Pete Hughes has long carried a vision for revival in the UK. After experiencing the tangible presence of God at Asbury University, here’s his reflections on the outpouring there, and what we can learn if we want to see the same on our shores
Two weeks before revival broke out at Asbury, there was a prayer meeting at the university. One of the professors said: “I think we’re on the edge of something. I think there’s a dam that’s literally about to break.” Within two weeks, over 50,000 people from all over the world descended on this tiny town called Wilmore, hungry to encounter Jesus.
In moments like this, it’s easy to get excited. But when CNN, Sky News and the New York Times are describing something as “the nation’s first major spiritual revival in the 21st century”, that should cause our faith levels to rise.
As a Church, this isn’t a moment just to celebrate what’s taken place in Asbury, and what is spreading across universities in the US. This is a moment for us to get excited. I feel a little bit like that Hebrew scholar; I feel like we’re on the edge of something. I believe the dam is about to break.
So let’s get ready; I believe some very exciting days lie ahead of us. And I believe we can learn some vital lessons from what God has been doing at Asbury.
Purity of worship
I would love to articulate what was going on in the room but any attempt to capture it fully with words would be insufficient. At one level, it was totally underwhelming. The sound quality wasn’t incredible. The worship leaders were 19 and 20 year olds at the beginning of learning their craft. They started songs at the wrong pace, occasionally in the wrong key, but none of it mattered, because the presence of God was so thick. No one was mesmerised by production or presentation; people were mesmerised by the presence of Jesus in the room.
The worship went on and on - and I didn’t hear any complaints. No: “When’s this going to wrap up? I’m bored of singing”. I didn’t hear anyone say: “I’m looking forward to the teaching. I feel like I want to be intellectually fed.” These are comments you hear in consumer Christianity.
If you read stories of the Hebridean revival, the Welsh revival, the Azusa Street revival, it all sounds so familiar; people becoming obsessed with the presence of God. There were stories of students bringing in their mattresses, packing lunches and dinners because they didn’t want to leave the sanctuary. They didn’t want to step outside of the presence of God even for a bite to eat.
I’ve seen what the thickness of God’s presence looks like, and I’m longing for it
Before these young leaders stepped onto the stage, they spent half an hour in a consecration room with some intercessors and prophets praying over them. This was a room of confession and repentance. The mindset was that they couldn’t lead other people into the presence of God if they weren’t right themselves; they knew they were about to lead others up the mountain of the Lord, so they wanted, in the words of Psalm 24, clean hands and a pure heart. The green room, so common at festivals and churches, gave way to a consecration room. The room for snacks and nibbles for the VIPs gave way to a room of spiritual encounter and a place of preparation. The result was a purity of worship I’m not sure I’ve seen before.
Perhaps the defining feature of this Asbury outpouring was tangible sense of God’s presence. There was a move of God in the UK during the 80s and 90s that became known as the Charismatic Renewal. It in included the Wimber conferences, the birth of New Wine and Soul Survivor, and the well-known Toronto blessing. If that move was about the Church rediscovering the power of the Spirit, this move is about the Church rediscovering intimacy with Jesus. There weren’t huge demonstrations of power at Asbury. People weren’t talking much about signs and wonders. Everyone was talking about the sweet presence of Jesus.
The language best used to describe this purity of worship is holiness. When we talk about holiness, our minds often go towards moral purity and righteous living. I would describe that as the fruit of holiness, but the root of holiness is right worship, and the root leads to the fruit. The theologian Chuck DeGroat says we need to “re-imagine holiness not through the lens of perfectionism but through the lens of our utter oneness with God.” Holiness starts with undivided to devotion to Jesus, which then leads to transformation of character into the likeness of Christ. And this us what I saw in Asbury - Gen Z encountering Jesus, their hearts being purified, becoming undivided in their devotion, desiring the presence of God above all else.
This purity starts with honest confession: “Lord, if I’m honest, I’ve been divided. I’ve really longed for your presence, but there are other things I’ve longed for, too. And, at times, I’ve longed for them more than I’ve longed for your presence. Lord, I repent. Purify my heart and give me clean hands, because I want to ascend this mountain and enjoy the beauty of your presence.”
Put simply, if you want the kingdom, it starts with undivided devotion to the king. I’ve now seen that up close. If the Lord is going to move among us here in the UK, then he’s looking for undivided hearts that desire one thing.
Centrality of confession
The revival started at Asbury on Wednesday 8 February. After a very ordinary service, 19 students stayed behind to confess their sins and get right with God. That’s all it took. 19 students pursuing holiness in such a way that it attracted the manifest presence of God.
The presence of God then drew in others such that wave after wave of students were saying: "I want his presence. And I recognise these things in me, mindsets, attitudes, behavioural patterns - in other words, sin - are an obstacle to me drawing closer, and so I just want to confess this stuff that’s in the way.”
I believe a season is coming where evangelism will feel easy once more
Those that had no faith were coming in, and saying: “I didn’t know what I was searching for, but now I know. It’s called the presence of God.”
Over the last few decades, we’ve been desperately trying to convince people that they’re sinful, but it’s OK, because there is a saviour who has the power to save. But many people have been unconvinced. In Asbury, non Christians were flocking to the front. They didn’t need convincing. When the presence of God is that thick, it just becomes evident. I believe a season is coming where evangelism will feel easy once more, because when God’s holy presence descends, you don’t need convincing that your sin is an obstacle. Nor do you doubt that he has power to save.
When the dam breaks here, I believe we’re going to see loads of people wanting to draw close to the presence of Jesus, realising that everything they’ve been searching for is found in an encounter with his grace.
Reclaiming the gospel
The dominant struggle of our generation is shame. People feel a deep sense of unworthiness, and so our response has been to preach a gospel that encourages an encounter with the love of the Father. And that is beautiful, but it’s not the full gospel.
We experience shame because we’ve chosen sin. You can have encounters with love that turns down the volume on the voices of shame and feelings of unworthiness, but if you want to deal with the underlying symptoms, you need forgiveness of your sins. When you experience the power of the cross, you recognise that it is there that we’re reconciled to the Father, where our sins are forgiven, where we encounter his grace, and his love overpowers our shame. We need more than just the therapeutic gospel that addresses shame. We need the full gospel that deals with the underlying cause of our shame. Only then can we begin to step into fullness of life.
The cross is where we are forgiven of sin as well as delivered from darkness. What we saw in Asbury was a very gentle and beautiful model of deliverance, and I think the Church needs to rediscover deliverance ministry for the cultural moment we find ourselves in. If you track the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land, they have a moment of deliverance at the Red Sea. The parting of the waters is an act of God; they did not contribute to their salvation, it is pure gift. Then, once they step into their freedom on the other side of the waters, they’re given the law as a pathway to holiness. The law helps them to enjoy and protect the freedom that God has purchased for them.
I’ve seen in recent years many people rediscovering spiritual practices and the priority of spiritual formation. Everyone seems to be talking about sabbath, fasting, simplicity and a rule of life. This is amazing, but spiritual formation follows spiritual deliverance. If you practice the spiritual disciplines while still in Egypt, still enslaved to your sin, you’ll find a growing frustration: How come these spiritual practices aren’t getting me free? But spiritual practices aren’t designed to get you free. It is the cross that sets you free. Spiritual disciplines help us live in that freedom.
So many of us have just become familiar with the darkness: the thoughts of despair, the oppression that rests upon us and our culture; it’s become the norm, and we’ve just embraced it. What if we said it isn’t the norm, and asked for the light of heaven to break in upon us?
The priority of youth
What we’ve learned from Asbury is that people don’t really want smoke machines and lights, what they want is the presence of God.
The Asbury outpouring is a movement led by the young, reaching the young. The new wineskins therefore must be about empowering Gen Z, who want something real and pure, not hyped up or manufactured. So, if you consider yourself Gen Z, this is your time. The spirit is about to be poured out on your generation. It will be a blessing to the whole Church, but for some reason, God has chosen to start with Gen Z. They’re going to do leadership in an entirely different way, which isn’t about being a celebrity or building platforms.
So get ready, it’s coming. It’s going to hit you and your peers. Some of you will be thrust into significant leadership positions. You may feel out of your depth, but the Lord is with you. For those that are older, this is a moment for us to step up as mentors, coaches, spiritual fathers and mothers.
There’s going to be a succession moment, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need their elders. They need us to champion them, to be right behind them, to mop up the mess - and it will get messy - to release them into what the Lord has for them.
The importance of leadership
The leadership that we saw at Asbury was nameless and faceless, but not absent. It was invisible; men and women with servant hearts, carrying some of the weight and championing the young. We don’t just need more leaders in the Church; we need more spiritual mothers and fathers.
Leaders point to something ahead, cast vision for what could be and drive people towards a destination. A spiritual parent, however, is called to be present on the journey, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. 90 per cent of those on the stage at Asbury were 18-21 year olds, but the leadership team were there, helping, making really hard decisions, stewarding behind the scenes in the most beautiful way.
I had a conversation with one of the senior leaders and he said: “Pete, you need to get ready to deal with any conflict in your team. I realised that, among the seven of us who are carrying the weight of this, most of those relationships were significantly tested in the two years building up to this. I look back, and I realise God was testing our friendships to see if we could carry the weight of his glory. He was testing the branch to see if it could bear the weight of the abundance of fruit that it was going to carry.”
No one was talking about manifestations; there weren’t huge demonstrations of power, but the thickness of God’s presence was tangible
As a Church, if there’s conflict we need to deal with, we need to do it now. We need to purify our relationships, to make sure our family and our teams can bear the weight of the abundance that may well come.
I really believe this dam is about to break. I’ve seen what the thickness of God’s presence looks like, and I’m longing for it. So what should our response be?
2 Chronicles 7:14 says: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We need to consecrate ourselves, and get ready for what the Lord wants to do. What does that look like? I think it looks like confession. Saying: “God, we’re so hungry for your presence. If there’s anything in our lives that are an obstacle, could you be really kind and just reveal it, that I might confess and repent and turn towards Jesus?”
In Genesis 18:3, Abraham has as encounter with God. God is clearly on the move, and this is Abraham’s response: “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.”
Having seen what’s happened in Asbury, my heart’s response is: “Lord, please don’t pass us by. I’m so excited to hear the stories of this spreading across universities in the US, but please don’t pass the UK by. We need an outpouring of your spirit. We’re so hungry for your presence.”
So be encouraged. Winter is making way for spring. New wine is being poured. Exciting times lie ahead for the Church in this land.
This opinion piece was taken from Pete Hughes' reflections on the Asbury outpouring from 4th March at KXC Church. Listen to his full sermon here
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