Revivalism has manifested itself in myriad ways throughout the church’s history, but most foundationally it is an exchange of the means of grace—the preached word through the ordained servant of Christ, the sacraments and prayer—for something more exciting. In other words, revivalism sets aside the church and the fundamental activities of the church for something else. Or to put it another way, revivalism doesn’t lead Christians into the Church but out of her. Revivalism inherently has a low view of church. Revivalism doesn’t believe what Calvin said, that you can’t have God as your father if the church is not your mother. Revivalism rejects the statements of the Westminster Standards which, like Calvin, says that ordinarily there is no salvation outside the church.
Examples of this have been going on for a long time. Think of the tent revivals several hundred years ago—or of the contemporary manifestation of it today in stadiums. When the tent revivals began, people began to flock to them because of the rhetorical force of the speakers and because of their oratorical eloquence. These speakers made them laugh. These speakers made them cry. These speakers were amazing. These speakers were not like their parish pastor or priest who was sometimes pedantic and sometimes borrrrrring, giving careful attention to the exposition of Scripture. As a result, Christians began to—special gift if you can guess what is coming—leave their local churches. What’s more, they even began to question the salvation of their ministers. Books began to be written on the subject, books with titles like, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.
Sometimes revivalism can be seen when people find their “spiritual” sustenance in other places than the church. For example, consider the college student who is active in his local campus Christian club, but not involved in a local church. Most clubs don’t have the mission statement of taking people away from church, but many of them do just that in practice. Or think of person who watches TV preachers on Sunday morning.
Revivalism doesn’t lead Christians into the Church but out of her.
Revivalism has a low view of the means of grace. For this reason it is not surprising that revivalism always has and always will be a manifestation of low church Protestantism. Roman Catholics don’t do tent revivals. Of course not. They have too high a view of the sacraments and the priest. Lutherans and Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox don’t bus their kids to hear a speaker because you can’t get the body and blood of Christ from a celebrity. And historically Presbyterians/Reformed don’t do revivalism either because we have an equally high—though different and nuanced—view of the sacraments. Revivalism can only germinate where there is no theology of the church and no theology of the sacraments. Think about it. When you take those away, what is left? Exactly. And now everything is up for grabs.
This is the fourth and last article on revivalism. The one thing I want us to take away from this is how important the life of the church is; how important the word and prayer and the sacraments are for our spiritual pilgrimage. And pastorally, it is a joy to be able to shepherd Christians who love Christ and love his church. Let’s pray that this will increase in our own lives and that it may spread to those who so desperately need Christ.