A clear and definite distinction must be drawn between the content of ‘Revival’ and that of ‘Revitalization’. Although the two may often experience an overlap, they are not necessarily synonymous; nor are they always coincidental. Revival and revitalization are different both in origin and in effect.
Revival is a supernatural work of God, and God alone. It is, as Richard Owen Roberts defines it, ‘an extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results.’ These extraordinary movements of God have been seen repeatedly in church history, from Old Testament times to modern times. Yet it remains a fact of history that only God can send revival. Andrew W. Blackwood Sr. writes about God’s preeminence and power in controlling when and how revivals come upon the church:
Both in the hearts of believers and in the life of a congregation there come times that correspond somewhat with the ebb and the flow of the tides. Also in the growth of an oak tree there comes a season of waiting for growth again to begin. But all such analogies fall short of the truth about revivals. A man who knows the ways of the waves, or of an orchard, can judge fairly well what will follow after the present stage. On the contrary, nobody but God can begin to tell when a long-awaited revival will begin, what form it will assume, or how long it will continue at the crest.… As a rule the movement bursts out all at once, sweeps across its field like a prairie fire, and everywhere leads to a deepened sense of sin. Then comes an outburst of joy through assurance of pardon and cleansing, with peace of heart and eagerness to serve. As a consequence of such a revival believers begin again to ‘possess their possessions’ in the form of doctrines dear to the heart of God. There also comes a transformation in the morals of persons and congregations whose hearts have been touched with cleansing fire from above.
Preparation for revival can be made, and in fact, should be made by those who sense the church’s need for renewal and by those who love the name of Christ and want to see it promoted and professed. But the trap of falling into ‘revivalism’ while seeking and praying for revival must certainly be avoided. In his book devoted to the history of that subject, Iain H. Murray defines for us the difference:
American history was shaped by the Spirit of God in revivals of the same kind as launched the early church into a pagan world. Until 1858, innumerable authors understood events which they had themselves seen in this way.… What they had in common was the conviction that God is always faithful to his Word, that Christ is risen and that the Holy Spirit has been given to ensure the advancement of his kingdom. But it may come as a surprise to find that these men were equally opposed to what was merely emotional, contrived or manipulated. They believed that strict adherence to Scripture is the only guard against what may be wrongly claimed as the work of God’s Spirit. They foresaw the danger of revivalism long before it became a respected part of evangelicalism, and they would have had no problem in agreeing with the criticism which has since discredited it. What is needed now is to get back to the authors of the eras before the whole meaning of revival was confused.
Thus, ‘Revivalism’ is the Charles Finney approach to using the ‘right means’ to effect the ‘right changes’ upon one’s audience—the church—in order to produce desired results of ‘decisions for Christ’ and so-called conversions. A distinction is made here because much of the church growth movement and many efforts for revitalization border on revivalistic methodology. The reader must see that a genuine revival is a sovereign act of God, while genuine revivalism is a planned and programmed effort by man. Andrew S. Blackwood Sr. says, ‘As for the present-day term, “revivalism,” let it serve as a stigma, non-biblical and reprehensible.’15
Revitalization is the effort to bring purpose, passion, purity and proper priorities back to the life and ministry of the local congregation, but it is not an attempt to produce a revival by means of revivalistic techniques. Revitalization originates with men who cooperate with God in applying biblical principles to church life, ministry and growth, but these efforts cannot guarantee revival. Today it is common to hear of ‘revival happening somewhere’ when in effect revitalization ministry is merely yielding its fruits.
It can thus rightly be said that genuine revival from God will always lead to true revitalization in the form of biblical purposes, proper priorities, fruitful ministry, missiological focus, and well-rounded growth in every aspect of church life, i.e. qualitative, quantitative and organic growth. But revitalization will not yield genuine revival without the sovereign grace of God. Simply put, one can never have revival without revitalization, but one can often have revitalization without revival.
This distinction must be clearly made so that the reader does not misinterpret revitalization efforts for revivalism or genuine revival. Hopefully, the reader now understands these crucial distinctions about like-sounding and related concepts.
Donald McGavran gives a reminder that, ‘Under certain conditions revival may be said to cause growth. Under others, its relationship to church growth is so distant that apparently revival occurs without growth and growth without revival. Careful consideration of the subject is necessary if we are to understand the function of each in God’s purpose of redemption.’ The reader has been forewarned.
Michael F. Ross, Preaching for Revitalization: How to Revitalize Your Church through Your Pulpit (Geanies House, Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 22–25.
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