The death of Revivalism in Baptist Life? (part 2)

“We need a revival in the land!  It’s the only way to get this country back on track.”

That’s the sentiment I hear often when I speak to Baptists about evangelism.  Revivals are, after all, one of the primary ways Baptists have brought God to the masses.  Hope in revival is a hope in converting thousands.

In early America, around the year 1700, Baptists boasted 24 churches.  After revival swept the land, Baptists became the largest denomination on the continent.

Now, nearly a century later, some Baptist historians are spelling the end of revivalism.  Revivalism is waning because a large part of our society is no longer Christian.   In fact, nearly 80% of people ages 18 to 35 have never stepped foot in a church.   What’s there to revive when people have never even heard the Gospel in the first place?

The real question is how to bring about the Gospel message–Good News–to a world in need of redemption and to a culture that’s growing more ambivalent to Christianity as a whole.

There are biblical ways to bring the Gospel to a largely secular society.  It’s just a matter of discovering the spirit that undergirds revivalism–the spirit of tenacity and of sharing Christ despite the odds (and hours of prayer!).

If we consider that many people have never been to church or read a Bible, then the first step in bringing the Gospel to our community is to develop a new way of talking about the Gospel.  We need a new grammar, so to speak (no pun intended), that helps people hear the Gospel in a new way.  Christianeze just does not work anymore.

This is very biblical.  Consider Jesus’ conversation with the pharisee, Nicodemus.  In trying to explain salvation to Nicodemus, Jesus used a new metaphor–“born again”–to describe one’s conversion experience.   At first, Nicodemus did not know what Jesus meant, so when he asked, Jesus had the opportunity to explain all that God had in store for those whom God loved.

The book of Revelation is another demonstration of how the early church used language to better communicate the Gospel.  People have marveled at the insights and poetry ever since John penned this book, but the words that so easily confuse us today would have been very familiar to John’s original audience.

A new grammar can include words that help others see salvation as a relationship with Christ.  In a world devoid of long-term, meaningful relationships, our testimony of this relationship is a powerful reminder that God still longs for each person to know Him.

People today may not know what “born again” means, but they know what it means to “befriend” or “affirm” or “grow in intimacy” with Christ.

We can also incorporate a new grammar in our worship, allowing the Good News to shape how people think about God’s interaction with their individual lives.  Many churches utilize technology to do this, but even the various ways we communicate God’s worth and value in our life can be used in any average Sunday service.

This is not unheard of–Jesus used parables and common life-lessons to teach the deeper truths of God.  When his disciples asked Jesus about prayer, Jesus re-envisioned an old, common Jewish prayer: He called God, Father, invoked God’s will, requested daily bread, and declared forgiveness all in one breath.

And above all: In declaring the Gospel in a secular society, we must avoid dumbing down the faith or simplifying the faith to cheap cliches when we consider how to effectively communicate God’s love.

As we continue to explore new ways of evangelism in a world in which certain aspects of revivalism are becoming ineffective, I invite you back next week for our next discussion on the topic.

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.

3 thoughts on “The death of Revivalism in Baptist Life? (part 2)

  1. I was raised Presbyterian, and instead of revivals we had “protracted meetings” in the summertime lasting for one week. They were just worship services featuring guest preachers. During summers we would visit my grandmother in Morgan County, GA. They would have revival, and we went. Seemed to me that year after year the same people went down to “be revived.” Then when Tom and I married we moved to GA and joined Capitol View Baptist. They had a tent revival lasting a week and I went reluctantly. The service lasted over an hour with the evangelist pounding the pulpit and telling us all about hell. We didn’t go back. I think that more people are led to Christ by our caring relationships. If they know we care about them “because he careth for you”, then it becomes truly personal. In that way we can show the love of Christ and lead others to that love.

  2. 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 itching to see how others think about the issue that these two Baptist historians 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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