The subject of revival is something that should be close to every Christian’s heart. Unfortunately there’s a lot of confusion about what revival is.

So what does authentic revival truly mean? Let me suggest the following as a definition:

'Authentic revival is when men and women have an extraordinary experience of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit that either reinvigorates an existing faith or brings them to faith.'

Authentic revival is a sovereign and supernatural work of God that defies all the rules of psychology or sociology. In a world where human beings like to be in control, we need to learn that true revival cannot be programmed or purchased. The uncomfortable reality is that God starts revival, takes all the glory from it and, in his own time, ends it.

True revival has little respect for individuals, churches or denominations. Some of the most important revivals have come out of the most unpromising settings. The famous Azusa Street Revival of 1906 that gave rise to the Pentecostal denomination, began in a tiny African-American fellowship worshipping in little more than a shack in Los Angeles. God similarly controls the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of revival. Revival can affect an individual church, town, region or country. It can last for weeks or years, and can end as swiftly as it began. Revivals can be noisy and dramatic with the presence of extraordinary phenomenon. But they can also be unobtrusive, almost subdued events in which all the drama is going on in the hearts and souls of the hearers.

Identifying revival

Given that there are a lot of claims of revival and so many forms in which it can occur, how can we identify the real thing? Here I need to offer a caution: although much is made of extraordinary spiritual experiences and manifestations these are not universal and don’t in themselves authenticate what’s happening. There are, however, two unchangeable hallmarks of authentic revival.

The first hallmark is that in authentic revival it is God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – not any human being who is glorified. With the real thing everybody is talking about God, not about any individuals he has used. Revival humbles those who are involved rather than elevating them.

Authentic revival is always in accord with the Bible

The second hallmark of authentic revival is that it is marked by the profound and lasting spiritual transformation of individuals. Those who have been touched by the Spirit in authentic revival are deeply aware of their sin, show repentance and have a new desire to live a holy life. They seek to display the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). And whatever the style or type of revival, the real thing always shows itself in a new desire to know God through his written word, the Bible. Authentic revival is always in accord with the Bible: no genuine work of God’s Spirit can contradict God’s Word.

Guarding against dangers

Is revival for those inside the church or for those outside? My feeling is that God prefers to reinvigorate existing churches. But if there aren’t any churches in an area then revival is perfectly capable of creating them. After all, if you are someone who has been affected by an authentic revival then you can’t avoid sharing your faith with those about you.

Yet if revival is important for the church the fact is that we can get things badly wrong. Let me suggest four dangers.

  • The danger of scepticism. Given the presence of overinflated or even false claims about revival, some Christians have come to deny that the phenomenon exists. Well it does. A little research will come up with any number of authenticated and remarkable events which defy all explanation in terms of psychology.
  • The danger of staging revival. Impatient to see revival we can sometimes fall into the trap of creating a man-made event rather than the real thing. The Holy Spirit doesn’t dance to our tune, however loudly we may amplify it.
  • The danger of self-importance. Although in authentic revival the spotlight of the Holy Spirit falls on God alone there is always a danger for men and women to try to tiptoe into that brilliance and take some credit for being either the herald or host of the revival. God does not share his glory with others (Isaiah 42:8).
  • The danger of sensation seeking. Seeing God work in such a dramatic way is astonishingly exciting. Yet spiritual thrill-seeking can be catastrophic. We need to pray for revival but we must not neglect the ordinary, day-to-day work of evangelism and social action. Remember, revival is not a spectator sport and you can’t live off adrenaline.

Finally, how can we prepare for revival?

Prayer. Let’s pray confidently and daily that God will bring revival. But let’s not just pray for revival in our own fellowships but in other churches and other countries. So, for instance, let’s not just simply pray against the horrors in the Middle East, let’s pray for revival there that will build a dynamic church in that region.

Purity. It’s a sad truth that while we can’t cause revival to happen, we can certainly cause it to stop. So, in preparation, we need to get rid of anything that blocks revival. Let’s seek to put aside all sin, including prayerlessness, pride and such wrong priorities as being preoccupied with church buildings, denominational structures and ecclesiastical paperwork. (Church bureaucrats be warned: revival is uncomfortably messy) Here, too, let’s learn that gracious attitude that will still praise God if revival breaks out in the fellowship across the road.

Persistence. Sadly, history is full of churches and individuals who, having decided that revival is vital, then go to sleep waiting for God to act. While we wait and pray expectantly, let’s get on with the day-to-day task of preaching the gospel and living it out in our lives. God visits revival on churches that are standing up or on their knees but not those that are sitting down.

May you and I see authentic revival. In the meantime, let’s prepare for it!

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J John will be appearing at this year's Unbelievable: the Conference at The Brewery, London on Saturday 2nd July. Click here for more information