When Revival Broke Out in Our Church
How Prayer Brought A Life-Changing Revival To Our Local Church
“For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” (Isaiah 57:15)
It was the first Monday of January and I sat down at the keyboard to compose my first pastoral newsletter of the new year, to be mailed to the congregation... and this one was going to be a real doozy. The Sunday services conducted the day before had been very different and surprising, particularly the evening service, and I was eager spread the word, especially to the larger body of a thousand or so rarely-seen constituents on our mailing list who were not there.
I began my letter with the headline, “Something Strange and Unusual Happened at Church on Sunday Night!” a teaser with a twist of humor that I felt assured would spark the attention of even the most disinterested readers. I chuckled to myself as I could imagine what wild-eyed exaggerations might at first occur to some readers when they saw the word “Strange” in the headline... but they knew my sense of humor, and would soon realize I used that hook to pull them into the content of my letter. From there I began a step-by-step account of the service, strange only in the sense that it was something wonderful and extraordinary that our congregation had never seen before.
To begin with, the Sunday night service was virtually packed out... something that was definitely out of the ordinary for any Sunday evening in our church. But even more surprising since it was a holiday weekend with many regular attenders away… and with unusually cold and snowy weather that created treacherous, icy conditions on the local mountain roads.
And if that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the church HVAC system even broke down during the morning service, leaving us with little heat in the facility that evening. Any of these circumstances would have kept people at home... but not on this night.
Even before service time, people came piling in early... and were taking the front pews first, something that hadn't happened for quite a while. And by the time we started, I looked about and the place was pretty much packed. "When the last time you saw or heard anything like this in our church?" I asked the readers in my letter.
Then as the service got under way, there was an unusual sense of reverence... many sat literally on the edge of their seats, watching and listening intently to everything said and done. Muffled sounds of sobbing and weeping could be heard throughout the sanctuary. Hankies were visible everywhere. Boxes of Kleenex were passed from row to row until our entire inventory was consumed. It was as though the entire group had become spellbound with all that was happening. I can’t recall even one person who got up to leave before the service concluded. The normally one hour service somehow extended to almost five hours.
So what in the world was going on here? It would be thrilling for me to report that our congregation had finally come to their senses by my fantastic preaching or my witty, charismatic personality (just kidding)! But, no, this amazing turn-out and obvious responsiveness was not due to the preacher... nor a special speaker, singing group, potluck dinner, film, drama, etc. The fascination that compelled folk to drive hazardous roads to fill a nearly unheated church on a cold Sunday night was... an unusual visitation of the Holy Spirit that was moving upon hearts, bringing repentance and brokenness in never-before seen numbers.
To understand what was happening, we need to rewind back nearly three years to when I first accepted the Lord's calling to come pastor the church. Simply stated, it was the most challenging assignment of ministry that I had ever accepted. Unbeknown to me before our arrival, the dwindling congregation had struggled through several previous years of scandals, troubles, splits, financial crises... and about everything that could go wrong in a ministry. There was such turmoil that the church could not even come into agreement on the election of a pastor. Multiple candidates were invited and voted on, but all failed to receive the necessary percentage of votes, that is, until my wife and I came and were elected.
When I discovered the enormity of the problems facing the church and a new pastor, I became hesitant to accept the call. However, when I prayed more extensively, the Lord assured that He would be with me... and would even bring revival to restore the church, if I would just be faithful to uphold the values of His Word... and, especially, if I would lead the people in seeking God in prayer.
So I gave it my best shot, did everything I knew to do, was faithful to the things God had put in my heart. Besides preaching and teaching God’s Word to address such issues, I called several all-night meetings of fasting and prayer to bring attention to the need for divine intervention... and we established a weekly prayer gathering to give the congregation an opportunity to come together with me to seek God. But after considerable time and effort, the church continued to struggle with tremendous troubles and problems that seemed hardly affected by our best efforts.
So stressed by it all, I could not sleep well. Most evenings I would just sit in a chair and pray all night until falling asleep in the early morning. The church needed God's help desperately, in fact it needed a miracle, but I couldn't seem to make the congregation realize this... or to understand that it was also their shared responsibility to join with me to intercede and pray for His intervention. The prayer meetings I called remained sparsely attended... and when my persistent appeals met resistance, I became exasperated and somewhat harsh with my appeals, which only wounded the dear folk that I thought I was trying to help.
After what seemed to be three years of little fruit, I now approached the first Saturday night prayer meeting of the new year knowing that I needed to do perform some damage control. As mentioned, I had become very snippy in my demands for folks to start showing up for prayer... especially our leaders, but realized that I had unintentionally injured many with my impatient tongue. Now, if they came at all, it would likely be only in reluctant compliance... not from a willing heart.
So when we gathered, I felt that it was necessary to make amends, to humble myself and ask their forgiveness, which I did. As we began, I took a few moments to share from my heart, explaining my burden for the church, the incredible challenges we faced and our need for God's help. Then I led in prayer, asking the Lord publicly to forgive me for hurting or wounding our leaders and the dear people I loved... and to humble all our hearts, to bring the spiritual renewal that our church needed.
Then something remarkable and encouraging occurred. As I continued to pray with tears streaming from my face, a brother in the group was also moved with tears, then spoke up, asking both me and the Lord to forgive him for his spiritual apathy toward prayer and for failing his pastor.
I was surprised and deeply touched by this brother's sincerity. I quickly gave him a warm brotherly hug and expressed my love and forgiveness. Soon another person followed, expressing similar things... and eventually many in the gathering began confessing sins and shortcomings openly before God, to me and the whole group. They confessed resentment, anger, bitterness, grudges they had held against others or former leaders. Most people began weeping openly, some began hugging asking each one other for forgiveness, others knelt and prayed for each other... many more bowed to their knees at the altar, confiding whatever details in private to the Lord.
This was all quite surprising... including the fact that our normal concluding time came and went without notice, and while a few did depart, still many others continued for a couple more hours. I did not dare stop this spontaneous expression. I was amazed, delighted, encouraged that some type of spiritual breakthrough seemed to be occurring... and was hopeful that it might be the beginning of something greater. So finally as the meeting began to show signs of winding down, I read from James 5:16, which I felt was what God was saying to our church: "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much."
The following day in the Sunday morning service, I was eager and anxious to share what had happened in last night's prayer meeting. After sharing a brief report, I again reiterated my apology and repentance to the fellowship for my impatience, expressed my love and burden for the church... and then read from a few verses about repentance and spiritual renewal from Isaiah 57:15, Psalms 51:16-17 and especially 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
I also read again from James 5:16, "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” I explained that it was not always appropriate to confess all sins publicly… that there are personal matters of sin that we should repent to God privately, or apologize to others personally... yet, there “are” instances that "do" apply to the body of Christ at large... and open expressions of mutual humility, repentance and prayer, such as what occurred the previous night, can help break down barriers, open hardened hearts and enable the presence of God to bring corporate healing and revival.
At this, I came down from the platform, stood in the center aisle and prayed for healing and revival to come to our church. Then I invited anyone who wanted to join with me and others in this atmosphere of repentance and humility, to come forward and participate if they wished. I read a brief list of “ground rules,” describing what might not be appropriate to be said in public. The congregation remained quiet and no one moved. They seemed surprised and somewhat puzzled by what I had shared... but then after a few minutes, a well-known woman in the congregation rose from her seat and walked forward with tears streaming.
The woman came and stood before me and immediately burst out with a flurry of tears, apologies and repentance to me and to God for her spiritual coldness and resistance, along with admissions of bitterness she had harbored toward others. As she wept and prayed, the congregation was visibly stunned and overwhelmed... but soon others began coming forward. I held the mic for persons as they spoke... so that in case anyone decided to say something goofy, I could quickly intervene, but nothing of the sort occurred. Before long the line had grown to a couple dozen people who wanted to participate. Many were weeping, some were trembling... others instead proceeded to the altar, kneeling and weeping before the Lord. Several rose from their seats to seek out others in the congregation, with whom to ask forgiveness for prior things they did or said.
Needless to say, this was all quite astonishing. What had begun as a fairly traditional Sunday worship service had evolved into something of an impromptu, informal prayer meeting. The sounds of persons praying, worshiping or weeping filled the sanctuary. At least half the congregation were now on their knees at the altars, others had knelt at their seats, while many more continued to come forward, asking me for forgiveness, or expressing repentance to God and whoever else was listening. Of those who remained watching from the pews, all appeared completely shocked and glued to their seats. Other than the few scriptures I already shared, there was no preaching... and I simply continued to pray with those who kept coming forward. I eventually glanced at my watch to see if it was near our typical noon benediction time... I could hardly believe my eyes, it was nearly 2:00pm... and virtually no one had left the service.
As soon as I could gather the attention of the crowd again, I explained that we needed to break for the afternoon, but would gather again for our regular Sunday night service at 6:00pm. I explained that although the weather had turned unusually cold, even knocking out part of our heating system... due to the unusual nature of what seemed to be occurring in the church, we would not cancel the service. I was exhilarated at what had occurred thus far, but had no idea of what might happen in the later service... or if anyone would even come.
As we approached the time for evening service, I was apprehensive. I knew that it would normally not be wise to continue with a service under the wintry conditions, but I felt that God was genuinely doing something extraordinary... and if so, a lapse of several days could alter what seemed to be a favorable spiritual environment or dampen the receptive hearts.
I soon received encouragement. Just after 5:00pm, the first carload arrived... then another and another. Not only were they braving the weather, they were coming early... and had apparently called friends, relatives and absentees, whom many brought along with them. As we neared the 6:00pm starting time, it was clear that we were going to have a larger than normal crowd... and this time, they came with higher expectations than before. One of the first things I noticed was that the first several rows of pews were packed... instead of those usually at the rear.
I began the service pretty much as I had in the morning... this time adding a summarized report about both the Saturday night and earlier Sunday morning service. I shared that it appeared that a spirit of repentance was visiting our church and was in hopes that it might be the beginning of the revival that I and others had long prayed for.
Again as I had previously, I spoke briefly about my vision and burden for the church, my love for the people.... and again expressed my humble apology to them and to God for my shortcomings and failures as a pastor. It was not an attempt to be repetitious, but many were now present who had not been in the other services. Then I read the scriptures as I had done before, James 5:16, Isaiah 57:15, Psalms 51:16-17 and especially 2 Chronicles 7:14, "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
I prayed briefly for the Lord to bring His healing, reconciliation and revival to our church, then reiterated the ground rules for public comments. At this I came down and stood on the main floor, placing a mic in the center aisle, inviting anyone to come forward to pray, share their heart, to repent or to pray as before. As I waited, I had no idea if the people would respond as they had earlier... but soon discovered that this would be the most amazing reaction yet.
The response came immediately to my invitation and soon a long line formed, many already crying, praying... waiting their turn to come before the microphone. Before long, the spontaneous sound of people weeping, repenting, worshiping, praising, singing... filled the atmosphere. It appeared as though the entire church had either gone to their knees at the altar or were in line to pray or confess some sin or shortcoming. People were hugging each other, weeping together, were asking each other for forgiveness. I was amazed... as was everyone else who watched this.
The humility, confession and contrition expressed by these dear folks was nothing less than astonishing... the effect on the congregation was even more so. It broke my heart to hear such sincere, humble prayers of repentance from these folk... and as tears ran from my cheeks, as well as most everyone, it helped me to understand how such a mutual exercise of contrition could break down hardness of heart and allow the Holy Spirit to work in hearts and lives. These were spontaneous sincere expressions between friends, neighbors or relatives... some who had harbored wounds or grudges against one another, the church or the pastor for years.
It seemed as though a burgeoning volcano had erupted, releasing pent up stresses of unforgiveness and animosity, and was now spewing out a flowing lava of tears, reconciliation and forgiveness. Hardened hearts were becoming broken and softened... many wept openly, wrapping their arms around each other, praying for each other... others began to sing or worship, while some rejoiced with expressions of laughter and praise.
The diverse voices and sounds that rose from the sanctuary mingled together as a sustained jubilant noise... as though a crowd of football fans had just witnessed a winning touchdown at the last second and continued to cheer. So moved were many apparent visitors and spectators, that dozens fell at the altars to repent for their own sins. Teens and children who had never seen tears from their parents, were so broken that they also went to their knees before the Lord. The two hundred or so persons in the meeting were now strewn about the sanctuary in a posture of prayer or worship. The altars were jammed, with no room left... others knelt at their seats... some were lying prostrate on the floor... many stood with their hands upraised, weeping and praising God.
When I drove home from church sometime after midnight, I felt an overwhelming peace and joy… and wept so hard I could hardly see the road ahead of me. Yes, I could imagine that some probably thought that it was a quite strange and bizarre church service... but for me, I knew the extent of the spiritual breakthrough that had occurred. I was both exhausted and ecstatic with joy, believing that after years of prayer and sacrifices, our church appeared to be on the threshold of something remarkable, a major spiritual breakthrough... which proved to be correct.
For the weeks to come, the prayer meetings became larger... and although there were no more open-mic public confessions, the services continued on with a tremendous response toward repentance and prayer. The worship and music became even more powerful and stirring... even my normally “mediocre” preaching seemed to become more effective and took on a renewed interest by the congregation.
People continued to come forward at the close of most services wanting to repent of sins. Souls were getting saved in significant numbers, marriages were being healed, lives were being changed. A Steady flow of visitors were also coming through the doors and the attendances and finances were growing every Sunday.
Over a period of just a few months, several hundred persons received Jesus Christ as their Savior, and by the end of the year the church had more than doubled, and continued to grow in attendance. Every aspect of the church began to flourish, including the finances, which enabled us to add staff and make other advances.
This mighty spiritual wind continued on with similar fervor for about a year or so, and the subsequent breezes continued filling our sails for a few more years thereafter until the church returned to a more typical profile. I eventually moved on to another pastorate where I again sought to apply these powerful learned-lessons of prayer, repentance and revival.
I regret that I don’t know more about the extraordinary mysteries of God. It seems that the more I learn, I only realize how little I really know. I’m grateful, however, for this extraordinary experience and learned at least six important lessons about revival that have remained with me during our continued years of ministry:
1. Prayer and Repentance is the Key that will bring Revival... and needs to start from the top. The biggest thing I learned from all this is that honesty, transparency and humility by spiritual leaders is essential... along with a forthrightness to speak the truth in love. An arrogant "can-do-no-wrong" attitude held by a pastor, only distances the flock from his leadership and tends to reproduce those same attitudes within the fellowship. Sometimes leaders falsely think that it's a sign of "weakness" to humble themselves, to apologize for mistakes, confess shortcomings or admit that they could be wrong about anything. However it takes far more courage and maturity to be humble and contrite than to pretend that we’re somehow incapable of making mistakes.
At least in my case, especially due to the past history of this particular church, the congregation needed to see an example of humility, contrition and repentance from their pastor. My need to be contrite was not over any kind of moral failure or sins of that sort... but I needed to repent for being so harsh in my forthrightness at times, which was perceived as a lack of love that wounded precious hearts. And when I did so, it not only brought God's peace to my heart... but also inspired others to open their hearts and deal honestly with their own issues. This certainly did’t hurt my ability to lead, but dramatically elevated their confidence and respect toward me as their pastor. I also learned first-hand that Biblical leadership is something that occurs from the “front”... to lead the way, to set an example, to show a pattern.
2. The Absence of Revival Means the Presence of Spiritual Hindrances. If it is true that repentance is an essential key to revival, as the famed late revivalist, Charles Finney and others interpreted from 2 Chronicles 7:14, then there must be "something that needs to be repented of"... something that hinders victorious spiritual life that needs to be turned away from or corrected. It may not always or necessarily be sins of “commission” that stand in the way... but could be matters of “omission” such as spiritual apathy or a neglect of the Word and prayer. Or it may involve carnality, worldliness, cares of the world... or possibly harboring of grudges, nursing wounds, hurt feelings, etc... issues that are not always regarded as sin.
“Busyness” or “ambition” are not necessarily bad things, but if “we” allow such preoccupations to come between us and God, they become sinful hindrances to our relationship with Him that we need to repent from. Satan uses ploys like this to steal spiritual victory from our lives as well as from the church. However, if God’s people will humble themselves and turn away from such diversions, God will begin to resuscitate, revive and refresh spiritual life again. Please note, repentance to God and toward each other is a good thing when needed, however “public” repentance or confessions may not always be appropriate. It’s just the spontaneous way it occurred in our congregation for that particular time, and seemed to be the catalyst that God used to release the flow of repentance to the larger body.
3. Genuine Revival in the Church Changes Everything. I know the challenges of pastoring a congregation that struggles spiritually... and also know what it is to pastor during great victory and spiritual awakening. There is no comparison. In an atmosphere of revival, things will begin to resemble the book of Acts. There will be an outbreak of answered prayers, miracles, healings, lives becoming transformed and people getting saved. It will not be as much of a burden to find workers and helpers. Gimmicks or programs will lose their urgency to keep crowds coming. Less attention will be given to fundraising and the congregation will begin to grow and bear fruit from souls coming to Christ. People will even think their pastor has become a better preacher. Of course, there will always be challenges... but the kind of problems that come from revival are preferable over the alternative.
4. There is No Substitute for Real Revival. In the absence of revival, there are many attempts to fabricate superficial substitutes. Beautiful buildings, large crowds, fascinating programs and performances are all wonderful things... but may not be indicative of a move of God’s presence. Excitement is also a good thing... much better than a dead, boring environment, however the attempt to hype-up spiritual enthusiasm is like trying to build a fire with smoke. Revival isn’t about the superficial trappings of the church or merely tickling the flesh with thrills...rather, it is about the internal workings of the Holy Spirit, renewing His people with intimacy and power... to refresh their love and vision of Jesus, to change and transform their lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Many marriages will be healed, families will be reunited, drunks will become sober, liars will quit lying, thieves will stop stealing. Jesus is the core of what the church is all about, and a real revival will always uplift Jesus front and center to its vision and purpose. A revived congregation will have a renewed love and passion for Jesus, will begin putting Him first in their thoughts, words and deeds... and will roll up their sleeves to do whatever necessary to begin bringing people to Christ.
5. Revival Cannot Come without Taking Risks. By and large, Christian leaders tend to be a conservative lot, protective of the ministry and the flock, devoted to a prescribed regimen of faith and doctrine, strong on tradition. These are exemplary traits... but in an environment that has become spiritually stagnant and cold, being locked into forms or traditional thinking can restrict the spiritual venture necessary to break out from a rut of lethargy and slumber. It may seem odd to some to call an all-night meeting to fast and pray... or perhaps risky to allow persons to confess sins or express their heart openly before the congregation, or to permit services to continue past noon, or to allow a service to take on an unordered, extemporaneous pattern. By all means, everything must always comply with the standards of God’s Word, but we also must be flexible enough to allow the Holy Spirit to lead where such elasticity is permissible... and be willing to step out of our “comfort zone” to allow God to do things that we cannot.
As one of our members said to me during the months of our revival, “I want to thank you pastor, not for bringing the revival... we know that it came from God... but we thank you so much for ‘allowing’ it to happen.” Yes, I could have easily shut it down, halted the services, or prevented what I feared might become a disorderly display of emotion or mayhem. But I was willing to take “measured” risks, or perhaps better described as steps of ‘faith” to promote such liberty that God’s presence could move freely among His people. Obviously, every congregation and situation is different, and this may not be the pattern that fits all other churches or scenarios... but if persons will pray and seek Him diligently, He will find a way to help you break out of the stalemate... if only to stumble across it as we did. There will always be some measure of risk to anything God tells us to do... but that’s what faith is all about, believing and trusting in God when the outcome seems uncertain.
6. Revival is worth pursuing. Not only is it worthwhile, sadly, without a spiritual renewal, many churches may end up withering away or closing their doors. For America, we also need a national revival, to bring lives back to the principles of God on which it was founded, otherwise I fear that our nation is going to face a swift and unpleasant demise. A spiritual awakening is something that only God can do... but we can help establish the necessary conditions. It will require much sacrificial prayer, a faithfulness to proclaim the truths and high ideals of God’s word, a willingness to die to our personal wants and preferences, and an obedience to humble ourselves to His will and desires. It will be challenging, but not nearly as much as it will be if we choose to ignore the need and continue business and usual. In the end, it will be worth it... and if no one else gets revived, at least you will!