By Tim Keller|Published Date: April 12, 2011

Keller

How do seasons of revival come? One set of answers comes from Charles Finney, who turned revivals into a “science.” Finney insisted that any group could have a revival any time or place, as long as they applied the right methods in the right way. Finney’s distortions, I think, led to much of the weakness in modern evangelicalism today, as has been well argued by Michael Horton over the years. Especially under Finney’s influence, revivalism undermined the more traditional way of doing Christian formation. That traditional way of Christian growth was gradual – whole family catechetical instruction – and church-centric. Revivalism under Finney, however, shifted the emphasis to seasons of crisis. Preaching became less oriented to long-term teaching and more directed to stirring up the affections of the heart toward decision. Not surprisingly, these emphases demoted the importance of the church in general and of careful, sound doctrine and put all the weight on an individual’s personal, subjective experience. And this is one of the reasons (though not the only reason) that we have the highly individualistic, consumerist evangelicalism of today.

There has been a withering critique of revivalism going on now for twenty years within evangelical circles. Most of it is fair, but it often goes beyond the criticism of the technique-driven revivalism of Finney to insist that even Edwards and the Puritans were badly mistaken about how people should embrace and grow in Christ. In this limited space I can’t respond to that here other than to say I think that goes way too far. However, this critique trend explains why there is so much less enthusiasm for revival than when I was a young minister. It also explains why someone like D.M. Lloyd-Jones was so loathe to say that there was anything that we can do to bring about revivals (other than pray.) He knew that Finney-esque revivalism led to many spiritual pathologies.

Nevertheless, I think we can carefully talk about some factors that, when present, often become associated with revival by God’s blessing. My favorite book on this (highly recommended by Lloyd-Jones) is William B. Sprague’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1832). Sprague studied under both Timothy Dwight, Edwards’ grandson, at Yale and also Archibald Alexander at Princeton. The Princetonians – the Alexanders, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge – did a good job of combining the basics of revivalism with a healthy emphasis on doctrine and the importance of the church. Sprague’s lectures include a chapter on “General Means” for promoting revivals, and his chapters on counseling seekers and new converts are particularly helpful.

The primary means-of-revival that everyone agrees upon is extraordinary prayer

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