On Religion/Opinion


The atmosphere in Hughes auditorium was electric as Asbury students -- many in tears -- streamed to the altar to pray, while worshippers sang hymns, mixed with Bible readings, testimonies and public prayers of repentance.

Administrators canceled classes, grasping that this ordinary chapel service was the start of something bigger -- a 144-hour wave of worshipping that drew thousands to Wilmore, Ky., while similar revivals began on other Christian and secular campuses across the nation.

The year was 1970.

Then again, revivals rocked Asbury College -- now a liberal-arts university -- in 1908, 1921, 1950, 1958 and on other occasions. Historians will now add 2023.

The revival that began on Feb. 8 is "like deja vu all over again," said Stephen A. Seamands, who was a senior in 1970 and returned to teach for nearly 40 years at Asbury Theological Seminary.

"The wildness of these events is that they're actually un-wild. The atmosphere is serene, deep and at times rather quiet," he said. "It's like a veil is pulled back and students see Jesus for the first time -- Jesus manifested in a new and powerful way."

Outsiders may assume that this two-week revival "is over," after Asbury leaders announced that services would be moved off campus, with students moving toward a regular academic and chapel schedule. At one point, as many as 20,000 people had flocked to this central Kentucky town of 6,000, just off U.S. 68.

"Never in my life will I forget this," said Asbury University President Kevin J. Brown, in a public statement. "Never in my life have I been so proud to say that I am a part of Asbury University. I write this with tears. The people here are so special."

Seamands said it "will take 30 years or so" to discern what happened. Revivals, he explained, begin with an awakening inside a Christian community -- that's stage one. True revivals, throughout history, have led to evangelism, missions and "efforts for social justice" at the national and global levels.

"It's also clear that this Asbury revival is about Gen Z and its hunger for genuine worship," said Seamands, referring to Americans born in the internet age.

Researchers note that record numbers of Generation Z young people are religiously unaffiliated and/or have doubts about God. Also, signs of anxiety and depression are rising, with a recent Centers for Disease Control report noting 42% of high-school students "experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" and almost 20% "seriously considered suicide."

In a popular Facebook post, Asbury Seminary student Madison Pierce said it's interesting that "God would mark this outpouring with: A tangible sense of peace for a generation with unprecedented anxiety. A restorative sense of belonging for a generation amidst an epidemic of loneliness. An authentic hope for a generation marked by depression. ... A leadership emphasizing protective humility ... for a generation deeply hurt by the abuse of religious power. A focus on participatory adoration for an age of digital distraction."

In the service that ignited days of 24/7 worship, Zach Meerkreebs -- a Christian and Missionary Alliance campus minister -- delivered a sermon that touched on guilt, shame, anxiety, abuse and the struggle to sincerely love others.

"Some of you guys have experienced radically poor love. Like evil love, selfish love and I would say, today, we should not even give it the honor of calling it 'love'," he said. "Some of you guys have experienced that love in the church. Maybe it's not violent, maybe it's not molestation. ... But it feels like someone has pulled a fast one on you. ... This is not love."

In closing, he said: "Do not leave here before you learn about the love of God, experience the love of God, so that you can pour it out. ... Asbury, the world needs this kind of love."

Asbury Seminary professor Kenneth J. Collins stressed that the goal, in true revival, is for believers to change "tempers," "dispositions" and "habits of the heart" that shape "how we live day after day," for years to come.

"You can't base your life on feelings and emotions," he said. "These students are hungry for a God who wants to change their lives. The true hunger for God is something students do not see in the culture around them. They are sick of trying to live without that."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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