Many people have preconceived ideas of what revival looks like when it comes. Here are three examples:

  1. Some people see revival as a well-planned series of services. After much prayer and personal preparation, God’s people gather to hear anointed preaching. Under that preaching, conviction comes, and people respond with broken and contrite hearts and return to the Lord.
  2. Others think revival cannot be planned. They believe revival is always a spontaneous response to God’s presence and holiness. During a service, with no advanced warning, the Holy Spirit suddenly brings deep conviction of sin, and “everything breaks loose” as people get right with God.
  3. When a church has changed for the better, that constitutes revival to some. They may say: “Our church is not the same as it used to be. We have grown to love one another and to love the Lord more than we ever did before. People are serious in their desire to obey God’s will. We are united with one heart and spirit. But it didn’t used to be that way. I can’t explain what happened. Somehow over the past two years our church has changed.”

Which of the above is genuine revival? They all may be. The essence of revival is that God’s people return to Him and He returns to His people. Revival could be diagramed in this way:

God has a standard for how He expects His people to function in a proper relationship with Him. When they are living as He intended, spiritual awakening is a natural by-product. Before revival, people who have departed from God live their lives far from His ideal for them. They have strayed from God’s presence, His purposes, and His ways. Revival occurs when God draws His people to repent and return to Him. When people return and are rightly related to God, revival has occurred. However, that can happen in a multitude of ways. In fact, God can cause each experience of revival to be unique. He doesn’t want us to look for a program, a method, or a set pattern. He wants us to look to Him.

This means one church’s return to the Lord may be experienced as a process. Under the regular preaching and teaching of God’s Word, the people—out of love for their Lord—hear God’s call and return one step at a time. It is a progression, wherein, over a period of time, they have moved from where they once were to where God intends for them to be. That is revival. You could call it renewal or use some other term, but they have returned. Under the powerful, biblical preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the people in his Metropolitan Tabernacle experienced almost continual revival for several decades. People’s lives were regularly being transformed, and converts were steadily received.

In another congregation the people could be going about their normal religious activity. Then one day they face a crisis, or they are confronted with a biblical truth in such a compelling way that God grips His people with conviction of sin. In a deeply emotional time, people may flood the altar at the close of a worship service. They weep, pray, and publicly confess sin. In a short period of time, God accomplishes what many thought could never happen. This might be a time when God has been calling, but He has faced resistance. Then in His sovereign choice, He decides to deal deeply with sin in a profound outpouring of His Spirit. This, too, is revival if the people have returned to a right relationship to the Lord. There is no one correct formula for how God revives His people.

As we studied revivals in Scripture, we saw that God also worked on scheduled days and times for covenant renewal. He can send genuine revival to a people who have sincerely sought Him in prayer and who join in a scheduled event to examine their spiritual lives and return to the Lord.

As you anticipate that God is working to send revival to the people where you fellowship or serve, don’t expect God to work in only one way. He is sovereign. Expect Him to act any way He chooses. The fruits of revival can be the same regardless of whether you return to the Lord gradually over time or during a sudden dramatic event.

Blackaby, Henry T., Claude V. King, Richard Blackaby, and Anne Graham Lotz. 2009. Fresh Encounter: God’s Plan for Your Spiritual Awakening Revised. Nashville, TN: B&H Books.