In the late summer of 2020 I watched on the evening news the growing turmoil in the streets of Louisville and other U.S. cities and then woke up to read this headline: “Two Police Officers Shot Amid Louisville Protests over Breonna Taylor Ruling.” Many of us of a certain age are experiencing déjà vu because we see events repeating themselves from 52 years ago.
The 1968 riots shook Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and more than 100 other U.S. cities, with entire sections erupting in flames in ways comparable to the destruction caused by the fires and looting that occurred in the summer and fall 2020. Especially since the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the night of May 25, there have been protests and riots in dozens of American cities.
In addition, we are experiencing the worst pandemic since 1968 (the H3N2 virus) which had its origins in China. A half-century ago, that pandemic killed 100,000 Americans — a number the 2020 pandemic has nearly quadrupled. Sadly, pandemics intensify social tensions between classes and ethnic groups and escalate citizens’ mistrust of the government. COVID-19 is no exception. With the fabric of America being ripped at the seams, it feels as though we are experiencing a repetition of 1968.
What anyone living at that time will painfully remember about 1968, including me as a 20-year-old during that year, are the assassinations of two major cultural and political leaders — Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Nevertheless, the domestic bloodshed along with the political chaos and division seem comparable in my memory to 1968.
Historically we see a pattern: Awakenings often follow times of intense social and political turbulence. Vast numbers of people are forced by social turmoil to realize their lives are founded on shifting sands rather than the solid rock Jesus describes in Matthew 7:24-27. Three periods in the last century have or perhaps will follow this model:
- The Depression and World War II were followed by the Awakening of the late 1940s and ’50s.
- The pandemic and riots of 1968 were followed by the Awakening of the 1970s.
- The pandemic and riots of 1920 may be followed by an Awakening in the 2020s and ’30s.
The Awakening of the late ’40s and ’50s
As a young man, I delighted in the stories told by Richard Halverson, my pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., about the Awakening that grew out of the turmoil of the Depression and World War II.
He recounted the Lord’s supernatural workings through him and his friends — Billy Graham, Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade), Dawson Trotman (founder of The Navigators), Jim Rayburn (founder of Young Life), Halverson (part of the group founding the National Prayer Breakfast movement) but also Henrietta Mears, director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California. The result of these ministries was a strong parachurch movement that has impacted hundreds of millions for Christ but could have been even more influential for the kingdom if that Awakening had included an equally robust church-planting movement.
As a churchman, Halverson discipled us as a cohort of young men by including us in ministries of the church but also the National Prayer Breakfast movement, just as Miss Mears had discipled him and his friends through the ministries of First Presbyterian of Hollywood.
The Awakening of the 1970s
One of the 20th century’s most turbulent periods was 1968, which included my junior year in college. Nevertheless, that year’s social and political upheaval became the soil out of which a spiritual Awakening emerged in the 1970s — not the least of which was the PCA being formed in 1973. Being part of a great spiritual renewal was my purpose when I joined the PCA to plant churches in the Washington, D.C., area.
The year 1968 was marked by the church reeling from the speed at which the culture was turning away from the Lord. Some social commentators had previously called 1968 the year America spiritually died. However, because of the Awakening that followed in the 1970s, this was not the case — nor will it be the case during the future decades of the 2020s and 2030s if we recognize and act upon the opportunities that will arise through the Awakening that we pray will soon occur.
An Awakening in the decades of the 2020s and 2030s?
Apart from some notable exceptions such as our PCA church-planting movement beginning in 1973, the broader church was not prepared for the Awakening that blazed forth in the 1970s and then burned out in the early 1980s, even though it had brought multitudes into the Kingdom of God through the Jesus People and Charismatic Movements. The lesson to learn is that any new Awakening that will have lasting impact must be established in and strengthened by church plants, which serve as the “new wine skins” about which Jesus taught (Matthew 9:17).
There is currently a general anxiety in the air that has caused the pace of ministry for many of us to slow down during our current turmoil. I often reflect as director of church planting for Missouri Presbytery that during 2020 it felt like we were “slogging through mud.” Yet, my memory is that 1968 felt much the same.
I expend a lot of effort recruiting church planters for the 10 areas of St. Louis and eastern Missouri that need a PCA church. However, I am finding that even mature pastors in their 30s and 40s are reluctant to take on such risky ministry opportunities. It is easier to hunker down and wait it out until things return to normal. Like most Americans, we are on edge while our country is struggling with health crises, political infighting, and cultural turmoil.
However, if we see a new Awakening on the horizon, we can recognize this is the time to intensify our efforts by planting more PCA churches than ever. Preferably many of these will be multicultural churches with our African American brothers in lead positions. We have church planters we have trained at Covenant Seminary who have already or will soon graduate and then will be able to plant in several locations in the St. Louis area only a few minutes from Ferguson, Missouri. We need only the funding to move ahead.
Since 1986, Covenant Seminary has been involved with the planting of 300 PCA churches through the students we have trained. If you could interact with the 20- and 30-somethings here at Covenant, you would be optimistic about the leaders the Lord is raising up for the new Awakening I believe we can soon expect. Those who are acquainted with Christian millennials (ages 18 to 38) recognize that many of them want their lives to matter for eternity. They long to be part of a movement ordained by God — a spiritual cause that is far greater than themselves.
Our politicians and cultural leaders will not alone solve the problems of our society any more than they were able to do so in years past. It will take another Awakening like the ones we experienced in the late 1940s and 1950s and again in the 1970s, except this renewal must be initiated and sustained by planting new churches.
Philip Douglass is an emeritus professor of applied theology at Covenant Seminary and director of church planting, growth, and renewal for Missouri Presbytery.