The death of revivalism in Baptist life? (Part 1)

Revivalism as a movement is on the verge of death.  So argue Baptist historians Bill Leonard and Loyd Allen in a recent issue of “Baptist History and Heritage,” as reported in the Associate Baptist Press.

Revivalism, which inspired growth in Protestant denominations throughout America, may not be dead yet; but, in the words of Loyd Allen, it is definitely “on life support.”

Over the next few columns, just in time for the New Year, I will be exploring some recent shifts in revivalism so that we might better connect with our community and introduce the Gospel more effectively.

Revivalism is a unique movement resulting from the First and Second Great Awakenings in British and American history.  Although it initially emphasized fire-and-brimstone sermons and emotional conversions, revivalism became a mainstay in modern church life.

We recognize some remnants of revivalism to this day: Many churches give “invitations” at the end of Sunday services, while others host revivals throughout the year.

Overall, this type of revivalism is waning in influence.  Church attendance has not increased; baptisms and first-time conversions are down.

There are many theories as to why revivalism is suffering.  For one, revivals have become archaic in a technological and consumerist-saturated culture.  Revivals rely largely on a preacher giving a sermon to a passive audience.  Many times, the music that accompanies the sermon conforms to one of two styles: “traditional” (hymnody) or “praise and worship” (soft/easy listening/pop rock).

Our cultural milieu has moved past this platform for “information-gathering.”  People now consume information, and they no longer passively receive it.  People engage ideas and concepts–even religious ones–interactively, by way of relational connectivity.  Sometimes this interaction takes place in a coffee shop (noisy, dynamic, active) or on a digital interface (interactive, busy, fast).

Music has also become interactive and diverse.  Many people do not listen to one particular genre of music, let alone the two that are found in today’s churches.  People may love country music AND hip-hop; they may dance to the beat of an Afro-Caribbean tune while looking up Casting Crown’s latest video on YouTube.  They may be watching “Modern Family” on Hulu while chatting with friends on Facebook, streaming music from an independent artist’s website, editing a film on, and whistling the tune to “Be Thou My Vision.”  All at once.

It is difficult for people to hear someone speak for forty minutes and then listen to one genre of music.  It’s hard to pull the chord, so to speak, and help people enter an ancient mode of faith.

Keep this in mind: This does not declare the end of revivalism entirely; it only spells the death of just one aspect of revivalism.  The spirit of revivalism will never die, and it survives in more subtle, nuanced ways.

The spirit of revivalism exists, for instance, in those culture-savvy churches that diversify musical and preaching styles.   At Trinity Baptist, we have thrown out worship labels in exchange for more organic and (what we staff like to call) “fresh” sounds.  Sure, we still use piano and hymnody (this is intentional), but we try to incorporate inter-generational and natural rhythms in the liturgy as well as new motifs, words, and instruments (some original songs) to familiar tunes.

Another local church incorporated a preaching model that created an interactive worship experience.  The pastor had his congregation submit questions–tough questions–for him to preach on.  He did not know beforehand what his parishioners were going to ask, so he had to answer them according to his understanding of the Bible without any prepared notes.

I agree with Baptist historians that some aspects of revivalism are dying, but that is not the end of the story.  And, so, I invite you back next week for our next installment in this series.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

2 thoughts on “The death of revivalism in Baptist life? (Part 1)

  1. Readers,

    I noticed that there are several folks who are reading this article (and part 2 too; stay tuned for part 3 this weekend) that are doing web searches for “revivalism.”

    I would love to hear from you: feedback, research, or even the reasons for the searches. I’m interested to see how others think about the issue that these two Baptist historians–Dr. Allen and Dr. Leonard–raise. I tried not to agree or disagree with them, per se, but to engage in a new way of looking at revivalism as a whole.

    You may comment or email. Hope to hear from you.



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