Catching Lightening in a Bottle: Are Revivals Effective or Ineffective?

There I was, standing on the floor of the Alamodome watching as Billy Graham concluded his message. I remember seeing the trickle and then the downpour as men and women poured down the stairs to fill up the entire floor of the dome. People were crying, praying, and making decisions that would last for eternity. For many people, genuine repentance happened at this crusade. All of that said, there was no great growth in the churches and no growth in desire to see people come to the Lord on member level of area local churches in that time. For me, the success of any revival is not found in the numbers counted the day of the revival but instead the numbers of men and women still in church five, ten, thirty years after the event. I wonder, looking to the state of Christianity in the Alamo City if there are any long term effects of the crusade? Certainly any soul won for the Lord was an eternal legacy that no person can discount. The question I want to come at though is, for the time given, resources spent, and focus given, did it produce long term fruit equal to investment?

God called me to go and serve as pastor of a small international church in Okinawa Japan in my last church. Upon arriving I found that there was a Franklin Graham Crusade coming in two months. I jumped onboard and enlisted our church immediately. Our church jumped on, and we served in every part of the crusade. As the day came and the Crusade happened, it was beautiful to see the Japanese and the American servicemen come as Franklin Graham offered the invitation. The following Sunday I watched expectantly as I hoped for the new believers to come pouring into the church. We did our follow up and saw a few come in and leave, but overall, the crusade produced no church members, and island wide the same was seen.

The Billy Graham method of evangelism is the standard for evangelism in church today. What’s the method? It is a big event method where you invite your friends and family to a large scale event to hear the gospel. Watching both crusades I noticed they were formatted in a similar way. They begin with the music part of the program, for the adult crusade George Beverly Shea, for the young adults a band that they knew and identified with. Following the music, a speaker would introduce the gospel, and following the gospel presentation was the invitation.

In youth ministry there is no bigger event than summer camp. Our summer camps follow the same format as crusades. I can remember the emotions myself from my experiences at youth camp. I can remember my friends coming forward for the invitation to take the first step of faith, or to rededicate their lives to the Lord. As I watched my friends, I saw the same results from youth camp that I saw in both Graham crusades- a high emotional decision followed by no commitment in the real world.

As I sit in church, I notice our services are formatted in the same way that both youth camps and revivals are formatted. Music- Sermon- Invitation. I wonder if we are trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

We all love numbers. That’s why we like Billy Graham crusades — he produces big numbers. That’s why we like youth camps and children’s camps — they produce numbers. The problem I find with all of these, though, is that were counting the wrong ones. I have stated before that genuine faith in Christ will stick. Our numbers need to reflect genuine faith, not emotional decisions. How is it that we produce bigger numbers with teens at youth camp than ever before, but we have worse retention with teenagers than ever before, too?

One might blame our culture, peer pressure, or any number of factors in the downfall of teens. Here’s where I feel our problem is — us. We have outsourced to professionals what God has called us to. It’s easy to invite someone to a revival, youth camp, or special event. Sharing your faith with a friend is much harder. It’s easy to send kids to youth camp and hire a youth minister. It’s much harder to disciple them yourself. I can’t get beyond the fact that when families outsourced discipleship to a program, our retention of post high school students plummeted.

In churches, we have always struggled with taking what God does naturally and making it into a program. We saw God work in a wondrous way in the great revivals in 18th and 19th centuries, and then to catch that lightning in a bottle, we created events that attempted to replicate the factors that produced the first. Over time, in order to get the numbers we saw in God’s revival, we doctored our methods to produce numbers in our revival events. Billy Sunday once said in a revival, “If you want to be a real man, come forward and follow Christ.” At that moment, every man, whether convicted by God or not, came forward. Who wants to be the sissy man still sitting? We do it today, too — “If you want to be saved from hell just pray this prayer.” The church must stand by principle and realize it is not our craft or words that change hearts, but God. When we force numbers, we get numbers- numbers that are here today and gone tomorrow. When we trust God and lead people in repentance and faith, we will reap a harvest that will not fade. A heart that is captured by Christ will continue in pursuit of Christ.

As my church holds a revival event this week, I certainly see the need for genuine God-initiated revival. Revival is not brought about by persuasive speaking, emotional worship, or a moving invitation. It is found when we realize who God is and in turn who we are compared to Him. Habakkuk 3:2 says, “Lord , I have heard the report about You and I fear. O Lord , revive Your work in the midst of the years. In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy.” Revival can happen at home, in a church service, or in a supermarket. It is not the event that makes the revival but instead the change in heart that makes it. Revival is a heart that moves from self centeredness to God centeredness. As our church comes into revival I hope it happens. I pray that God changes our ways and makes them His. I pray that God will remove our wills from us and make them His. Revival is found in brokenness, and I pray this week that God breaks us.

One Comment

  1. Carla Gain

    “A heart that is captured by Christ will continue in pursuit of Christ.” That sentence above sums it all up. So many seek and are caught up in emotional appeals, but as you said it is not the event that makes the revival but instead the change in heart. Sometimes an organized crusade or revival meeting can serve as a catalyst to draw us to Christ or back to our main purpose of following Him, but all still comes back to what is in us. The day to day walk, faithfulness, desire to follow His will in our lives….this is not a one time emotional high, but a lifestyle.
    Well stated and relevant!


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