A revival by any other name

If you’re in any way connected with American Christianity, chances are you’re at least marginally aware of what’s been happening at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, the past couple weeks.

Following a regular weekly chapel service on Feb. 8, several students reportedly lingered and decided to extend their worship. Through word of mouth and social media, reports said, more and more students came into the chapel seeking worship, prayer, and reconciliation.

Almost spontaneously, a student-led movement began to happen. The chapel was open around the clock and the experience continued to build.

Two or three days into this extended worship service, the rest of the world began to hear about what was happening. Many observers started calling it a “revival.” Suddenly, hundreds and then thousands of people were descending on the tiny little town just outside of Lexington to see and experience for themselves what was happening.

Some undoubtedly tried to coopt it for their own agendas. Others were surely desperate for some kind of divine experience of their own. Still others were simply curious skeptics.

Now I’m not going to get into the details of the Asbury event. I wasn’t there. I’m not planning to go. I can only rely on reports from friends, co-workers, colleagues, and acquaintances who have been there and largely affirm that those attending had some kind of spiritual experience.

I have no need to try to define what did or didn’t happen.

But whatever it was, it was happening with young people, mostly under age 25. The emerging adults of GenZ, who traditionalists covet and to whom progressives pander, were doing A Thing.

An Awesome Project

What most of you are probably not aware of is something else that happened this past weekend, largely within the same generation of young people.

A sort of internet telethon called The Project for Awesome (P4A) held its 17th annual fundraising livestream Feb. 17-19. P4A was started in 2007 by young adult author John Green and his musician brother Hank via their popular YouTube channel called “The Vlog Brothers” (vlog = video + blog).

Of course, because it happened on YouTube and not on cable television, most people over age 40 never heard of it.

But with the simple mission statement of “decreasing world suck,” P4A has raised millions of dollars for hundreds of charities through their dispersed internet community that calls itself “Nerdfighters.”

By the end of this year’s fundraising window, the audience made up primarily of GenZ and Millennial viewers will have raised more than $3 million to benefit nonprofits selected by both the organizers and the online community.

The funds benefit groups working for a wide range of issues that matter to young people: racial and gender justice, environmental concerns, sexual violence, reproductive rights, mental health, gun violence, and much more.

Since its inception, P4A has raised a total of well over $20 million to support these causes.

But it’s not just about the money. The shared experience of watching the livestream, with videos highlighting the various charities playing alongside fun interaction with the hosts and various celebrity guests (mostly from the world of nerd culture, this year including actor Ryan Reynolds among others) is an act of community-building that lasts far beyond the three days of the event.

So, a relatively small spiritual movement for young people in rural Kentucky has had the eyes of the Christian world fixed upon it for almost two weeks, while a massive campaign to make a tangible difference in people’s lives has gone virtually unnoticed.

I don’t know about you, but it kinda makes me wonder exactly where the church’s priorities are.

Which one of these things seems more like “revival?”

On the Big Rock Candy Mountain

Yesterday, many churchgoers heard the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as the traditional text for the last Sunday before Lent.

Appearing in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Transfiguration narrative recounts Jesus taking three of his followers—Peter, James, and John—to the top of a mountain where the disciples witnessed Jesus and the embodied spirits of Moses and the prophet Elijah conversing within a cloud of bright light.

Without getting into all the details of the passage (you can read Matthew’s version for yourself here), the disciples in the story experienced what contemplatives would call some kind of mystical event.

Some kind of spiritual experience happened on that Palestinian mountaintop to those three OG Jesus followers.

Worshipping worship?

As the story goes, Peter, who always seems to be the most impetuous of the disciples, decides it would be a great idea to build shelters for Jesus and the two patriarchs. Peter wants to stay. He wants to dwell in the moment.

He wants the worship service to keep on going.

But in all three New Testament accounts of the Transfiguration, Jesus isn’t having it. He hurries the disciples down off the mountain, admonishing them to keep quiet about what they’ve just seen.

As soon as they return to the village where the other disciples have been hanging around, they encounter a man whose son is having some kind of seizure or convulsions. In its first-century context, those present view it as a demonic possession. Jesus does what Jesus does, and the boy is healed.

There’s a lot of interesting theological detail we could dive into with this story, but I think there might be an overarching point that has largely been missed by the majority of American Christians.

Worship isn’t the point.

Popular Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says this:

Jesus clearly taught the twelve disciples about surrender, the necessity of suffering, humility, servant leadership, and nonviolence. They resisted him every time, and so he finally had to make the journey himself and tell them, “Follow me!” But Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: “Worship me.” Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.

— Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditations, Oct. 18 2016

So why has the so-called revival in Wilmore garnered all of American Christianity’s attention while the Project For Awesome has flown under the radar?

I think it could have something to do with our over-emphasis on worship, and our collective reticence to allow our worship practices to inspire us to actually follow Jesus into the world to do the hard work of liberation.

Hey, preacher, leave them kids alone

Rohr is right. Worshipping Jesus isn’t risky. It makes us feel good about ourselves without really demanding anything of us.

At the same time, doing the work of reconciliation and liberation is not the sole domain of people who call themselves Christians. If God is real, and if God is at work in all places all the time, we shouldn’t be surprised when people who don’t claim the label are inspired to do the work…especially if Christians won’t.

Here’s what I’m learning as I close in on 60 trips around the sun: most of the time the best thing older generations can do is get out of the younger generations’ way.

With age comes the increasing understanding that all any generation of people can do in this world is to move the whole human project forward by another step.

For every generation, that means learning from previous generations: both what they got right and what they got wrong.

We have to have the humility to realize that our “traditional” viewpoints were often, at one point, revolutionary. Each generation corrects and improves on what came before them.

It’s how we evolve.

When we rest on previous generations’ interpretations of their experiences, we fail to keep humanity moving forward. When we constantly attempt to correct the way younger generations do things, we’re hindering our advancement as a species.

But when we get out of the way and let younger generations lead, and let them do it their way instead of ours, remarkable things can happen.

We might even call them awesome.

Feature image by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

One comment

  • Really good post. I’ve been struggling with what to make of what has been happening as Asbury. It’s one of those events that shows how much my views have changed in the last few years. This helped.


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