Decatur, Ill. | “I’ve seen God move,” said Baptist evangelism specialist Joel Southerland, “but I haven’t seen a movement of God in my lifetime.”
Spiritual revival and awakening—the kind of movement only God can bring—was the focus of IBSA’s New Awakening Evangelism Conference March 27-28 at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur.
At a time when baptisms and worship attendance are in decline in many churches, and culture seems to be moving farther from God, the need for awakening is real. A church—the Church—cannot revive itself, speakers emphasized during the conference. But some responsibility for revival does fall on Christians—to prepare for a movement of God, to be desperate for it, and to provide a verbal witness for the hope they have in him.
“Revival changes God’s people,” said Southeastern Seminary professor Alvin Reid. “When God shows up you are not the same.”
One of the major issues New Awakening speakers addressed is the declining number of young people Southern Baptist churches are reaching with the gospel. In 1972, there were 137,000 youth baptisms in Baptist churches, Reid said in a breakout on next generation ministry. Today, there are 70,000 or fewer per year.
“The real problem with that is that there are more teens today on the planet than there were in 1972,” said IBSA Evangelism Director Tim Sadler. “So, we’re reaching less, and there’s more of them.”
We haven’t seen a movement that touched young people since the “Jesus people” movement of the early 1970s, Reid said at the conference. That period of awakening was characterized by the Holy Spirit’s activity in and among churches—he was the main character in revival, just as he was in the Book of Acts.
“What about your ministry can only be explained as a Holy Spirit movement?” Reid asked. One man in the audience replied, “Yeah, git ‘er done!”
The same Holy Spirit that drew people in Acts 2 and in 1972 still draws people to God today, Sadler said. The gospel is the same, and the vehicle for communicating the message—the church—is the same. The issue is like someone once said, Sadler told the Illinois Baptist: “We don’t have a strategy problem, we have a sharing problem.”
But sharing the gospel is the calling of every Christian. “If you really know Jesus and He’s really changed you, try not to witness for ten years,” Reid challenged his breakout session audience in Decatur. “If you’re successful, come back and tell me what kind of Jesus you know.”
Make us desperate, Lord
If Christians haven’t seen a movement of God in their lifetimes, will they recognize it when it happens? In other words, when we talk about revival and awakening, what are looking for?
Sadler defines it this way:
“For me, a movement of God would be an extended period where the people of God are so moved by the presence and power of God, that they leave the confines of the church building, and they impact the city in such a way that God’s Spirit draws unbelievers to faith.”
It’s pervasive, he added, a turning of the spiritual tide. Undeniable. So why haven’t we seen it? Speakers at the New Awakening Conference outlined two possible reasons: “skill fade” in the area of evangelism, and a lack of desperation for revival.
Joel Southerland compared many church members and leaders to pilots who have lost their skills after relying too heavily for too long on autopilot. “Pilots are accustomed to watching things happen and reacting, instead of becoming proactive,” said Southerland, executive director for evangelism strategies at the North American Mission Board.
The church has fallen victim to the same phenomenon. “We have put our churches on autopilot” when it comes to evangelism, he said.
Dennis Nunn, founder of Every Believer a Witness Ministries, differentiated between the “come and see” evangelism model of the Old Testament, and the “go and tell” model in the New Testament.
“I believe we have come to accept what our church members will not do in evangelism because we have accepted the Old Testament approach,” said Nunn. Our witness will become less and less effective, he continued, because we think simply inviting people to church is evangelism.
And then there’s the matter of how much we want revival. The reason the Great Commission probably won’t be realized in our lifetime, Pastor Johnny Hunt said during the conference, is because we live for pleasure, not for the Word of God.
“Lord, forgive us,” said a conference attender from the Chicago suburbs, in response to Hunt’s words.
He continued, referencing Isaiah’s encounter in the temple: “It is not until you see God for who he is that you will see yourself for who you are and others for who they are,” and thus their need for God.
“We don’t witness because we haven’t seen God,” Hunt said. “We have not experienced revival because the church is not even close to desperate.”
Lord, forgive us.
God’s people are desperate for revival, Sadler said, when nothing but God will do; when we stop compartmentalizing our lives into church and work and family and hobbies, and let God be God over all of it.
“We need God to superintend every aspect of our lives,” he said. “It’s like Ephesians 3, where Paul prays that they would experience the fullness of Christ [and] be filled with his presence, so that it spills over into every aspect of our lives. So that we see our neighborhood differently.
“It’s our mission field.”
Reported by Lisa Sergent and Eric Reed for the Illinois Baptist newspaper