At Asbury, the Bible, Prayer, and Jesus Were in Focus
By Robert Cunningham

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, I woke up to a text from my friend Zach Meerkreebs. He had heard I was scheduled to be on campus at Asbury University that day and wanted to know if I had time to meet with him and perhaps even attend chapel, where he was to preach. Regrettably, I texted him back that my meetings were postponed, and I wouldn’t be on campus that day. Well, I’m not sure what it says about me, but apparently, my absence led to what many are calling a revival. 

The closing admonition from Zach’s chapel sermon was to linger until students were overwhelmed by God’s love and equipped to likewise love as they have been loved. And so, they lingered. But the lingering never stopped. Throughout the night, they prayed, sang, and gave attention to the reading and preaching of God’s Word. Soon other students joined. Soon others from the community joined. Then others from our state, then other states, and then from around the world. Thousands flocked to Wilmore, Kentucky, filling every chapel, local church, and gymnasium available while countless others waited outside in lines fitting a day at Disney World. 

This is what I witnessed: Fresh conviction and repentance filled the gathering.

There seemed to be no foreseeable end to the movement and, likewise, no foreseeable end to the texts, phone calls, and messages I was receiving. You see, I am a born and raised Kentuckian. Outside my four years at Covenant Seminary, Kentucky is all I have known. For 16 years, I pastored at Tates Creek Presbyterian, located twenty minutes from Asbury’s campus. Then recently, I went all in on my love and devotion toward our Commonwealth by founding Christ for Kentucky, a public theology and strategy ministry devoted to Kentucky. But more than my familiarity with Kentucky, there is another reason so many were seeking my opinion.

Asbury University is a Wesleyan institution, and the Wesleyan tradition is no stranger to revivals. Some Wesleyan scholars would argue their noble openness to revivals can, at times, lead to a problematic dependency, perhaps even idolatry of revivalism. The Reformed Presbyterian tradition? Not so much. We have our issues, but revival idolatry isn’t one of them. (At least not currently. My Ph.D. research is in the era of the First Great Awakening, and there were some crazy Reformed revivalists in those days. Then in the Second Great Awakening, Kentucky Presbyterians truly went crazy. But I digress.)

I suppose people were interested in my opinion, knowing that if the resident Reformed curmudgeon added his endorsement, it would lend the credibility they were hoping for. And I do emphasize the word hope. I sensed a hesitancy from many but not cynicism. People from around the world were reaching out not only with valid questions, but also a genuine longing for satisfying answers. 

And so, Kentucky’s frozen chosen pastor drove down the road to see if I could be melted by Wesleyan fire. Joking aside, I entered Asbury’s chapel with a hopeful curiosity, and what I witnessed, and yes, experienced, had all the marking of something unique. I know there is a lot of click-bait criticism online, along with eyewitness clips or tweets that may seem troubling. Still, all I can share is what I encountered, and what I encountered left me cautiously hopeful that God’s Spirit is uniquely blowing upon the state I love. Allow me first to explain my hopefulness and then close with a small caution. 

First, I think the way this began is significant. Though for years prayed for, it emerged unplanned. It wasn’t the classic revival meeting that some older Christians grew up with, nor was it a big conference with talented musicians, celebrity preachers, and a lot of hype that my generation attended. It was a routine college chapel service and a sermon with this as its opening line, “Hi, I’m Zach, and I’m back.” But somehow, the ordinary led to something truly extraordinary. And this seems to fit with John 3, where Jesus compares the work of the Holy Spirit to the wind, which we cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. We cannot control the sovereign Spirit of God nor manufacture His movement, and there was nothing contrived about Asbury’s awakening.

Second, I was moved by the weightiness of the gathering. Far from revival hysteria, somberness and solemnity filled the chapel. When my family was finding our balcony seats, I noticed how careful and quiet we were intuitively being, even my 6-year-old son. There was this sense of not wanting to disturb the gravity of the moment. And this fits what we see in Scripture when God does visit with his presence. The first instinct is not fervor but fear. And yet, the fear of the Lord we experienced was accompanied by a counterintuitive joy. Weighty tears of joy were flowing everywhere, including from both my wife and me. And that fits as well, as the first thing the God who causes us to tremble with fear says is, “fear not.”

If you want a PCA pastor’s opinion, what I encountered was legitimate and powerful, and perhaps revival may indeed be on the horizon.

Third, the Bible, prayer, and, most of all, Jesus were center focus. Both the reading and preaching of Scripture guided the gathering. At one point, students were invited to come forward, not to share their words but God’s word. They simply read a passage of Scripture and concluded with, “This is the word of the Lord,” and everyone gathered responded, “We believe it!” There was also lots of prayer. Public prayer, private prayers, people available if anyone needed prayer—the entire assembly was surrounded with earnest prayers. And most encouraging, Christ was exalted. John 16 explicitly states that the ministry of the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus. In this way, the Holy Spirit acts as the shy person of the Trinity. He loves to magnify the name of Jesus so that Jesus gets all the attention, fame, and glory. And that’s what I witnessed. It wasn’t about the Spirit or any experience of the Spirit; it was all about Jesus in that place. 

Fourth, what I witnessed I have described as an orderly openness to the work of the Lord. No, they were not following a formalized liturgy, and yes, there was spontaneity. But they were committed to an orderly, discernible, non-chaotic ethos. Honestly, it had more in common with the regulative principle of worship than stereotypical revivalism. Of course, there were extemporaneous moments, but it seemed to strike the balance that Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 14, that everything should be done decently and orderly because God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 

And finally, there was profound conviction, repentance, and conversions. True awakenings are not measured by sensation but by transformation, and there are countless transformational stories being shared. I thought the takeaway from one teenager at our church was very telling and encouraging. She didn’t talk about the music, sermon, emotions, or anything else teenagers might normally find impressive. She said, “I have never seen so much conviction over sin.” This is also what I witnessed. Fresh conviction and repentance filled the gathering. 

Therefore, in these ways, I left hopeful. And knowing the core leadership at Asbury, one of whom is a PCA ruling elder, I remain hopeful going forward. But to be clear, no ministry or movement needs my approval, and in no way am I trying to posture myself as the gatekeeper of revivals in Kentucky. However, if you want a PCA pastor’s opinion, what I encountered was legitimate and powerful, and perhaps revival may indeed be on the horizon. But I emphasize the horizon for a reason. Are we witnessing a revival in the state I love? That will be answered not in days but in decades to come. Therein lies my caution. No doubt, we have enjoyed a mountaintop experience. But the power of the mountaintop is ultimately found in its ability to transform the valley below. 

Will the streams of Asbury’s mountaintop flow down into countless conversions and untold repentance within our state? Will the fate of Kentucky’s poor, outcast, addicted, widowed, and orphaned be changed? Will the social and moral order of Kentucky be righteously reordered? These are the questions to ask when we ask the revival question. And those questions are answered not in 2023 but in 2033, 2043, dare I say, 3023 when none of us are here. But our children’s, children’s children will be reaping the bountiful harvest of movement long forgotten. That would be revival. And for Christ and Kentucky, that is my prayer.

Robert Cunningham serves as the director of Christ for Kentucky, a public theology and strategy ministry devoted to the common good of the Commonwealth. He holds an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Leicester. You can him and follow him on Twitter @RobertC4KY.

Photo by Hudson Graves on Unsplash.

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