Is Revivalism Good for the Church? In a Word, No.

Written by Mark Farnham

On September 17, 2010

What role do revivalism, evangelists, emotional altar calls, crisis decisions, etc. have in a church dedicated to faithful preaching? According to Kevin Bauder, none. And I agree. Bauder is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, near Minneapolis. He has made revivalism, that very familiar cultural practice in Baptist Fundamentalism, an object of study for some time. He contrasts revivalism with genuine biblical revival, and demonstrates that revivalism is a man-made phenomenon that is a detriment to the church, and often to truth as well.

Here’s Bauder:

These [characteristics of revivalism] all stem from the presupposition that the normal Christian life is one of decline, i.e., that Christian people, left to themselves, will usually just stagnate and then backslide.

(1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal

Charles Finney: The Consummate Revivalist

mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.

(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.

(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”

(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.

(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.

(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.

(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.

“Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this). In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.”

(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.

(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.

(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.

(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.

(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.

(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.

(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

I think Bauder’s description here is exceptional for its brevity and clarity. Having grown up in Baptist Fundamentalism with revivalism as an essential part of the experience, I have seen the long-term destructive influence of this approach. The most compelling influences in the lives of my classmates in high school toward godliness were certainly not evangelists, Christian camps and Christian school chapels. Each of those had some spiritual value in our lives, but this was true in spite of revivalism, not because of it. No, the influences to godliness were the daily examples set by our teachers and youth pastors who lacked the polish of the one-week wonders and who rejected their manipulative methods.

In addition, it was the culture of revivalism that I finger as the main culprit in the majority of Christian teens who walked away from God in my high school years. They found their crisis decisions lasted fewer and fewer days and hours over time, like the diminishing returns of drugs or pornography. Unless something harder and more extreme was sought, eventually no emotion could be stirred by that kind of preaching and hearts grew cold. Kids stopped going to camp because they knew it would cost too much money to buy new cassettes of their favorite rock music a week after they broke them upon returning from camp. Other teens accepted the challenge to just try harder and attended more extreme schools such as Hyles-Anderson and Fairhaven and either drank the Kool-Aid (the equivalent of a spiritual lobotomy) or disappeared entirely from the spiritual radar once they were completely burned out. Few exceptions to these generalizations exist.

Adults were affected too. Two week revival meetings became one week meetings, and now most churches have a hard time mustering the excitement necessary to sustain a Sunday-Wednesday meeting. This occasionally results in the clamor for old-fashioned endurance, and when pastors fall for it and schedule a week-long meeting, they find that those who shouted the loudest don’t bother to attend what they demanded in the first place.

Nothing more needs to be added to this post. Bauder’s description says it all more than adequately. When churches stop swallowing the unbiblical culture of revivalism, they will see, over time, a repair and restoration of souls as the centrality of Scripture is restored to lives and the church.

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  1. Cris

    Where did Bauder’s article appear? Thanks.

    • Mark Farnham

      It appeared in the comments under his most recent post on Sharper Iron, which I believe is shut down for the weekend for technical maintenance. You should be able to access it on Monday.

  2. Harry Toews

    Hi Mark,
    Glad to hear the surgery has gone well. You’ve been in my prayers.
    Your blog on revivalism struck a postive note with me. I’m defending my D.Min. dissertation next week at TEDS on “The Role of Preaching Scripture in Promoting Revival.” Bauder’s comments hit the nail on the head.
    I trust you will experience a great recovery.
    God bless you.
    Harry Toews

    • Mark Farnham


      I’ll be praying for your defense! Hope you pass! I would love to see your dissertation when you’re finished.



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