The student center at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky.
Photo by Amannell via Wikimedia Command (CC-By-SA 3.0)

“The reality of what some of us call revival is initiated by God. It is not initiated by us”

Craig Keener was a classmate of mine at Central Bible College from 1978-1982. I knew him as one of the most pious and brilliant but humble servants of God I knew. He went to seminary and eventually became a professor at Asbury Seminary. The video below is his take on the so called Asbury Revival that took place in the University next door in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Below is an email interview I had with Dr. Keener concerning some questions I had about what was happening.

Tell us a little about your conversion.

I was converted from atheism through people who shared with me the gospel on the street; I argued with them for 45 minutes, then walked home so convicted by the Holy Spirit that I was converted within maybe 45 more minutes after I got home. I had studied different religions and philosophies, but this was different. The true and living God was in the room with me, so my atheism was sunk and I would’ve been a complete idiot not to give my life to him! “God, I don’t know how Jesus dying for me and rising from the dead makes me right with you–what those guys told me. But if that’s what you’re saying, I’ll believe it. “

“But I don’t know how to be saved, so if you want to save me, I need you to do it yourself.” Suddenly I felt something rushing through my body as I’d never felt before. I was scared, not understanding what had happened, but now believed that God was real and his message about Jesus was true. I, therefore, resolved to be a Christian, though recognizing I needed to apologize to Christians for making fun of them. Two days later I walked into a church, and the pastor asked me if I was sure I was “saved.” I didn’t know if what I had done two days earlier was the “correct” procedure, so he led me in the sinner’s prayer, and this time I felt the overwhelming sense of God’s presence again. I was so overwhelmed that I could only worship this awesome and gracious God, but I knew my praise could be adequate for him only if he gave me the words to do it.

What are your thoughts on the First Great Awakening? and the 2nd Great Awakening? The Azusa Street Revival?

That Calvinists (such as Whitefield and Edwards) dominated the First Great Awakening on this side of the Atlantic and Arminians dominated the Second Great Awakening should warn us against supposing that God pours out his Spirit only on his children with this or that theology. He blesses us because we are his children in Christ, not because we merit it on our own account. There have also been different kinds of awakenings or revivals in history.

What has happened at Asbury is closer to the template of college awakenings, including past Asbury revivals. (I think also of the postwar revival in schools in Nigeria in the 1960s; in the US, the Haystack Prayer Meeting propelled workers into missions.) Some events we call awakenings consisted of various revivals, and altogether lasted for decades. The Second Great Awakening was like that; indeed, the Methodist church then grew, from Francis Asbury’s arrival in the US until the time of his death 40 years later, 1000 times. And of course the Azusa Street Revival, though only a few years at its height, propelled so many workers into mission that there are now estimated to be more than half a billion Pentecostals and charismatics in the world. Admittedly, those so classified by sociologists are an amorphous group, but even at minimal estimates they remain the second largest block in Christendom next to the Roman Catholic Church, with which they overlap.

Were the recent events at Asbury precipitated by a particular sermon?  During the time of these services, was there regular preaching, or was it primarily prayer and singing? 

Prayer and singing dominated, as in the Welsh Revival, but because of a sense of God’s awesome majesty that was too palpable to do otherwise than to give God honor. When you’re in God’s presence, you can’t boast. It humbles you. A chief characteristic of this experience was what the leaders called “radical humility” and unity before the cross. They kept those up front nameless, preserving the revival’s sanctity by honoring the Lord alone. While that was the focus, however, there were regular moments of Scripture readings from students, testimonies of how people had been touched, and preaching (including preaching the gospel of Christ and calls for consecration and reminders of God’s love and healing for those who know they need him).

Do you remember anything similar from your days at Central Bible College in Springfield?

I remember times at CBC when we were so overwhelmed by God’s presence after an outpouring during chapel that we could only worship. Sometimes we may have been trying to get to class but we ended up lining the halls on the way just worshiping the Lord. It wasn’t 24-7 prayer, but that’s not unique either–International House of Prayer in Kansas City has been doing that for a long time, and it characterized the early Moravian revival for a lot longer (about 100 years!)

Gary McGee, who taught us at CBC and later at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, wrote about outpourings of the Spirit in India and Indonesia in the 1800s, and of course, we’re familiar with 20th-century ones.The outpouring at Pandita Ramabai’s orphanage in India in 1905 or the 1965 outpouring in West Timor which, is said, to have begun with a sound like a mighty rushing wind. God does not always do things the same way, but may we welcome whatever he does!

While there is no way to know where the Spirit will blow, is there any reason to think this will last?  And if it does, what will that look like?

One pattern in Luke-Acts is that outpourings of the Spirit, individual or collective, often follow prayer (cf. Luke 3:21-22; 11:13; Acts 1:14; 4:31; 8:15). That has often been true in subsequent history as well, for example, concerts of prayer during the First Great Awakening that led to the Second. People in the Asbury community had not forgotten the earlier Asbury revivals, such as 1905, 1908, 1950, and 1970, and prayer for another one has continued over decades. What happened on the university campus has not happened on this scale here for 50 years. It’s not about the place, but an ethos that welcomes the outpouring of the Spirit and honors God’s holiness is far likelier to experience it than a place resistant to it. If we look at past Asbury revivals as a template, those who experienced the heart of it were never the same and went out to change the world for Christ, our worthy king, often in intercultural missions.

Some people, who don’t know you or what you believe, thought you were calling for an end to the revival. Here’s your chance to set them straight.

 I was disappointed to hear about the public phase being wound down, but Asbury had become a pilgrimage site too small for all those coming, and the vision was for the outpouring to be dispersed beyond Asbury. So the university showed hospitality but also set a limit, beyond which they needed to keep the focus on training the students. The leaders decided that after prayer together. I trust their leadership. I posted a Facebook post marveling at all the people who had come, overwhelmed in an awed and amazed and joyful way, but warning (based on the announcement already made) that Asbury would be transitioning out of the current public phase to something more logistically sustainable. 100,000 people came through here during the public phase–and Wilmore is a town of 6000.

Not to sound unspiritual, but there were more people than toilets in Wilmore much of the time, and this can be a matter of significance for some people’s bladders. Anyway, it was a post on my personal Facebook page, and someone in the media took it out of its wider context of the prior public announcement and made the headline, “Professors Calls For An End to the ‘Public Phase’ of the Revival.” To their credit, they did later dial that line of reasoning back as several of us protested that this was not what I said. I think it was an honest misinterpretation. But I did get a good bit of pushback from some people outside our community denouncing me as an enemy of revival.

Since I have been praying pretty much daily for years for this outpouring to happen, that’s kind of sad; not everyone zealous for revival is equally informed in the Spirit’s insights or fruit, it seems. (Though they were far more generous in their responses than many critics of the outpouring, many of whom have engaged in persistent misrepresentation. That has happened at every outpouring in history, starting from the Day of Pentecost when critics supposed the worshipers drunk, so criticism is no surprise. It is disappointing, however, when it takes the form of slander from self-professed lovers of God from whom I would have expected greater integrity.) 

Anything else you want to add, that I did not cover?

In summary, we are grateful for this unexpected gift from God and the privilege of being here at this time. My wife Médine has often been helping in praying with those who come forward. I have been involved in prayer in an intercessor room, functioning as a doorkeeper one night, working the early night shift with students after the main chapel closed (especially last weekend), and sometimes just as a worshiper in the pews. Our kids have also been involved. Suggesting that I wanted to shut it down in any way is ironic, since it is the opposite of what I wanted. But a continuing reminder throughout the outpouring, with its emphasis on God’s holiness and presence, is that it’s not about us but about God. And if God uses a hurried, overworked journalist to humble me some more, so be it; so long as God receives all the honor of which he is due!

Dr. Keener did his Ph.D. work in New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University and is known for his work as a New Testament scholar on Bible background (commentaries on the New Testament in its early Jewish and Greco-Roman settings). Well over a million of his thirty-plus books are in circulation and have won thirteen national and international awards. 

His award-winning, popular-level IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (now in its second edition [2014], and available in a number of languages) has sold over half a million copies.

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