For Low Moments in Ministry

Why Pastors Need Revival

Will you not revive us again,
     that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

My dear brother pastor, however discouraging your ministry might be right now, one thing’s for sure: You are so not godforsaken. Our Lord is with you. His purpose of grace for you is not defeated. Never surrender your confidence. Even Jesus himself was tempted with feelings of futility (Isaiah 49:4). So, of course, we who follow him will at times ask the same deep questions. But those are the very moments when you can dare, by raw faith in God, to reach for new blessing.

I’m asking you for that one thing — to believe in God again. Why not? What else is there to believe in? As my dad said to me once, “Everything man-made will let you down.” But when everything else disappoints us, God remains. And God is for us (Romans 8:31). To God, therefore, we turn with nothing but empty hands. And, as Augustine taught us, God gives wherever he finds empty hands. So let’s believe in God again — not because we’re such great believers, but because by now we can’t believe in anything else, and we refuse to settle for anything less.

“Revival begins with the real us coming to the real Jesus.”

I am writing this article to say one thing: Your lowest moment is the perfect time to turn your ministry toward God’s highest blessings. You can stop playing defense and start playing offense — right now. Here’s the great thing. You’re not sitting on the bench. The divine Coach has you on the field, and he’s calling a big play. This could be the greatest moment of your life yet — couldn’t it?

Psalm 85 is perfect for pastors who need a bold hope. This psalm means a lot to me personally. In my 45 years of ordained ministry, I have preached from this passage more often than any other, because I myself have needed it so much, even as you do. That’s why God gave it to us. Let’s press into it with three questions.

What Is Revival?

Will you not revive us again,
     that your people may rejoice in you?

The key word there, obviously, is revive. What does that word mean? It means “to refresh, restore, reinvigorate.” The Revised English Bible paraphrases, “Will you not give us new life?” How could it be otherwise? We love the Lord, but we get tired, even fed up. We try to live today on the blessings of yesterday. Our past-tense Christianity gets old quickly. But the future of Christianity is bright with the reviving power of God.

The Bible loves the language of revival (Isaiah 57:15), renewal (Titus 3:5), newness (Romans 6:4), freshness (Isaiah 29:19), and so forth. Why? Because the living God is not managing a museum of antiques. He is building a living temple where exhausted sinners become nothing less than the dwelling place of God (Ephesians 2:22).

Revival is that direct touch of God upon us, visiting us with the fullness of his blessing (Romans 15:29). Revival is the risen Jesus moving among us with his felt presence, breathing upon us and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Revival is the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners getting powerful, new traction at our real points of failure and anguish (1 Corinthians 2:1–5). We can’t schedule revival. It is a miracle. It is our Lord himself, “the living one” (Revelation 1:18), making our churches come alive.

In the Hebrew text of Psalm 85:6, the word you is emphatic: “Will you not revive us again?” In other words, “Lord, we’re looking beyond ourselves now, because our self-focus is downright depressing — but given who you are, with your steadfast love (verse 7), your peace (verse 8), your glory (verse 9), will you not revive us again?”

In your church, what always matters more than who you are is who God is. Indeed, the translation by the Jewish Publication Society turns the question of verse 6 into a bold affirmation: “Surely you will revive us again.” Is your church a mess? Yes. But it’s his mess. And he is all-in. I’ll put it bluntly. At this very moment, right now, the risen Jesus on high is not tired. And, pastor, he is not tired of you.

Who Needs Revival?

Will you not revive us again,
     that your people may rejoice in you?

It’s “your people” who need revival. Yes, the world needs to be converted. But in every generation, the church needs to be converted afresh — that is, reinvigorated with the same joyous energy that drew us to Christ in the first place. Can’t we humbly admit our need?

Maybe I’m not paying attention, but I do not hear denominational leaders stepping forward with honest declarations like this: “Let’s all admit the obvious. We are not compelling the attention of our nation with the glory of Christ. Indeed, the story we’re telling includes too much scandal and embarrassment, not enough revival and rejoicing. Let’s all get down on our knees together and seek the Lord!”

But, pastor, you don’t have to wait for an official statement from headquarters. Your church has every right to seek the Lord right now. We ordinary pastors, with no superpowers, qualify for the extraordinary power of God.

“In your church, what always matters more than who you are is who God is.”

I love how the Cambuslang revival of 1742 in Scotland got underway through an average pastor. Yes, the impressive George Whitefield got involved along the way, and God used him. But the revival began through Rev. William M’Culloch, an obscure parish minister whose own son wrote of him, “He was not a very ready speaker. His manner was slow and cautious, very different from that of popular orators.”

Do you too fall short as a sparkling personality? Perfect! Then the power of Christ can rest on you (2 Corinthians 12:1–10). You and your church can become ground zero for the next Great Awakening. And your people, perhaps languishing now, maybe even resistant, might startle you with how exuberantly they can rejoice in the Lord.

What Is the Impact of Revival?

Will you not revive us again,
     that your people may rejoice in you?

A church in revival becomes publicly obvious for its unforced, heartfelt, overflowing joy in the Lord. Does revival also send down conviction of sin? Yes. And as we all know, it’s painfully embarrassing to own up to our guilty secrets. But oh, the joy of release! When our hidden anguish pours out in confession, and we finally come clean, and we hand our sin and shame over to our crucified Savior, whose blood covers it all — well, as in the days of the apostles, “There was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). I’d sure love to see that headline on the front page of The Tennessean here in Nashville: “Much Joy in This City!”

It is so happy to stop posing, to get free again, to feel clean again. It is so happy to reconcile with offended brothers and sisters in Christ. It is so happy to clear away unpaid debts of love, debts of conscience, debts of money. It is so happy to come to church and sing with gusto because we’re experiencing the real Jesus, as never before.

Give Me Your Burden

How can we pastors lead our churches into “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8)? How can we get there ourselves? Our first step, of course, is this: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Revival begins with the real us coming to the real Jesus. The great theologian John Owen paraphrased our Lord’s gracious invitation with these words:

Give me your burden. Give me all your sins. You don’t know what to do with them, but I know how to dispose of them well enough. Then God will be glorified, and your soul will be delivered. (Works, 2:194, language updated)

Merely playing church keeps us far from Jesus. It crushes our spirits. It’s us pretending we still care, when the truth is, we lost heart long ago. But our emptiness need not be a barrier. It can be a threshold.

Will You Believe — Again?

Going back to Jesus can start small, with only a few. But a whole church can eventually discover how glorious it is to be desperate sinners in the presence of our gracious Savior. And no church tradition deserves to impede that breakthrough. J.I. Packer painted the picture of how we pastors can pave the way through reformation and into revival:

The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God. (A Quest for Godliness, 39)

So, my dear brother pastor, I ask you, Will you believe in God again? Will you stop settling and start reaching for what only he can do? He revives his people, so that they rejoice in him. Why not you too? Why not your church?