I was raised in a Methodist church, shaped by the Wesleyan holiness tradition. My parents have been immovable pillars in that Methodist church for some 50 years. The great legacy of the Wesley brothers - magnificent hymns, revivalistic preaching and deep piety - is gratefully mine. But the emphasis on personal holiness drained my soul of the assurance I craved as a young believer. I have vivid teenage memories of kneeling at the altar to take communion and sticking my fingers through the communion cup holes to grip the altar rail as I confessed my sin, terrified I'd lost my salvation. It took me until my 30's for the doctrines of grace to anchor me in gospel assurance. I also longed for an environment of greater openness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So, a year after getting married in that church, my wife and I left it for a church that met those longings.
Several years after leaving, I found myself pastoring in a large church that put a lot of effort into the quality of its music, media, lighting and sound on Sundays. If something went wrong with these production values, our team leader would would say, "Well, that was a bit of a Methodist moment, wasn't it?" This was his way of saying, 'That was a bit clunky and old-fashioned.' We would laugh and make sure it didn't happen again. I am actually not against high production values, but looking back, I cringe a little at how smug we were and also that I didn't speak up and say, "Hey, that's my parents' church you're talking about!" But I didn't.
So, you can imagine my surprise on hearing two decades later that there was an outpouring of the Spirit on a small Methodist college campus in Wilmore, Kentucky called Asbury University.
What began as a standard students' chapel on February the 8th, 2023, with a local pastor preaching a no-better-than-average message, led to sustained repentance as students knelt at the altar rail. Zack Meerkreebs recalls, “I called my wife after my message, told her I had preached a stinker and cancelled my two afternoon meetings so I could go home and take a nap. But after a couple hours of worship and repentance I realized Jesus had something else in mind.”
Such was the heat and weight of God’s presence in that chapel, the President of the university emailed all students and faculty at 9 pm that evening, encouraging them to go to Hughes Auditorium and told them that classes were canceled until further notice. That chapel service morphed into a 16 day continuous prayer meeting that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to Asbury and touched millions online around the world. Eight months later, Asbury has become something of a revival catalyst, with fires of gospel awakening flickering on many college campuses across the USA.
After a group of us led by my friend, Todd Proctor, visited with faculty, student and pastoral leaders who stewarded the outpouring this past week, I can only conclude that the Asbury Outpouring is God's Methodist Moment.
By this, I mean that on the surface, there was absolutely nothing flashy or produced about what was going on there. Zero hype. It was unpolished - even a little clunky at times. The worship and the preaching were biblical and heart-felt, but unspectacular. There were multiple authentic testimonies of miracles, but they were told in understated ways. There were no big names attached to the outpouring. No book deals or record contracts thus far. In fact, the leaders had an aversion to celebrity culture. And yet despite this, perhaps because of this, the veil between heaven and earth felt paper thin. It felt like what the Celtic Christians called, a thin place. There was a kind of naive purity about it all that I hope will remain unspoiled. Jesus was the only spectacular attraction.
Make no mistake though, the leaders there carry some wise values that left a deep impression on me. I would describe them as follows:
The four words emblazoned above the Hughes Auditorium stage at Asbury University - Holiness unto the Lord - best describe what I encountered when meeting with the leaders there. What left the deepest impression on me was the sense of consecration among them. The repeated theme of repentance and dying to self marked every conversation. One lady described the Hughes Auditorium as a beautiful graveyard where I crucified my old self and buried it. Worship leaders and preachers would rush to pray in the consecration room before getting on stage to crucify pride, confess weakness and declare dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
David Thomas, the pastor/theologian described by the group as the man who fathered people through the outpouring, insisted that repentance came from kindness rather than severity or manipulation. “People were so enraptured by the beauty of Jesus that they were only too glad to be rid of their sin. Holiness was no longer a set of behaviors. Holiness became a Person.”
The consecration looked like genuine humility and hard work on relational unity. Impressive.
For me personally, returning to my childhood environment of consecration with my soul more tethered to the grace of God, was beautiful and needed. As I knelt at the altar God’s presence reminded me of C.S Lewis's description of Aslan the lion when he peeled off Edmund’s dragon skin in The Voyage of the DawnTreader.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. "
Grace is not permission to sin. Grace is the power not to sin. And this grace was available through an atmosphere of consecration.
I heard repeatedly about the courage of the University’s leadership to allow the outpouring to interrupt the normal rhythm of their institution. This went further than merely suspending classes for two weeks. Dr. Kevin Brown, the President of Asbury, insisted that all giving buttons be turned off during the outpouring on their website so as not to leverage it for financial gain. One student leader told me the university had also refused to leverage the outpouring as a marketing ploy to grow their student body. Both President and Vice President were integrally involved in the prayer ministry during the outpourings too. They were ministers, not just administrators. Dr. Brown explained, Asbury has a revival history, so if there is an outpouring, we are a riverbed that means the water knows where to go.”
His institutional courage acted like a river bed for the outpouring channeling it purposefully towards consecration and mission. Imagine the courage it took to interrupt normal academic rhythms for 16 days, allowing hundreds of thousands of revival seekers to inundate the campus? Imagine the courage it took to bring the prayer meeting to an end after 16 days when it was still in such full flow?
I wonder if there have been hundreds of other chapel or church services that have experienced a deluge of grace but there was simply insufficient institutional courage to welcome the interruption?
The third virtue was lingering worship. Perhaps the small town affected this, but nobody was in a rush. Planning center was nowhere to be found. Worship was unhurried, uninterrupted singing; congregational in nature, theologically true, but more adoration than description about God. I am all for rehearsing rich gospel truths in our singing, but if worship does not lead to adoration of Jesus it can be a theological exercise. Do we have such an environment in our churches at some point in our calendars?
David Thomas taught a profound message of travailing prayer, from the Old Testament prophets, to Jesus to Paul to the 'Spirit who intercedes with groans too deep to express." (Romans 8:26) He warned about the American Churches' affair with casual prayer, calling Biblical prayer a language of tears. Here is a link to his book on Travailing Prayer. I believe leaning in to travailing prayer is going to be a mark of awakening in our churches and on our campuses.
Finally, the generational risk was impressive. Asbury was primarily an outpouring for Gen Z led by Gen Z. Included in the leadership team who met with us was an 18-year old freshman who preached, and a student in her twenties who single handedly directed the 4 prayer rooms that operated adjacent to the main auditorium. The 24-hour worship was co-ordinated by a young white woman who was married to an African American man who led the gospel choir. Their willingness to be mentored and coached by older leaders was remarkable. But the older leaders' willingness to have them take the lead was beautiful. Our church has hundreds of Gen Zers and I returned intent on taking more risks with them as leaders.
So, I'm considering these values deeply and crying out for God for a Methodist Moment in our church and the college campuses we serve. Won't you join me?