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Asbury Professor: We’re Witnessing a ‘Surprising Work of God’

Most Wednesday mornings at Asbury University are like any other. A few minutes before 10, students begin to gather in Hughes Auditorium for chapel. Students are required to attend a certain number of chapels each semester, so they tend to show up as a matter of routine.

But this past Wednesday was different. After the benediction, the gospel choir began to sing a final chorus—and then something began to happen that defies easy description. Students did not leave. They were struck by what seemed to be a quiet but powerful sense of transcendence, and they did not want to go. They stayed and continued to worship. They are still there.

I teach theology across the street at Asbury Theological Seminary, and when I heard of what was happening, I immediately decided to go to the chapel to see for myself. When I arrived, I saw hundreds of students singing quietly. They were praising and praying earnestly for themselves and their neighbors and our world—expressing repentance and contrition for sin and interceding for healing, wholeness, peace, and justice.

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Some were reading and reciting Scripture. Others were standing with arms raised. Several were clustered in small groups praying together. A few were kneeling at the altar rail in the front of the auditorium. Some were lying prostrate, while others were talking to one another, their faces bright with joy.

They were still worshiping when I left in the late afternoon and when I came back in the evening. They were still worshiping when I arrived early Thursday morning—and by midmorning hundreds were filling the auditorium again. I have seen multiple students running toward the chapel each day.

By Thursday evening, there was standing room only. Students had begun to arrive from other universities: the University of Kentucky, the University of the Cumberlands, Purdue University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Ohio Christian University, Transylvania University, Midway University, Lee University, Georgetown College, Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, and many others.

The worship continued throughout the day on Friday and indeed all through the night. On Saturday morning, I had a hard time finding a seat; by evening the building was packed beyond capacity. Each night, some students and others have stayed in the chapel to pray through the night.

My colleague Steve Seamands, a retired theologian from the seminary, told me that what is happening resembles the famous Asbury Revival of 1970 he experienced when he was a student. That revival shut down classes for a week, then went on for two more weeks with nightly services. Hundreds of students went out to share what happened with other schools.

But what many don’t realize is that Asbury has an even more extensive history with revivals—including one that took place as early as 1905 and another as recent as 2006, when “a student chapel led to four days of continuous worship, prayer and praise.”

Many people say that in the chapel they hardly even realize how much time has elapsed. It is almost as though time and eternity blur together as heaven and earth meet. Anyone who has witnessed it can agree that something unusual and unscripted is happening.

As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but also harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.

And to be perfectly clear, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.

To the contrary, it has been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.

Image: Courtesy of Baptist Press

A capacity crowd of 1,500 gather at Hughes Auditorium on the campus of Asbury University.

The holy love of the triune God is apparent, and there is an inexpressible sweetness and innate attractiveness to it. It is immediately obvious why no one wants to leave and why those who must leave want to come back as soon as they can.

I know that God moves in mysterious ways; Jesus tells us that the Spirit blows where it wills (John 3:8). And sometimes God does what Jonathan Edwards called “surprising work” and what John Wesley referred to as “extraordinary” ministry.

I firmly believe that much of what is important and vital in the Christian life happens in the everyday moments—in the daily disciplines and liturgies (whether formal or informal), in the in-the-moment decisions to pursue righteousness, in acts of sacrificial love of neighbor, in prayers breathed in quiet desperation.

I know that these “extraordinary” acts of God are no replacement for the “ordinary” ministry of the Holy Spirit through Word and sacrament. Likewise, the “surprising” works of God are not a substitute for the long road of discipleship. If that were the case, as my colleague Jason Vickers reminds me, we would be dependent on this experience—rather than the Holy Spirit who graciously gives the experience—to sustain us.

But I also believe that we should be willing to recognize and celebrate these astounding encounters with the Holy Spirit. Our Lord promises that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will be filled. He promised that he would send “another Comforter” (KJV)—and indeed that it would better for us for him to go away and send his Spirit.

And anyone who has spent time in Hughes Auditorium over the past few days can testify that this promised Comforter is present and powerful. I cannot analyze—or even adequately describe—all that is happening, but there is no doubt in my mind that God is present and active.

I am teaching a class in theological anthropology at the university this semester, and as we met last Friday, I reminded my students that we are creatures made for worship and communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is our telos, the end for which we were created. We are never more fully alive and whole than when we worship. And what we are experiencing now—this inexpressibly deep sense of peace and wholeness and holiness and belonging and love—is only the smallest of windows into the life for which we are made.

Clearly this is not the beatific vision of seeing Christ in all his glory—but if what we are seeing is even the faintest shadow of that reality, then what lies before us is unspeakable joy and holy love.

Ella Blacey and Lauren Powell pray during a worship service at Asbury University.

Image: Courtesy of Baptist Press

Ella Blacey and Lauren Powell pray during a worship service at Asbury University.

I also reminded my students that we were created to worship God together in unity and in communion with one another. Thus, the worship we are experiencing in the chapel must have real-life implications for our fellowship outside of it. This is especially important as we are currently working through difficult issues around race and ethnicity.

In previous revivals, there has always been fruit that has blessed both the church and society. For instance, even secular historians acknowledge that the Second Great Awakening was pivotal to bringing about the end of slavery in our country. Likewise, I look forward to seeing what fruit God will bring from such a revival in our generation.

At lunch on Friday, my son Josiah found me and told me that he and his friends had been kneeling at the altar and praying together. There were four people in his group, and they were each praying in a different language. He later asked me, “Is this something like heaven will be?” I told him I thought it was, albeit the faintest reflection of what “no eye has seen, what no ear has heard.” It is as if a tiny slice of heaven is meeting us here on earth.

The good news is not only true but also luminously good and mysteriously beautiful. Every time I leave the chapel auditorium, I feel I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

Thomas H. McCall is Timothy C. and Julie M. Tennent professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.




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