In the month of February, two cultural flashpoints have served as the subject of debate among American evangelicals. While some see them as signs of a fresh move of God, others are characteristically suspicious—for a variety of reasons.
The first is what has been referred to as the “Asbury Revival,” which began on the morning of Wednesday, February 8, when a chapel service on the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, just never ended. At the time of this writing, it is still going, over a week after it began.
People from around the region, and indeed around the country, have begun to flock to Asbury, where singing and praying have been a constant for hundreds of hours.
The other is He Gets Us, a $100 million evangelistic ad campaign that began early last year but reached an inflection point in terms of the national conversation on February 12 when it featured two television commercials during the Super Bowl.
The campaign, which is funded by anonymous donors and has partnered with Christian organizations and churches to foster curiosity about Jesus among non-believers and then to connect those non-believers to local congregations, also provides online resources, devotionals, and reading plans. He Gets Us intends to invest roughly a billion dollars in the campaign over a three year period.
So, on the one hand, we have an apparent move of God centering on worship and prayer. And on the other, a large-scale effort of evangelism and discipleship in a post-Christian age. Ostensibly, both align deeply with longstanding evangelical values.
And yet, if you spend even just a few moments scrolling through Christian Twitter, it doesn’t appear to be that simple. Both Asbury and He Gets Us have been the subject of suspicion, questioning, criticism, and downright denunciation—largely from evangelicals.
The almost immediate backlash from multiple tribes within the evangelical movement against events and actions that, if authentic, are foundational values of the movement, reveals a besetting cynicism that is characteristic of our cultural moment.
Because the operative phrase in the previous statement is “if authentic,” and many seem highly motivated to reach a swift determination that the answer to that question is “no.”
Ours is an age of cynicism.
To be sure, there have been plenty of reasons for us to become cynical in the last few years. We have lived through a pandemic that upended our lives and resulted in disputes over reality itself. Our political system is as toxic and tribal as many of us have ever seen, as politicians spend more time rehashing culture war talking points for cameras than working for meaningful legislation.
Our country has witnessed 71 mass shootings in 2023 alone, and nothing has been done to stem the tide despite years of unthinkable human loss.
On top of that, the economy is in the toilet and none of us can afford to buy eggs anymore.
Inside the church, we are plagued by scandals involving abuse that seem impervious to denominational distinctives or polity structures.
We are barraged by online grifters who peddle fear and hatred in the name of Jesus in order to boost views and book sales. We are weary of evangelical leaders failing to advocate for racial justice because they have been financially and socially disincentivized from doing so.
As all this unfolds before us, we doom scroll through the online commentary, which expounds upon these problems and more at length, often giving us the impression that only the naïve would dare to imagine that anything good could ever happen.
So whenever something that, on the face of it, seems like a good thing crosses our newsfeeds, we have to imagine that there must be something irredeemably wrong with it. We need not even do any further reading or investigation, for that will only waste time and yield the judgment we have already reached. All that’s left is to start tweeting.
This is cynicism in rarefied form.
Jesus Calls Us To Be Wise as Serpents…
This isn’t to say that naïveté is a fruit of the Spirit—it isn’t.
As the He Gets Us campaign and the events taking place at Asbury University have continued to garner attention, questions and legitimate concerns have emerged in relation to both.
When it comes to the He Gets Us campaign, some have questioned whether Jesus really needs a $100 million marketing campaign. Would not that money be better spent on feeding those who are food insecure or experiencing homelessness? Could these funds not perhaps make a bigger impact if spent toward a range of mercy and justice issues?
Some have further articulated their belief that the campaign will not be effective on the grounds that they’ve never heard of anyone placing their faith in Jesus because of a television commercial, and the idea that such a thing could happen simply doesn’t seem feasible.
Others have questioned the theology behind He Gets Us, perhaps nowhere else more vociferously than when it comes to the issue of sexuality. For some conservative evangelicals, they feel the campaign and its related resources have been intentionally opaque regarding LGBTQ+ issues, which they see as a tacit endorsement of views that do not conform to orthodox Christian belief.
On the other hand, some have taken this lack of front-and-center discussion about the LGBTQ+ community as a sign that the Jesus presented by He Gets Us is a retrograde homophobe. Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the most prominent individual to raise this concern, accused He Gets Us of attempting “to make fascism look benign.”
Still others have argued that connecting nonbelievers with white evangelical churches is not the same thing as connecting them with the Jesus of the Bible.
With regard to the Asbury Revival, detractors, who have mostly couched their critiques in language of “caution,” have pointed out that unless the revival takes on the specific shape that they outline or result in the set of outcomes that they describe, it really isn’t a true “revival.”
For some, unless the revival results in repentance from Arminianism and egalitarianism to a more “biblical” theological framework, then it isn’t a real revival. Further, if the charismatic leaders and prosperity preachers that have been announcing their intention to visit Asbury are welcomed into the chapel space and feel no immediate conviction to change their theological views, then it is not a real revival.
For others, unless the revival results in the widespread decentering of whiteness among the students at Asbury and the evangelical communities surrounding it, it is not revival. If it does not result in a wholesale focus on racial and economic justice among the student body, it is not revival.
There are, it seems, a litany of ways for the events of Asbury to not be a revival.
…But Innocent as Doves.
Legitimate though our concerns may be, we often fail to express curiosity in any response to them, instead assuming that others have nefarious motivations and are inherently untrustworthy, regardless of whether we know anything about them.
When it comes to the He Gets Us campaign, we must admit that the challenge they are seeking to address is one that has been plaguing America for some time. Belief in God and the Bible is in decline. Respect for the Church and trust in religious authority is in free fall. An increasing number of people not only reject faith but see it as harmful.
At the same time, most people still have a generally positive view of Jesus. It’s just that, even if they feel positive emotions toward him, most people don’t know anything about Jesus.
So the goal of the He Gets Us campaign, as described by Bill McKendry, founder and Chief Creative Officer of the marketing company who crafted its messaging, is to create content that makes people more curious about Jesus, and that curiosity would lead them to engage a Christian they know in conversation or reach out through the He Gets Us website to get connected with a local church, where other Christians can tell them about the Jesus they find appealing but do not know much about.
That seems like a worthy goal. Will it be effective? Are the motives of everyone who is giving to the campaign pure? I don’t know. But I’m willing to wait and see what happens.
Further, even if this effort results in non-believers becoming connected to churches with theological priorities that do not match my own, I would still prefer that to them not discovering faith in Jesus at all. In the words of Paul, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
I also understand that $100 million is a lot of money, and if we each had that amount to spend on charitable or mission-driven endeavors, we would all allocate those funds in different ways.
Evangelism alongside mercy and justice efforts, in many ways, are the left and right hand of a healthy vision for the Church’s role in the world. And we can certainly argue over where money would most wisely be spent in those efforts. But I don’t think it’s my calling to judge someone else’s faithfulness to Jesus based on the fact that I would have spent their money on different Kingdom-oriented causes than they did.
As it pertains to Asbury, it is my sense that many of us are being too quick to draft a definition of the word “revival” and then place what is happening in Kentucky roundly outside it.
To be sure, for Church historians who will chronicle the life of 21st century American evangelicalism in future generations, they will likely only define Asbury as a revival if it meets certain criteria, such as whether this spontaneous move of the Holy Spirit resulted in widespread and sustained devotion to worship and the Bible, if evangelism was given fresh enthusiasm, and if those affected by the revival became both more generous toward those in need and more acutely interested in advocating for solutions to the various injustices of their local communities and the nation as a whole.
If what happens in Asbury does not result in any or all of these things, then historians might not “technically” refer to it as a revival. But we won’t know the result of what has transpired in the last week for months or even years. And to be sure, the longer the events of Asbury continue, the more likely it is that certain Christian influencers will attempt to co-opt it for their own agendas, which is always a matter of grave concern.
But maybe this is the beginning of a new movement, rooted in the historic Christian faith and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring widespread change in Kentucky and indeed America.
Nevertheless, even if it isn’t all that, then is it still not a really cool thing that God did—something that those who experienced it can carry in their hearts to strengthen, encourage, and inspire their faith moving forward? If that’s all it is, is that not still something worth celebrating?
Prophesying Over Dry Bones
We would do well to cultivate the discipline of withholding judgment. Cynicism says, “I know how this ends: the same way it always ends—and it’s never good.” But humility says, “I don’t know the motivations and intentions of others, and while I may have some critical questions, I choose to withhold judgment until I learn more.”
Further, we would do well to refrain from providing authoritative commentary in the meantime.
In an age where many people feel that the online world needs to know their every thought and emotion in real time, be countercultural by taking to heart these words of old: “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
Times are bleak; there’s no denying that. And maybe you can identify with the prophet Ezekiel, who when given the vision of a valley full of dry bones was posed with the question: “Can these bones live?”
Perhaps it is time that we recapture the message that Ezekiel was called to prophesy: that, yes, God has the power to breathe life into even the driest of bones, to give them new flesh and cause them to live, that they might know that Jesus is Lord.
Cynicism will not win the day. The kingdom of God belongs to those with a child-like faith—simple and pure, always believing that the next great move of God is just around the corner.
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Thank you for your wisdom on this and other current cultural and societal topics. Your biblical wisdom is appreciated in today’s toxic, partisan age!
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