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.

Comments

  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.

  2. Vincent Martini says

    This brings to mind two things:

    1. The emotions (and “imagination” or “fantasy” as in the Philokalia) are seen as a product of the Fall by desert fathers of the Orthodox Faith. I can’t help but think that a spiritual experience predicated almost solely upon emotion is therefore intimately linked with the possibility of both instability and deception.

    2. Constantly being led into doubt with regards to God’s promises and one’s “standing” with Him reminds me of a dragon that once inquired “Has God really said…?” Such accusations against the brethren belong to the Accuser, not ministers of the Good News.

  3. Ed says

    Fr. Andrew,
    That was great. I came from Southern Baptist and too saw this constant revival.

    In the beginning I never understood how people had to go down every Sunday, at the altar call, and do whatever it was they were doing. I was “saved” and I knew this was once and for all, so why they were going down there every Sunday just bewildered me.

    Years later, I began fighting with going down to the “altar” every Sunday. I began to really dislike it when the preacher said, “Every head bowed and every eye closed.” I knew it was time to do battle, with myself. Was I really saved? Was it God pushing me to go down and “re-commit” my life? After all I was taught that when you doubt, it is the devil.

    As I approach my first year in Orthodoxy I see it in a different light. The revival is needed because there are no sacraments in the Baptist church. They have stripped the faith of all the things Jesus and the Apostles gave us and everything that has developed through our faith right down to prayer.

    I was told not to read or recite prayers because I wasn’t supposed to be repetitious in prayer. I couldn’t even recite the Lord’s Prayer since it was just a model. But, I was to obey scripture and pray constantly. I had no means of praying constantly since I couldn’t think of enough original things to pray for, without being repetitious. After some time I didn’t even have prayer to keep the fire kindled. Basically, I was defeated, from the start, and didn’t even know it.

    When I came to Orthodoxy, after 17 years of doing nothing, I was given back all those things stripped from the faith and my Spiritual Father armed me with prayer. He gave me actual instruction on how to pray and to constantly pray. He told me I was to participate in the Liturgy; I had a job to do.

    So, without having any participation in the “service” as opposed to participating in the Liturgy, without prayer and without the sacraments there is nothing but emotion. Emotion will burn out and have to be re-kindled somehow, hence the “altar call”.

    I do see that people may need a “revival” of their heart at some point in time, but if you need one every Sunday, seems something is astray. Maybe if they had not stripped the importance, power and beauty of the communion they would have a correct “revival” every Sunday.

    I know I probably come off as bitter, but I am just saddened by what was withheld from me, all those years. I was taught to not respect and show reverence, for fear of idolatry, the things in our faith. My “personal relationship” became so self-centered that it became very lonely.

    May the Lord be with you.

  4. says

    Fr. Andrew, great essay. I would however humbly submit that much of the way that Orthodoxy is institutionalized and practiced especially in America could be refreshed to allow for more engagement and participation from the faithful. Too often, our hymns are locked behind ancient liturgical language, tuning systems completely jarring to the Western ear, polyphonic choral concert arrangements, or a plethora of syntactically different translations, any of which immediately squash any attempts to participate. For all the problems with modern American Protestantism and its thin hymnology, I know that the singing of praise songs and especially heartfelt gospel selections in unison with my fellow brothers and sisters was critical in establishing my firm faith in Jesus. We know it’s critical to the our identity even just by our namesake Orthodoxy (i.e. “right praise”), let alone the multitude of times our services exhort that we have our mouths filled with God’s praise.

  5. Canadian says

    Ah yes, the Sutera twins.
    1989, I think it was. Public confessions and reconciliations. All very moving and emotional, but nothing that changed the local evangelical assemblies. Just another moving “event”.
    Thank God for the ancient faith.

  6. says

    Good piece Father Andrew. I experienced similar as a youth with the rock concert and prayer room, even to the point of sweeping youth leaders asking if you needed prayer and then taking you into the room. The altar call experience shocked many of the protestant friends I grew up with; I remember on friend of mine recently who was asked to share her testimony prior to an altar call and she felt “my road to Christ is too boring” Definitely too much emphasis on geeing up the crowd; not to mention the continuous confusion about ones salvation rather than a focus on working towards it.

  7. Darlene says

    Father Andrew, You could have had a link to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The former anti-conformists have become the new conformity.

  8. says

    Honestly this is an incredibly written article, and some of it I agree with and some stuff I find contradictory. If I were to respond with all I’m thinking I’d probably write a book so I’ll try and take this step by step and maybe we can discuss it in parts, because you cover A LOT. Um… I will agree every sincere believer desires to go “further up and further in” and volatile emotional experiences should not be the vehicle to get there in of itself nor the standard. Conversely, I don’t believe Orthodoxy is the perfect prescription, for Orthodoxy in itself has transformed overtime and there are quarrels among Orthodox churches as to what is “true Orthodoxy” and which sacraments should be used or done away with, etc.. I can’t judge the heart of all those who lean more to Orthodoxy, honestly I’m growing in appreciation towards orthodoxy. Yet, Orthodoxy runs the risk of erring in my opinion when a law is established to guard the church against this risk of what they view as emotionalism or sensationalism, or what lurks in the dark if we don’t keep church safe and simple.

    I don’t think we should just throw caution to the wind, however this desire for a “safe church” is the very thing that drove the religious leaders to hate and kill Christ. Orthodoxy is great don’t mistake what I’m saying, I wouldn’t call it the answer to the churches ills at all though. Balanced Orthodoxy breeds sincere believers just as balanced evangelical churches. I don’t thing it’s entirely a question of the method being wrong, simply how much as to keep balance, every road has a ditch on either side.

    Honestly I think we need a culmination of both.
    Although the revivalist movement may seem like it did great damage to the church, I think it played its role as an alarm clock to wake up the church. Also taking into consideration these Orthodox churches in the 17th and 18th Centuries were condoning the enslavement and brutal beatings of Africans. Not only condoning it but even deeming it morally right to do so! Whether we agree with the tactics used in the great awakening, they served their purpose to awaken a church to their atrocities, a church that had been deceived in condoning evil for profit and marring the image of a just and loving God. For in their minds and hearts, surely it was God’s will that blacks should suffer for the prosperity of the nation. Part of the point is this; with respect Fr. Andrew you said,

    “I rather see them (Revivalist) swept along by currents of spiritual culture of which they largely are not even aware”

    I believe you are right in many instance this is the case. However, Its kind of ironic because this same statement can be applied to the church before the revivals and great awakenings. Slavery was a part of the spiritual culture of the orthodox church, beat your niggers in the morning get em off to work and then read your bible and eat with the family.The church needed to be awakened, how it happened whether it was the right way will always be debated, however we can all agree the church needed to wake up.

    Btw I’m using Orthodoxy as a blanket term to cover the Church before the revivals and great awakenings (which I believe you are using as well but I may be wrong). Although it does bring up the question “how orthodox is orthodoxy?” ;) or “what is the definition of the “normal church?” I’m convinced no such thing as the “normal church” exist, just pondering as we are to be the body of Christ and Christ being God and God not necessarily being someone we can intricately define to say, “this far and no more”
    A safe church is not normal church nor is a revivalist like church the standard for being in God’s presence and ‘feeling Him’. The church is the church I think there is a desperate need for both sides.
    Anyway I said a lot we can draw the conversation back to one thing or at least level our definition of terms to better get a grasp on such a large topic. Thanks for the writing Fr. Andrew, very well written and thought provoking, hope we can discuss it further. God Bless

    • says

      Conversely, I don’t believe Orthodoxy is the perfect prescription, for Orthodoxy in itself has transformed overtime and there are quarrels among Orthodox churches as to what is “true Orthodoxy” and which sacraments should be used or done away with, etc.

      Um, what?

      First, which Orthodox Christians are actually arguing over “which sacraments should be used or done away with”?

      As for the “true Orthodoxy” business, there are of course a number of tiny groups of those who have broken communion with the Orthodox Church who put forth such ideologies, but the truth is that Orthodoxy in general has hardly even noticed them. They make a much bigger splash on the Internet than they do in the 3D world, where most Orthodox Christians have never even heard of them.

      In any event, the desire of Orthodox Christians is not for a “safe church,” but rather for the Church. What drove people to kill Christ was not the desire for “safety,” but rather sin, blindness to His identity as the God-man. There is nothing “safe” about belonging to the Church, by the way. It is the most dangerous place to be, since its members, having been granted the fullness of the Christian faith, are held responsible by God for it.

      Also taking into consideration these Orthodox churches in the 17th and 18th Centuries were condoning the enslavement and brutal beatings of Africans. Not only condoning it but even deeming it morally right to do so! … Slavery was a part of the spiritual culture of the orthodox church, beat your niggers in the morning get em off to work and then read your bible and eat with the family.

      What the heck are you talking about?

      Btw I’m using Orthodoxy as a blanket term to cover the Church before the revivals and great awakenings (which I believe you are using as well but I may be wrong).

      Ah, I see. Well, yes, you’re actually wrong. You seem to be extremely ill-informed as to what the Orthodox Church is. Here is a decent place to start, and even the Wikipedia article is useful in its way.

      Briefly, though, the Orthodox Church actually was not really in North America and the UK prior to the Great Awakenings, though there were a handful of members in both places at the time. Orthodoxy isn’t pre-Revivalist Protestantism. Orthodoxy is the original Christian Church, from which the Roman Catholic Church broke about 1000 years ago, which in turn gave birth to Protestantism some 500 years ago. It is the Church Christ founded through His Apostles and which has existed continuously for 2000 years, teaching the same faith and living the same life throughout that history.

  9. says

    Well, forgive me I spoke out of my ignorance on the term Orthodoxy. I’ll check out the links, get a better understanding and post a more educated opinion. Thanks

    • says

      Travis, as you begin to look into the Orthodox Church to gain a better understanding there will certainly be some questions – and perhaps even confusion – to which your research will give rise. Please do not hesitate to ask someone in this community as there are plenty of people here who would (I’m sure) love to talk with you. :-)

  10. says

    As someone who grew up in “Evangelicalism,” and loved God and determined to serve Him at a very early age, but became discouraged by the failure to move one past the “salvific experience” and looked elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. only to find it much, much later in the Roman Catholic tradition and practice of the faith, I was strongly affected by this wonderful article.

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