Transforming Revivalby George Otis Jr on August 19, 2014
Are We Realizing the Full Power of God’s Presence?
By George Otis, Jr.
(Producer of the “Transformations” Documentaries)
I honestly can’t remember when I first heard the word revival, much less what I thought
about it. It was just one of those things, like Sunday School and Billy Graham, that made
up the religious landscape of my childhood. I didn’t know whether it was something that
you did, or something that happened to you. There was only a vague association with
spiritual intensity — of God drawing closer to his people.
As I moved into my preteen years, the Charismatic Renewal was in its heyday. Though I
was still too young to appreciate the theological nuances of the movement, it was clear
that something was afoot. A new hunger for God’s fullness gripped believers of every
denominational stripe and flavor, and my own Presbyterian family was no exception.
Every other week, it seemed, men like Dennis Bennett and Harald Bredesen were holding
meetings in our home that lasted late into the night. The atmosphere was electric… but
was this revival?
As the years passed, two developments brought my understanding on this matter into
sharper focus.The first of these took place in my early twenties when I encountered written
accounts of prior awakenings in New England, Wales, Upstate New York and the Scottish
Hebrides. As I studied these testimonies, a simple pattern began to emerge. Prayer was always
the starting point. Whether the participants were many or few, their united, desperate
cries were a game-changer. They didn’t just pray, they prayed until they were
heard— and heaven took over. As the awakenings progressed, supernatural phenomena
were widely reported, and an overwhelming sense of God’s awesome and holy presence resulted
in pervasive conviction of sin. Profound societal transformation soon followed.
A second encounter with revival, this one in the mid 1990s, led to a more comprehensive
scrutiny of religious awakenings. In a span of twelve months, I was approached by four
individuals, all of them new acquaintances, who provided me with detailed reports of
contemporary revivals — and then asked for an analysis of the underlying principles. More
specifically, they wanted to know if these blessed events were reproducible.
Many of these reports stirred my blood — drug cartels being overthrown as Colombian
believers gathered in stadiums to pray; Inuit natives burning fetishes on frozen sea ice as
they hear the roaring voice of God; coral reefs springing instantly to life as Fijian villagers
rededicated their lives and land to God. These were not the aging stories of revivals long
past — they were happening now! Here was an opportunity to get up and see what God
was doing for myself.
Discoveries on the Road to Revival
Over the past sixteen years, my quest to understand and document true revival has taken
me into thirty-one nations on six continents. At times, the scope and intensity of this
pursuit has reminded me of the Discovery Channel’s hit television series
Lots of false alarms accompanied by moments of sheer exhilaration.
But following the moving cloud of God’s Presence has also yielded its share of surprises —
with none more impressive than the comprehensive nature of God’s reviving work. I was
fully prepared to encounter widespread conversions, social changes, and perhaps the
occasional miracle, but that was where my expectations ended. The notion that spiritual
awakenings were the primaryimpetus for social reforms and economic renewal (a case
argued by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel), or that the healing presence of
God could extend to the land itself, was new territory for me. (See Sidebar)
A second surprise related to the sheer volume of these Spirit-swept communities — and
more disturbingly, to the regions where this type of revival was
not happening. Since my colleagues and I began studying transformed communities in the
mid 1990s, we have encountered nearly 800 examples. Astonishingly,as of late 2011, only
two of these could be found within the borders of the United States — with only one other
possible case in all of sub-Arctic North America. I know of no recent instances of
transforming revival in Europe, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Australia or New Zealand.
As a researcher, you’ve got to at least wonder about this ratio. How can it be that within
the entire range of Western society and culture we can identify only two
definitive cases of transforming revival?
This is not to say there are no other cases, only that I am not yet aware of them. One can argue
that Korea as a whole is still in the afterglow of earlier awakenings. Certainly that country’s
Biblical Worldview Movement and Holy City Movement are greatly encouraging, and the hope
remains that their influence combined with the country’s strong prayer initiatives will soon result
in localized evidence of transforming revival.
There are essentially three ways of responding to a question as serious as this
1. We can deny the charges are true
2. We can blame God for the situation
3. We can take a hard look at our own shortcomings
Imagination and Memories
Let’s start with the charges themselves. I am fully aware that there are those who will take
issue with my contention that there are only a handful of genuinely awakened communities
in the West. And I make no claims of infallibility. But even if my assessment is off by
tenfold, that still leaves less than two dozen cases in a region encompassing hundreds of
thousands of churches and 18 percent of the world’s population.
What I see today is a widespread tendency among Christians to characterize almost any
spiritually positive event or activity as evidence of God‘s favor and reviving work. Some
believers (I’ll call them “experience pilgrims”) maintain an almost constant state of spiritual
ecstasy by riding a circuit of healing camp-meetings, outpourings, and prophetic prayer
gatherings. For these folks, the river of God is flowing deep and wide.
Other Christians (I’ll call them “community fixers”) point to a host of fruitful city
transformation initiatives as evidence that spiritual revival is alive and well in Western
society. In their minds, the church is finally making a difference, and anyone who thinks
otherwise simply hasn’t been traveling in the right circles.
Without denying or denigrating these experiences, I think it is both fair and necessary for
us to examine whether they approach the standards of a genuine spiritual awakening. We
often talk about revival as though it were an old friend, but how many of us have actually
set foot in a community where its fearful splendor was on full display?
Several years ago I journeyed to the Outer Hebrides, an Island archipelago off the West
Cost of Scotland that has experienced numerous powerful revivals. The purpose of my
visit was to interview a group of elderly individuals that had experienced the great move of
God that swept through the area in the early 1950s.
Most of these interviews were group sessions conducted in farmhouses, churches, and
weaving barns. Inside, the subjects would gather around on chairs and pews, always
close enough to hear clearly. Unfailingly polite and sober-minded, their eyes never left me,
even when my questions unfolded over the course of hours.
There was one notable exception to this pattern. Whenever these saints began to describe
occasions when God’s presence had drawn near, words seemed to fail them. They would
stammer, turn their gaze toward their neighbors, and weep. This happened four or five
times before I finally understood that the memories were so intense, they could only be
fully appreciated by someone who had been there. The exchanged glances were based on
shared memories of something that was exceedingly difficult to describe.
If we have no personal memories of transforming revival, our only recourse is to fire up
our imagination. But since the reality of God’s presence is so much greater than human
imaginations (which are based on our limited experience), this all but guarantees that we
will conjure faulty and diminished images.
Mysterious Moon Pizzas
Blame shifting is another way many of us deal with the absence of true awakening. We
reason that if the matter were up to us, transforming revival would already have gripped
our community. Unfortunately, it is not our call.
As my good friend, Peter Horrobin, once put it, “Revivals might as well be pizza pies
cooked up on the surface of the moon.” Every once and a while, God, for reasons known
only to him, flings one to earth where it intersects with some unsuspecting community.
There people are, walking down the street and minding their own business, when all of a
sudden this revival pizza lands on their left shoulder — without any warning whatsoever!
Where it came from, and why it landed on their shoulder, remains a complete mystery.
But if revival really were the product of arbitrary dictate rather than a
response to obedient action (see 2 Chr. 7:14, Isa. 62:7, Ho. 6:3), faith would
not even enter the equation! We could only hopethat God might, one day, include our
community on his revival itinerary. There would be no principles to apply, no guidelines to follow, no promises to expect,
and no certainty of success. Not very good news really.
Why the Son No Longer Sets in the West
By acknowledging that revival is indeed scarce in Western society, and that God has not
willed or engineered this deficit, we are left to consider our own shortcomings.
There is pain here, but also potential for change.
Not long ago I was asked to contribute story material for a Christian magazine whose
cover title asked: “Can Prayer Save America?” It’s an intriguing question, to be sure, but
I’m not sure it’s the rightquestion. A more appropriate inquiry might be: Do Americans,
and American Christians in particular, think they need to be saved?
I know there are polls suggesting that people are worried about the economy and other
social uncertainties. I’m aware that politicians are facing a lot of voter anger, and that
some cities are even experiencing loud street protests. But I’ve also been to enough
sporting events, shopping malls, and Evangelical churches to know that our concern isn’t
that pronounced. Most of us are bothered just enough to gripe to our neighbors and
hairdressers — and maybe cast an anti-incumbent vote.
Whether we live in America or somewhere else, our need for transforming
revival will always be determined by our true condition. However, the
question of whether we will actually experience transformation depends on
how we perceive our condition.
In the words of Norman Grubb, “Until there is a conviction of need, there can never be a desire
Although desperation is one of the most prominent features that I have
observed in transformed communities, it is a concept that many Westerners
find unappealing. Having been schooled in the virtues of confidence and self-
sufficiency, we find it difficult to accept any suggestion that our condition is
beyond human remedy.If there is a problem, we will fix it. But the idea of gaining
ground by giving up (even to God) reeks of laziness and irresponsibility.
What some of us do not yet seem to understand is that we arelazy — at least spiritually.
The reason we don’t see it, to quote American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, is because
“Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospect: it has to be shattered before
being ascertained ”
We think it is society that needs to change. But in reality, it is we ourselves — the
body of Christ — that stand in need of God’s touch. For many of us, religious
routines have become placeholders for the presence of God. We are doing good
things (for God), but not necessarily what He has asked of us.
Our love, as the prophet Hosea points out, “is like the morning mist…that quickly
disappears.” Rather than seeking God while he may be found, we sacrifice the moment to
more immediate priorities — like visiting our email, attending choir practice, or campaigning
for the latest Christian candidate.
In the Song of Songs we encounter the devastating account of a maiden who is awakened
by the sound of her lover rapping on the door. She can hear his voice pleading with her to
let him in from the “dampness of the night” — but she is unsure of her next move. Should
she put on her robe and soil her feet to let him in? There is no question of her love for him,
it’s just that he has come at an unexpected hour. This is a time for sleeping, not intimacy.
The inner debate is brief, but when the maiden reaches the door latch, her lover is gone.
His presence has been repelled not by overt rejection, but by hesitation; by
momentary distraction with lesser things. And the tragedy is not yet over. For when
the maiden goes out into the streets to look for her lover, she is beaten by the city watchman who
does not recognize her as the king’s consort. Because she has missed her moment, his glow, his
scent, is not on her. Claims of a royal connection ring hollow.
Fighting the Right Battles
There is much talk in Christian circles these days about redeeming the various “spheres”
or “mountains” of society. Advocates float terms like “kingdom reformation” and “cultural
mandate” while a steady stream of books and conferences promote strategies for
transforming everything from Hollywood to Washington, DC.
I am sympathetic to calls for social healing and godly change agents, but I’m afraid these
sympathies are not accompanied by much optimism that we can win the so-called “culture
war” — assuming this is even our mission in the first place.
My initial concern is the fact that social activism does not require God to come down in
power (interventionist revival). What if our problems are so deeply entrenched that we
can’t make a difference? Faithful witnessing, for example, will not bring an end to years of war
or drought. Nor will well-run Christian businesses bring about pervasive conviction of sin.
Apart from divine hydraulics, some loads are simply to heavy to lift.
Another reason for our futility in the culture wars is that, like the beloved maiden, we are
making claims without evidence. Society doesn’t care about our arguments —
in fact, it resents them. In the absence of God’s presence people are not
asking Who is he? They are asking Where is he? The one thing that sets us
apart is missing — all because of a fatal calculus that our projects (or comforts) are so
important that we can’t let things that are more important interfere with them! In the end, our
hesitation leads to missed intimacy; and missed intimacy leads to societal irrelevancy.
Transforming revival is not the morning newspaper or a pre-recorded sports event. It is
not a product that can be ordered from a catalog, or an experience for which one
schedules an appointment. It is not something we can just “fit in.” If we want to see
it, we’ll need to cultivate an appetite for it.
Satisfaction has been called “the sleep of prisoners.” At the height of the
Hebrides revival, meetings lasted into the wee hours, and crowds often spilled
outside the church buildings.
On one such occasion, a neighbor lady approached a church elder to complain about the
noise. Full of the Holy Spirit, the elder replied: “Woman, you’ve slept long enough!”
George Otis, Jr. serves as president of The Sentinel Group, a Seattle-area ministry that assists
Christians who are eager to prepare their communities for transforming revival. He is also the
producer of the multiple award-winning Transformations documentaries – now a series of nine.