by Chris Ritter
Like me, you have perhaps prayed this God-honoring prayer: “Lord, revive our denomination.” What could be more obvious? God loves the church… and God knows we need it. I am learning, however, that fruitful prayer involves more than just knowing God’s heart. We are wise to discern God’s ways… ways so much higher than ours. It shook me to notice a void in Christian history of God ever reviving a denomination. While there have been any number of denominational splits, mergers, reforms, evolutions, and expansions, the Holy Spirit has not yet chosen to visit a denominational system with revival.
I realize my thesis relies upon certain definitions. By revival I mean a spiritual renewal in the pattern of Pentecost, the Welsh Revival, the Evangelical Revival, the Tongan Pentecost, and the American great awakenings. By denomination I mean voluntary and particular ecclesial structures and their corresponding institutions. Where revivals have happened alongside denominations, the impact has been mostly disruptive. Our wineskins can never quite contain the flow of new wine… and God seems to have no compunction about bursting them. Four observations:
Denominations have often sprung from revivals.
My native Methodism is comprised of institutions birthed from revival. The Evangelical Revival was the European wing of the transatlantic move of the Holy Spirit known in America as the Great Awakening. Although John Wesley died an Anglican, his organization early broke free of the structures of the Church of England and operated in (often conflicted) parallel. Field preaching, an alternative discipleship system, and separate sending mechanisms became the early hallmarks of Methodism. The many new Methodist converts were not always welcome in parish churches. Wesley’s genius was to give structure and organization to the Evangelical Revival that allowed it to be more than a flash in the pan. The revival became a para-church organization that eventually denominated.
Practices forged in revival become routinized. Methodist “Watch nights” began as Friday all-night prayer meetings in the coal miner settlement of Kingswood near Bristol. It was an alternative to the all-night debauchery that was practiced before revival struck. Today, if held at all, they are formal services on New Year’s Eve aimed at covenant renewal. Once revival has passed, mummification seems the alternative to total dissolution. A mere shell of the revival that gave them birth, denominations at least preserve parts of the legacy for future generations to consider. These “normal” times following a revival can be fruitful and denominational leaders seek to reconnect with the fire that gave them birth. Denominational reformation is a worthy goal.
Denominations sometimes benefit from revivals.
Revivals represent a rising spiritual tide that can lift several denominational ships. Below is a graph representing British Methodism. Decline started around 1900 and has continued unabated… except for two revival movements. One was the “spiritual hurricane” known as the Welsh Revival. The other are the mid-Twentieth Century Billy Graham crusades. These two revivals spanned multiple denominational bodies. A shot in the arm, however, is not the same thing as systematic change. In this example, the denomination absorbed the energy of the revival into its own decline. While individuals were converted and revived, the denomination remained largely unchanged. It might also be true that revived believers passed through these denominations to other churches.
Revivals sometimes disrupt and divide existing denominations.
When the First Great Awakening hit the American colonies, it divided the existing congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed denominations. The “old lights” saw the revival as a threat… in spite of the fact that it was filling many pews. The “new lights” embraced the awakening and its focus on individual experiences of salvation. Anglican revivalist George Whitefield lost many of his initial converts to the Baptists. While glad to hear about their continued fervor, Whitefield quipped, “All my chickens have become ducks.” When the Pentecostal Revival of the early 20th Century later made its way through Mainline Christianity as the Charismatic Movement, many members were lost to newer, higher octane congregations. Some Charismatics, however, stayed and assumed minority status in the established denomination. The United Methodist General Conference approved guidance aimed at curbing divisions experienced during the Charismatic renewal.
Denominationalism is often a barrier to revival.
At the start of the American Revolution, the largest religious groups were the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Quakers. By 1800, the fastest-growing groups were the Methodists and the Baptists. What happened? A Second Great Awakening coincided with an opening American frontier. The more structured denominations were ill equipped to capture a new move of the Holy Spirit. Methodist and Baptists, however, embraced innovative tactics and raised up preachers willing to endure the hardships of the frontier. Circuit riders spread Christianity where no church buildings existed. Camp meetings pulled isolated settlers together to hear the Gospel and experience conversion. As individual gravitas eclipsed educational or denominational credentials, leadership from women and minorities flourished and laity assumed a much larger role. The revival overwhelmed and made irrelevant the ecclesial structures developed for colonial America. The nimble have the advantage when revival happens in times of profound cultural change. Old wineskins miss out.
Denominations serve a necessary regulatory function. They are better at keeping things from happening than making things happen. They can realistically protect, uphold, encourage, fund, and organize. They cannot create revival. Humble, nimble denominations cooperate best when revival happens. But the experience of revival will also likely change these denominations beyond recognition. Instead of praying for denominational revival, join me in these prayers:
“Lord, help this denomination of believers to be prayerful, nimble and pliable… awaiting the visitation of your Holy Spirit.”
“Holy Spirit, may we recognize where you are working, even if it is not within our structures and systems.”
“Lord, destroy our golden calves so we may follow your pillar of fire.”
“Lord, may we never become a barrier to what you want to do. Take us out of your way if needed. But, better still, break us open so that we can joyfully join what you are doing.”
Thank you for helping us reset our focus. The “nimble and quick” will inherit this moment, circled in red on one of Chris Ritter’s charts.
my fear is that the GMC is forming not as a movement, but as an institution with all the structures and organization from which we are fleeing.
The GMC is in a transitional phase. I’m not sure what I would do much different at this point. Offloading congregations from the UMC is the current project. The first General Conference will be important.
Methinks you need to republish your article “7 Principles to Another Methodist Turn-around” Regards-Neil Brown
Years ago, in my early days of cruising the internet learning what a disjointed mess the UMC had become, Andrew Thompson put it this way: The church will not be revived until the people are, but the people need the fellowship of the church for revival to happen.
Thank you, Chris, for this insightful journey through revivals within the Wesleyan movement. It is certainly clarifying and helpful as both GMC and UMC hope to experience “reformation, ” each in their quest for new life, now and beyond GC 2024.
I do, however, find it intriguing, that in the Roman Catholic tradition, renewal and reform (one might even dare to call it “revival”) comes through another ecclesiastical means. They are “encysted.” Nearly from the beginning, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, and many, many other renewal and reform movements, which have had similar results as Protestant “revivals,” have sparked new and fresh life within the global Roman Catholic church now 1 billion members strong. None of these movements found it necessary to leave the church in which their reform/renewal/revival took place. Rather, the church allowed each to express and employ its unique gifts as a means of strengthening the church rather than dividing it (Martin Luther’s reformation being a notable exception!). So, it raises the question if Protestant churches experiencing revival could, if they chose, engage those who you say have left for “higher octane” churches and rather than splitting, find ways to receive and benefit from the gifts the Holy Spirit stirs in the embers of revival fire.
Thank you, Randy, for the thoughtful comment. Roman Catholic ecclesiology has seemed to say, “You can have your own spirituality and organizations, but you can’t have your own doctrine and morality.” The Connectional Conference Plan was an invitation for multiple United Methodisms to form under the same umbrella. If it was up to you and me, it would have already been implemented! Maybe the invitation now is to see the World Methodist Council as a vehicle for common witness.
This is what we had in the UMC. You’ve got Aldersgate Renewal ministry, there was an order that I was interested in early on that was devoted to liturgical and worship revival, various groups devoted to certain areas of life, ministry and faith . . . but they were all under the same umbrella and each seeking to recover or strengthen various aspects of great tradition that Wesley was a part of (and remained within) and various distinct aspects of Wesleyan faith and practice.
And we also had (I’m using past tense because it’s over) various groups that were promoting beliefs that were outside of the great tradition and had absolutely NOTHING to do with Wesleyan faith and practice. Some perverted the whole “Wesleyan quadrilateral” thing to back up their beliefs . . . man, that got tiresome.
The difference between Roman Catholicism and UMC polity is power and system. The RC also groups that seek to inject foreign things into the body but there is no way to change the traditional body of RC doctrine and belief. Too many bulwarks for that. Of course, the RC has some other problems that I will not mention.
I hope the GMC or whatever emerges from all this mess is able to become a lot like the old UMC in its good respects. I absolutely loved being a part of a church that had all sorts of different groups focusing on Holy Spirit revival, liturgical worship, spiritual disciplines and other areas of the Great Tradition and Wesleyan faith and practice.
What’s happened here (which may only be recognized retrospectively) is that Chris Ritter has nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the The United Methodist Church. He’s not only attracted meddlers and crackpots but also the eyes of Methodism’s influencers and illuminati, advocates and explainers and authorities. The Compendium has become much more than a lamp post of ideas and commentary; it’s a scene of daily transformational foment, a parlor conversation of Methodist Inklings.
Forgive my ignorance, but what happened around 1900 that began the decline? There’s a distinct downward turn on the map.
Thanks for the work your doing to put all this information together!
The source of the graph has some hypotheses about that. https://churchmodel.org.uk/church-growth-models/sociological-models/the-rise-and-fall-of-british-methodism/