True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
— Jonathan Edwards
“After Thursday, I was like, okay, I’m going to go sleep. But [God] was like, ‘No, I have more for you.’”
— Lauren, Asbury University student
On February 8 the morning chapel service at Kentucky’s Asbury University concluded, as usual, with a spiritual song. Then most of the students filed out to go to class, but the band kept playing, and a few stayed behind to sing along around the altar. What happened next has startled the world.
“I was like, all right, we’re just going to be around here for one or two more songs, and we’re going to go to class,” said Lena, an Asbury student. “But there was like something in my soul that said no-no-no, we’ve just got to stay here. So I just stayed. A little while later I thought I had only been there like maybe an extra 20 minutes. It had been like 3 hours. It just started turning into something bigger and crazier.”
Word spread through the campus that people were still singing and praying in the chapel. Classrooms and dorms began to empty, and by the end of the day the 1500-seat worship space was packed with students and faculty, singing, praying, and testifying to the power of God in their lives. Two weeks later, it’s still happening, day and night without ceasing.
Live video on social media quickly went viral. People from all over North America began to converge on Asbury to join in. Still others flew in from faraway places like Finland, New Zealand, and Indonesia. University officials estimate that tens of thousands of pilgrims have shared in the experience. The line to get inside can be hours long.
It’s been called the Asbury Revival, but some are wary of this designation. Too many have been wounded or betrayed by manipulative gatherings and domineering evangelists in the name of “revival.” Some prefer to call it an “outpouring” (the university’s preference), a “renewal,” or an “awakening.” One student said she was switching from “revival” to “encounter” because the divine presence, not the internal experience of the worshipper, was the central meaning here.
Whatever is happening, the watchword has been “radical humility.” Student Asher Braughton says, “I truly believe that the revival has been built on humility; that this revival isn’t focused just on one person—not one worship leader, not one pastor, not one speaker, not one student. It’s focused solely and only on Jesus Christ.” Or as one of the event’s speakers put it: “The only celebrity in this house is Jesus.”
During the “Great Awakening” in the eighteenth-century, the emotional excesses of the revivals worried the church establishment. Was it sincere? Was it of God? Historian George M. Marsden summarizes the criticisms in vivid terms: “Using vulgar appeals to sentiment, they would generate mass hysteria that they encouraged people to regard as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. Scores or even hundreds of people would shriek, swoon, or fall into fits.”
Although one student leader, mindful of the building’s aging fabric, had to announce that there would be “no jumping allowed in the balconies,” the tone in the room has been generally mellow. A youth minister described it as walking into “a holy hush.” There have been moments of exuberant cheering and clapping, but much of the music and prayer invites a tranquil surrender to the spiritual flow. Watching it online, I thought of Thomas Merton’s gently fervent plea: “Sink from your shallows, soul, into eternity.”
On the first day, Asbury professor Clint Baldwin was having lunch in the cafeteria when someone stopped at his table to say, “You know, the students are still in there, and they’re still worshipping the Lord. You should go over and see what’s happening. It’s a sweet, sweet thing.” Baldwin soon joined the awakening and saw that it was good. “This was just people saying we’re going to stay on and sit in the presence of the Lord and see what the Lord would have for us.”
Lauren, the student quoted in the epigraph, described the worship as all-consuming: “Nothing else matters anymore except being in the presence of Jesus and worshipping him for the rest of my life.” She acknowledged the hyperbole of this—she would of course continue with the life of a student—but her perspective on everything had been transformed. “Ways I have of viewing people negatively—it doesn’t matter anymore. Anxieties and worries that I have, it doesn’t even matter.… Whenever you can just let go and surrender and forgive, then, you’re just set free.”
The majority of worshippers are under 25. Living through a time of immense stress, they hunger for the healing peace of God. In spontaneous prayer groups around the chapel, or in testimonials from the stage, many have openly shared their deepest griefs and heaviest burdens. Their vulnerability has been met with tenderness and love. When a young woman shared her story of attempted suicide before the whole assembly, a multitude of women came forward to lay their hands on her. “An hour later she was dancing and smiling with a joy on her face that I had never seen before,” said one witness.
“God is moving through this generation that has been so affected by mental health,” says Asher. “Once this revival ends, we can carry this message of goodness and forgiveness … The chains of suicide, the chains of depression, the chains of anxiety can be broken in Jesus.” Many of the songs reflect this hope in their melodic repetitions of heartfelt cries:
Jesus, Jesus, you make the darkness tremble—
your name is a light the shadows can’t deny …
You’re never gonna let, you’re never gonna let me down …
He is for you, He is for you, He is for you …
There are of course critics and skeptics. All religious experience is bewildering, even suspect, for those who stand outside it. It is a reality both given and received, not grasped or possessed. Its truth abides in its own domain of experience. You can’t judge it at a distance, as a spectator. You have to go inside it, open your heart to it, be in loving relationship with it. As the mystics testify, certainty is only found within the experience.
Among believers, there is certainly a proper concern about delusion and self-deception. “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). But religious experience can be tested by its fruits. Asbury’s president, Kevin J. Brown, is an encouraging witness to the Outpouring’s authenticity:
“Since the first day, there have been countless expressions and demonstrations of radical humility, compassion, confession, consecration, and surrender unto the Lord. We are witnessing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Some may worry that the strongly personal nature of the Asbury Outpouring excludes concerns beyond the self like racism, social justice, global conflict, and the fate of the planet. However, nothing I have seen or read so far suggests that these young people disconnect personal transformation from social change. Surrendering to God is inseparable from a lifetime of service to neighbor and world. One’s own soul is too small a kingdom for the Lord of history. The collective witness and shared compassion of the Outpouring bears witness to that truth.
As for the abundance of deep feeling, vulnerability, open-heartedness, and the ecstatic willingness to be swept away, we need more, not less of that in the Christian life. Those kids are singing and praying and testifying as if their lives depend on it; as if God matters more than anything; as if Jesus will wipe away the tears from every eye; as if a new reality is breaking through the cracks of our broken world.
But can it last? The particular happening in Asbury’s chapel is winding down this week. The university needs to resume its institutional mission, and the town of Wilmore, hospitable as it has been, can’t handle the crowds forever. “It is not ours to hold alone,” Brown says. “We are not the keepers of this movement … Pray that what is happening here will spread.”
Although it seems a bit sad that this foretaste of heaven—singing around the throne for all eternity—must come to an end in the temporal world, the Holy Spirit blows where it will. Outbreaks of public Christian fervor and collective spiritual passion may turn up elsewhere, take new forms, or return to a dormant state until the next eruption. Revelation, not longevity, is the point of epiphanies. They have their moment and vanish, but their impact—and the truth they manifest—endures in hearts and minds and communities.
I have no doubt that many of those who are living through this experience will be forever changed by it, as will the worlds they inhabit and the people they touch. Professor Baldwin, recalling similar revivals at Asbury in the 1950s and 1970s, notes that “people still talk about those [past] moments in revival that shaped the trajectory of how they chose to live for the sake of the Lord onward from that. That’s a hope that we would have for this.”
Even watching online from afar, I have found myself deeply moved by the Spirit-filled assembly. I especially love the heartfelt singing and the manifestation of shared joy. One of my favorite parts was today’s invitation for people to come forward and recite their favorite verses from Scripture. When a small African-American boy read from the prophet Joel (2:28), delivering that luminous text with his boyish voice—innocent as Eden—I was blown away:
Then I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old ones shall dream dreams,
and your young ones shall see visions …
Joel’s prophecy has taken flesh at Asbury, day after day since the eighth of February—all those beautiful young faces, shining with God’s future. Like the rest of us, they will lose it and find it again and again. But they have set their feet upon the sacred Way. God bless them.
The Outpouring will continue to be streamed by Asbury University through Thursday, February 23, at https://www.asbury.edu/outpouring/
The words of Clint Baldwin, Asher Braughton, Lauren, Lena and Kyle (the youth minister) are taken from a February 12 conversation with Shane Claiborne on his YouTube channel, Red Letter Christians: “Update from the Asbury University Revival”
The words of Asbury President Kevin J. Brown can be found at the Outpouring link above.