding President of the International Orthodox Theological Association.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.