Institutionalizing the Revival: The Culture of Revolutionary Christianity

I was digging recently into the darker recesses of my childhood memories and came upon a name I probably haven’t thought about in almost thirty years—Sutera. I really couldn’t remember what the name meant (and I half suspected that I was simply thinking of Chicago’s original lead singer), but I started doing some Googling and discovered the names Ralph and Lou Sutera, the “Sutera Twins.” At that latter phrase, my memories opened up, and I recalled being a young boy at a Baptist church somewhere in Ohio (I honestly cannot remember where). The church was hosting a week-long set of revival meetings in the evenings, featuring the Sutera Twins, who preached and sang and wore nice (and matching) suits, and are apparently still going strong decades later.

I don’t remember the content of what was preached or sung, but I do remember one of the features of “the revival” was the “prayer room,” a room divided off from the main worship space by one of those folding, retractable walls. In that room were various people standing at ready to help people who went in there. Every so often during the preaching or singing, people would leave the main space and head to the prayer room, usually emotionally overcome. I went there myself at one point, though I don’t remember what I was feeling. I have a sense, though, that, like a few other such moments in my childhood, I went because I felt like I was supposed to, because if I really loved God, then I should be doing that kind of thing. At other times as a boy, I would “come forward” at the end of the service, raise my hand with “every head bowed, every eye closed,” while the preacher pushed hard in prayer for people to be convicted of sin, to “get saved,” “rededicate their lives,” etc.

I won’t say that when I did such things I was somehow faking it all. My parents really did raise me to love God, to believe in Jesus Christ as God, but I think that I just couldn’t quite connect to what was happening in those moments that were supposed to be crisis-level conversions toward Christ. I participated more, I think, out of a sense of duty. Duty is considered a rather cold concept these days, of course, but my recollection of that sensibility was that it was authentic. I really believed, so I really tried to connect like everyone else around me seemed to be.

Since those days, I’ve talked with friends who have had similar experiences—Pentecostals who “tried out” speaking in tongues because everyone around them was doing it (and, for some, because their church’s doctrine said it was necessary for salvation), people who got baptized multiple times, and even some who would deliberately fall into sin so that they could again have the experience of redemption. As with myself, I have no doubt of the authenticity of the faith of these people. They were trying to enter again and again into the spiritual life, precisely because they felt that something was lacking, that they had somehow gotten “out” of it. And I also have no doubt that the spiritual experiences they had by their multiple entries had an authenticity to them.

Yet this phenomenon should provoke some thought from serious Christians. Perhaps the most basic problem with this dynamic is that it attempts to put the crisis of conversion into the regular routine of the spiritual life. While it is true that we fallen human persons often need to return to God from our wandering prodigality, for every occasion of this return to be characterized by effusive emotion and re-enactment of Christian initiation (whatever form it takes within a tradition) is to turn the spiritual life into an endless, exhausting crisis. Likewise, it is at least an implicit denial that the rites of initiation actually accomplish anything permanent. Perhaps worst of all, revivalism makes an emotional surge the indicator of authentic spirituality, and its inner absurdity is particularly revealed in that it essentially purports to schedule spontaneous miracles.

The origins of revivalism are of course well known and much covered elsewhere, but let’s at least recall what their purpose was in 18th and 19th century Britain and America, especially in what were called the “Great Awakenings.” Revivalism was an attempt to lift an otherwise routine and often dry, doctrinaire and moralistic Protestantism out of such complacency to a more fervent level of faith, by holding a series of revival meetings characterized precisely by emotional crises of faith, effected by strongly worded preaching and rousing music.

Theoretically, this should have engendered a stronger church life in existing local communities, with more people more serious about their Christianity. What instead happened was the birth of a new kind of Protestantism, which itself gave rise to what is now generally known as “Evangelicalism” (I know, I know—that term is almost undefinable these days). People got a taste for the crisis.

Yet over time, every revolution itself eventually becomes the establishment, but instead of an established order of good old “word and sacrament” (to use the Lutheran phrase), the new sacrament was the emotional crisis of faith. And since it was an established order, it was presumed that this emotional experience ought to characterize all true religion. For some folks, this of course got a bit exhausting, and so what was expected on a regular basis came to be something a bit less strenuous. You need not convert to Jesus every Sunday, but you should at least expect to have your heart-strings tugged on a bit.

The further establishment of revivalism eventually developed its own, highly produced liturgy-as-concert-event, which nevertheless found itself needing to be supplemented by a vast array of programmes, classes and support groups, largely characterized by a therapeutic vector for Christian spirituality. The emotional spiritual crisis became institutionalized as entertainment, which, unlike literature and art in their classical sense, is about manufacturing an emotional experience and serving it up on demand to paying customers.

Now, none of this critique of the institutionalization of revival is meant to cast aspersions on the sincerity of those involved. I rather see them as swept along by currents of spiritual culture of which they largely are not even aware. It is also not to suggest that what is needed is a return to extra-ecclesial revivalist meetings. The truth of such things is that, if people find there something they like better than “normal” church, they will once again form a new pattern—the revolution eventually always becomes the establishment.

Rather, all this is to indicate another way entirely: The mysteriological (sacramental) life of the Orthodox Church instead provides a way not to attempt more and more emotional crises, but rather a way to gain a gradually greater intensity of communion with God. This need not be emotional. The sacraments of Orthodoxy may sometimes be accompanied by emotion, but it is never their touchstone. The mystical life of Orthodox Christianity is precisely (to use the famous phrase from C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle) the way “further up and further in.”

It seems to me that the children of revivalism are now caught up in what may be thought of as a stormy marriage. The young couple is desperately in love with each other, yet as the marriage continues on for a few years, the ardor cools and there begin to be felt three-, five- and seven-year itches. Some couples would split and look for that “magic” elsewhere, vowing never to return to that tired routine of a relationship. Others will attempt gimmicks, counseling, extreme experiences, and so forth, in an attempt to rekindle “the fire.” But the good marriage is one that, while perhaps occasionally experiencing its moments of emotional intensity, doesn’t worry too much about “falling out of love.” What the couple have permanently in common is their life together, which, if held to with some self-denial, a firm sense of the doctrine of marriage, and even an old-fashioned sense of duty, does indeed go “further up and further in.”

The Orthodox Christian has the possibility for a steady, ever more satisfying growth in spiritual life. But it cannot be characterized by the endless pursuit of “getting right with God.” There is a doctrinal problem underneath here, of course, and it is the Reformation emphasis on “justification” (i.e., what really gets you your ticket into Heaven) coupled with the epistemological uncertainty of whether one has actually been “justified” or not. There is such a strong sense that one is either “in” or “out” that one cannot really get a handle on what exactly one is supposed to do once “in” and the rush of getting “in” wears off. This is essentially a product of the binary categorical thinking of western philosophy and theology, which produces a model of salvation in which forgiveness of sins is the sole salvific act of God toward man.

The problem with embracing a culture of revolution is that, once a regime is established, a new revolution is then sought after. It becomes an addiction. And the onus is on the inventors of each new revolution to attempt to create something that will finally last forever or instead to give in to the culture of revolution itself, in which no spiritual life is meant to last forever, despite all those assurances about eternity. But what invention of man really can finally satisfy the deep longings of the human heart?

In the end, the Christian who seeks not only stability (which is what tends to turn revolution into establishment) but also a greater intensity of spiritual life finds his proper home in the mysteries of the Orthodox Church, in which the ongoing transformation is not a rehearsal of emotional crisis but rather a deepening, enriching communion. While individual Orthodox Christians certainly need revival, Orthodoxy itself never needs reinvention, because it is itself the only true revolution the world has ever seen. Yet because it was a revolution effected by God and not reinvented by any man, it will indeed last forever. I know those are brash, perhaps even triumphalistic, words. But isn’t it worth asking whether the endless reinvention of Christianity actually is a worthy project? Whatever happened to eternal truth, the ancient ways, the apostolic deposit of faith given once for all?

We cannot simply go on trying to make sure we get “in,” whether “in” refers to salvation itself or simply the latest “feeling of the Holy Spirit in the room.” Eventually the pursuit of unending emotional crisis experience leaves the Christian as strung out as any other addict. No more drugs now, brothers and sisters. Taste and see: Come to the everlasting banquet.


  1. says

    Is there not an inherent likeness or agreement (affinity) between the emotional revivalist, modern ‘worship-leader’ and the high-church ecclesiastical ‘liturgy-innovators’ of late? The a priori assumptions not only agree that a fixed, received and ancient liturgy is all too dated, even ‘childish’ in stirring the flock of God to proper faith and obedience. They also rest upon modern evolutionary presuppositions that some new and improved tweak of innovation, just might be the ticket to true eccleastical progress. Thus, they boldly champion a ‘church’ for our great-grandchildren that has morphed to the point of perhaps being unrecognizable to us — much less to the Apostles.