The coming Great Awakening

January 03, 1996|By Tom Bisset

REVIVALISM IS as American as apple pie. Eighteenth- and 19th-century apple pie, to be precise.

One thinks of Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon ''Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'' Or rural Cane Ridge, Kentucky, summer of 1801, when 25,000 people gathered for seven days and nights of tumultuous salvation and sanctification. They went home because they ran out of food.

Other storied names come to mind: Whitefield, Finney, Moody.

No historian I know, including the sage Timothy Smith, retired professor of American religious history at Johns Hopkins University, believes that modern America will experience a religious awakening of these former dimensions. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

This is not unbelief: This is evidence, analysis and conclusion. The cultural, intellectual and political conditions which predisposed the country to religious upheavals in an earlier day are gone. Secularism, rationalism and materialism, the triune god of the 20th century, do not stir religious thoughts and passions.

Shake the nation

Usually the experts are right. This time I think they are wrong. I think America is on the brink of a culture-wide religious awakening that could shake the nation. If it happens, repentance, confession and renewal will become household words, and no one -- man, woman or child -- will go untouched regardless of race, creed or socio-economic standing.

I base my prediction on several factors, most important of which are reports of a unique spiritual stirring throughout America. This is not the religious right in disguise. No political or denominational agenda is associated with this movement.

Like earlier awakenings, these outbursts of religious enthusiasm have been spontaneous. No planning or advertising precedes the event; a few quietly spoken words ignite the inner fire in a perfect illustration of the biblical prescription for spiritual renewal: ''Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.''

Another interesting observation: Each mini-revival, though widely separated geographically, has followed a similar pattern. First, there is a prayer gathering which stretches into days and nights, followed by confession of personal sin. Then come efforts to reconcile with others (especially parents). Finally comes group acceptance of moral failure and a call for change. The quest for spiritual perfection, which historically has been the driving force in all American revivals, also appears to be powerfully at work.

So far, this movement has been confined mostly to college campuses, where students have enthusiastically embraced it. Now it appears ready to break out into the wider society.

One need look no farther than news magazines, editorial pages and the political rhetoric of national leaders of both parties to hear secular echoes of these religious themes, particularly the commonly accepted talk of America's deepening moral crisis.

Individual responsibility, the toughest sell in any sermon, has become respectable throughout our society. Suddenly, it's cool to be morally accountable. The Million Man March, a statement of racial solidarity on its surface, was underneath a call to personal responsibility as the basis for self- acceptance.

The call to clean up Hollywood, strangely popular in virtually every social circle, is yet another sign that our culture is ready for spiritual revolution. And what about good old-fashioned vice? It was only yesterday, or so it seems, that evangelicals were the ones opposing those nasty habits of the flesh like smoking, drinking and drugs. Today, these anti- campaigns have been taken over by secular groups trying to start their own awakening.

A new millennium

The year 2000 will be something of a collaborator in this great renewal experience. A new millennium has a way of making people think about the end of time and the beginning of eternity. To ponder the meaning of life, death and the afterlife is to invite a religious response.

What will the coming revival look like?

Individual conversions, to be sure. Lives radically changed by the Christian gospel. Without this fundamental experience on a widespread scale, there can be no such thing as a Great Awakening, theologically or historically.

We can also expect social change for the better. Look for a kinder, gentler nation. More faith, hope and charity, less doubt, hate and despair. Don't be surprised to see increased civility in personal and professional relationships. The surest evidence that something supernatural is happening? A drop in crime and violence.

Family and community likely will return as universal ideals; the fast track will become more of a side track. Church attendance will increase. People will care genuinely about other people.

Sounds too good to be true? One understands the skepticism. Nothing else has worked very well when it comes to fixing up this troubled world.

But it is true. An authentic spiritual awakening can and will bring widespread personal and social changes of the kind our country desperately needs. It has happened before and it can happen again.

Tom Bisset is general manager of WRBS-FM, an evangelical radio station in Baltimore.

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