April 7, 2011
Book Review: "A God-Sized Vision"
Learning from the revivals of the past may help ignite one today.
For me, the word “revival” usually brings to mind sweating, red-faced evangelists berating sweet old church ladies for letting their spiritual fires fizzle. I often offered my most fervent prayers at revival meetings during the 37th stanza of “Just as I Am,” because the preacher believed someone in the congregation needed to do business with the Lord. He wasn’t going to end the invitation until that burdened soul had its chance. Lord move in power; I’m ready to go home!
With A God-sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir (Zondervan, 2010), Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge restored my image of revival. This global history of revival from the 1730s through the 1950s covers familiar events in American church history—the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Businessmen’s Revival, and the Evangelical Boom of the 20th century. But what I found most interesting were stories of spiritual awakening worldwide, in places like East Africa, China, India, Wales, and Korea.
One of the authors’ great accomplishments, then, is correcting what may be a common stereotype of “revivalism” for many Americans. If they’re right, revival looks different in different places. For businessmen in North America in the mid-nineteenth century, revival began not with tents and sawdust trails, but with lunch-hour prayer meetings. In Korea, the movement of the Spirit ignited with the confession of sins—big ones, like adultery and murder—and brought missionaries of different denominations together for the gospel. In India, it began when Hindu convert Pandita Ramabai provided room, board, and education for helpless Indian women and orphans and encouraged them to pray for a mighty work of God.
I don’t hear many people talking about revival these days. You might think, then, that the topic is interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Not so. Although the authors don’t make the connections explicit, A God-sized Vision intersects with and informs several important contemporary issues.
First, at a time when we Western Christians are increasingly aware that we should pay more attention to Christian traditions in other places on the planet, Hansen and Woodbridge introduce us to some important players and events in global Christian history in the last 100 years. These stories help explain the temperament and emphases of Protestant (evangelical) Christianity in places like India, Korea, and East Africa.
Second, there has been a division between the “head” and “heart” in American Christianity for almost as long as there have been Christians in America. A God-sized Vision challenges this easy distinction. The so-called “new Reformed” movement has both defenders and critics on this blog. One of the contributions of this book, I think, for people trying to decide whether this new movement has anything to offer the American church is that it reminds us that the roots of the Reformed tradition in America are planted deeply in revivalism. The book begins with the Great Awakening of the 1730s and ‘40s, in which the major players—chief among them Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—were theologically Reformed. Though the tradition now strikes many as unnecessarily cerebral—and often it is—this treatment reminds us that a deep conviction about the sovereignty of God includes believing that God can and longs to break into the human routine with a fresh dose of the Holy Spirit. I would go so far as to say that you can’t be truly Reformed if you aren’t truly hungry for revival.
Finally, in light of the renewed interest in social justice among American evangelicals, the authors do a great job pointing out the social benefits of revival, especially in other countries. Revival in Wales in 1905 had an enormous impact on Welsh society. “Output from the coal mines famously slowed because the horses wouldn’t move. Miners converted in the revival no longer kicked or swore at the horses, so the horses didn’t know what to do. Judges closed their courtrooms with nothing to judge” (103–104). In Wales, China, and India, individual conviction of sin among Christians led to reform in social and political spheres. We would do well to bear in mind that we each carry our own sinfulness into the battle for justice. The examples in this book remind us that we must attend to our own sin before—or at least while—we wage war against the sin of others.
I found an insight near the end of the book to be particularly challenging. “Revival doesn’t come to respectable Christians,” Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere explained. “The basis of revival is men and women shattered by their failures—aware that all is not well, helpless to do anything about it” (133). American evangelicals do a lot of hand wringing. But I don’t think we consider ourselves helpless. Hansen and Woodbridge have convinced me that instead of putting our hope in the next best strategy, we would do well to pray—and for revival, of all things.