Transforming Revival

by George Otis Jr on August 19, 2014

Transforming Revival

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 fewtheir 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

Storm Chasers.

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 ratioHow 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

for change.”


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 appointmentIt 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.