Friday, September 8, 2023

God's Methodist Moment: reflections on the Asbury Outpouring

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.

Leadership Courage  

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?

Lingering Worship

 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?

Travailing Prayer 

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. 

Generational Risk

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?

Saturday, August 5, 2023

The Revival Nobody Wanted: untangling the mess of church leadership scandal


I count myself among those who long for Jesus to revive his people.

I love to read about revival and remind people to live expectantly for it in our day. I am often asked to teach about revival and work closely with my friend, Oscar Merlo, who is the Director of Biola's Center for the Study of Revival. Our church spends significant time praying for it and I've co-written a primer on revival prayer. I am taking some of our pastor's to meet the leaders of the Asbury Awakening this month. I celebrate the thousands of baptisms that took place at Pirate's Cove in Newport Beach this past month that hint at a new and desperately needed move of God coming to California. All this to say, I am more of a revival enthusiast than a revival skeptic.

Man-manufactured or God-orchestrated?

But I took heed of Francis Chan's warning a few years ago that we need to be able to discern between man-manufactured 'revival' and God-orchestrated revival. He compared a wave machine in a wave pool that manufactures a predictable pseudo-wave to the beauty, power and unpredictability of a genuine wave. One of the marks of true revival is unpredictability. Men cannot start it, control it or end it. 

Which brings me to a recent conversation that I had with a wise friend about the tragic leadership scandals in the Evangelical/Charismatic Church these past years. From Bill Hybels to Ravi Zacharias, from Mark Driscoll to Carl Lentz and Brian Houston, from Mike Pilavachi to Alan Scott, I have looked on with utter dismay at these gifted, high profile leaders who have either fallen morally or been accused of spiritual abuse. The last two names give me a pit in my stomach as I type them. They are men who I know personally. One of them leads a church less than 5 miles from mine. The other has stayed in my house and ministered in every church I have ever pastored since 1997. My daughter was an intern in his church for a year in London. And while the investigations into these two men are not yet complete, it's safe to say that Church leadership scandal has come far too close to home this past year. 

An Unlikely Revival

As my wise friend and I tried to make sense of the tragic deconstruction of faith and disillusionment with the Church that is understandably taking place in the wake of these leaders' scandals, he suggested, "Perhaps this is a strange and unlikely revival? Perhaps God is cleaning house for the sake of his glory?" 

This is in no way meant to minimize the painful trauma experienced by so many people through sexual, emotional or spiritual abuse at the hands of these leaders. I am so heavy-hearted hearing of the appalling treatment of so many people at the hands of church leaders. I am learning to listen carefully and walk tenderly with some of those victims who are close to me. Justice must also take its course and I am all for that.

But if we are able to view these repeated tragedies through the lens of God's mysterious providence, perhaps we could glimpse God at work orchestrating the revival that nobody wanted in His Church. One lady in our church this week told me, "I saw a giant broom. God was cleaning house. He was sweeping out the dust to prepare His house for another wave of His glory." The sobering warning from the Apostle Peter that, "Judgment begins with the house of God," reminds us that while Jesus is gracious to forgive us of our sins, He holds those who have tasted of His grace to a higher standard. 

So, what if these painful scandals were about purifying God's leaders from using God's people to serve themselves? What if they were also about God purifying His people from being overly reliant on charismatic leaders to mediate between them and Himself? 

What if this was a revival God was giving that nobody wanted?

So, what now?

If this were so, what would an appropriate response be? 

Without being over-simplistic, deep and lasting repentance would be a great place to start. Genuine revival is always marked by genuine repentance. An example of this is Ezra's prayer. 

"As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice....But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery." (Ezra 9: 3-9)

Leaders, let's be lead repenters. Let's repent of sexual sin. Let's repent of greed. Let's repent of using people to serve us. Let's repent of micro-managing. Let's repent of emotional abuse and gas lighting. Let's repent of confusing bravery with bravado and courage with always getting our own way.

I don't want to rob you of courage. Leaders desperately need courage these days. Leadership in the church is an almost impossibly difficult task. People have become more difficult to lead. They have become more sensitive and less co-operative. But it is still possible, with the help of the Spirit of Christ, to maintain courage and compassion as a leader. 

In the midst of calling out injustice in the Church (and we must), let's all repent of having an easily shaken faith that was overly dependent on gifted, charismatic leaders. Our faith is not theirs to shake. Let's honor the gift of leadership without idolizing it. Let's repent of wanting a king, like Israel. Let's esteem good leaders who care for us more highly than great leaders who don't even know us. Let's resolve to have no King but Jesus.

I bet you this kind of repentance would precede a wave of genuine revival.

God treasures up His bright designs

As humans with limits on our wisdom, we view life and especially suffering, as if looking at the back side of a tapestry. All we see is a tangled mess. But God is at work making something beautiful of this mess on the other side of the tapestry. Every now and then He flips it over and gives us a glimpse of His grand design. But one day we will see face to face, and we will realize He makes all things beautiful in His time. 

As William Cowper, the hymn writer once wrote, "God treasures up his bright designs, and works His sovereign will.” 

Or as Joseph, the abused brother and slave once said,"What man intended for harm, God intended for good, for the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20)

Friday, March 17, 2023

Learning from the Church in Asia

Flying somewhere between Seoul and Bangkok, I began counting the number of international ministry trips I've done in my lifetime to pass the hours -  a bit like counting sheep to fall asleep. I started flying internationally in 1990 and worked it out to be around 100 trips by 2023, not  including the many times I've driven across international borders. This is not a flex. It's a confession. While I love the nations, international travel has lost its novelty for me. My body is not designed for it. My soul does not long for it. Long haul flights in particular, make me feel every year of my age. I can no longer shrug off jet lag like I used to. It hovers around like an unwanted visitor who has overstayed their welcome.  

So, why do I still do it? 

Very simply,  I do it because I believe embodied visits impart something to churches that videos, zoom calls and books do not. The Apostle Paul, in his inestimably great letter to the church in Rome, wrote that he longed to be present with them so that he might impart some spiritual gift to them to make them strong, that they might be mutually encouraged by each others faith. 

I do believe that in some way Rynelle and I impart something to churches when we travel. I also know for sure that we always gain some mutual encouragement from being with them. Having just returned from our 10 day trip to Asia where we spent time with our dear friends at One Light Church in Thailand and Redemption Hill Church in Singapore, though my body is tired, my heart is full. Despite my travel complaints above, both visits were a real joy, re-kindling treasured friendships and strengthening gospel partnerships. So,  I waned to share some of the encouragement I have received from being with them. 

Of course, Asia is not monolithic. It is vast and wonderfully diverse. Thailand and Singapore themselves are vastly different from one another, both culturally and economically. But collectively they have something to say to us, so I am reflecting on the gift of the Asian Church broadly to us as the American Church broadly. 

What does it have to teach us? 

A Minority Faith is a Robust Faith

First, it teaches us that a minority faith is a robust faith. Thailand is just over 1% Christian, while Christianity has slightly more influence in Singapore at 11%, but in both nations, Christians are a vast minority. Bhuddist monks are so revered in Thailand that they have special seating for them in airports and Bhuddism is by far the majority religion at 94%. The spread of religions is more even in Singapore, with Bhudddism at 31%,  Islam at 15% and Taoism at 8%, while 20% of the population identify as having no religion. Overall though, the religious rights of Christians in Asia are fragile to non-existent. Churches live at the mercy of watchful and mostly suspicious government authorities who fear that their growth may disrupt the religious and cultural status quo. People who become Christians are often viewed as betraying their families, their faith and their culture, so there is a significant cost to following Jesus. Yet, this minority faith reality serves to forge an astonishing common bond among Christians. 

While the debate rages on about whether America is or should be a Christian nation, there is no debate for me as to the quality of Christian that is forged in a minority faith context. It is simply a more robust faith because there are no social benefits to becoming a Christian, so believers count the cost of following Jesus in more sobering ways than do Christians in the U.S.  Does this mean that we should wish that Christianity becomes a minority in the USA in order that it should flourish? Certainly not.  But neither should we fear the fact that we are living in an increasingly secular post-Christian reality. It creates more robust Christians, while a majority Christian nation tends to create more nominal Christians. 

An Embattled Gospel is a Treasured Gospel

While Christians live lives that are embattled by hostility to the gospel in Asia, there is a treasuring of the gospel that is marvelous. I spoke to a man in the Singapore church who was from Malaysia, which is a strict Muslim country. He personally knew of people that had been  imprisoned or killed for trying to convert Muslims in his home country. He was sensing a call to leave the relative comfort of Singapore and return to Malaysia, but was wrestling with the danger of the call. As he talked you could see that despite real fear,  the love of Christ was compelling him. 

 If you compare the last words of Bhudda to the last words of Jesus you will understand why Christians from primarily Bhuddist nations treasure the gospel. On his death bed, Bhudda's last words to the monks around him were, "Monks, work hard to earn your salvation!" In contrast, Jesus last words to those who surrounded him at the cross were, "It is finished!" 

Christ finished the work of redeeming humanity from slavery to sin, paying our debt in full with his own life to set us free. While grace calls us to worshipful effort in serving God, it is opposed to earning of our salvation. Asian Christians treasure the grace of God in Jesus that has freed them from slavishly having to earn merit with God. There is a palpable relief and joy because of the gospel. Make no mistake, they are generally sacrificial and highly disciplined. But they treasure the gospel. You can hear it in their voices as they sing. You can see it in their faces as they speak. You can hear it in their earnest prayers. An embattled gospel is a treasured gospel.

A Communal Christian is a Healthier Christian 

The communal nature of Christianity in Asia is compelling. The idea of being a Christian who is not part of a church, just doesn't make any sense to a Christian here. For a start, culture is far more collectivist, less individualistic. But also, following Jesus without the encouragement of other Christians and godly leaders is just too hard.  We should take our cue from them. A Christian walking alone is a Christian in walking in danger.  One Light Church in Thailand builds community by feeding their whole congregation a simple lunch after their morning service. Nobody rushes off to their favorite restaurant. It's more important to be together. RHC in Singapore is a bigger and busier church with 5 different congregations so there is no after-church lunch, but still, people linger after each service in their rented hotel ballroom, chatting at length and praying for one another. Both churches have facilities that are solid but minimal - no high end coffee shops or playgrounds to get people to stay around. (I am for both of these, by the way!)  And yet, there is a profound priority on an unhurried gathering that weaves a strong communal fabric within the church. While both churches do Christian counseling and community groups it seems as though much of the disciple making and counseling is happening organically and relationally, rather than programmatically and professionally. This makes for a more healthy Christian.

A High Carb Diet is the Best Kind of Diet!

Not really. But seriously! Lots of walking, 5 small meals a day, lots of carbs, and very few overweight people. What are we missing

You may think I am idealizing Asian Christianity. Make no mistake, there are many qualities of Christianity here in the USA that have resourced the Church in Asia. Our music, our books, our seminaries,  our innovation and our generosity have fueled the mission of Christ in Asia in remarkable ways. But let's not fall into thinking that the resourcing is a one way street. Far from it. The Church in Asia has so much to teach us, and in the years to come I believe the American churches that are humble enough to learn from our brothers and sisters there will be noticeably stronger than those that don't.

 I'm forever thankful to God for Asia and particularly, the Church in Asia.