The Underbelly of Revival? Five Reflections on Failure Among the ‘Young, Restless, Reformed’

Editor’s note: We wrote to D.A. Carson and asked, “Do you find that the thrill and euphoria of being part of something that feels like revival may serve to dull the senses in some? Has the ‘success’ of this movement some call ‘Young, Restless, Reformed’ blinded many of us to ministry’s true nature? Has the perceived fruitfulness clouded the vision of some (many?) to the things that matter most?” Dr. Carson was kind enough to tackle the question as the lead editorial in the November 2014 issue of Themelios. Here is his answer in five brief reflections.

1. Some Failures Are Common to All Movements

The failures that have taken place during the past few years were not the sorts of things that could happen only when a movement is flourishing. Flawed leadership, immorality, bullying, and dissensions are frequently found in churches and organizations with no history of remarkable growth, with no sign of extraordinary blessing from God.

Long before the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement started, I witnessed churches that had to dismiss their senior minister because he had committed adultery. I saw a dear friend abandon his wife of twenty-nine years and his highly influential expository ministry because he chose to “come out” and declare himself a homosexual. Certainly I observed some remarkably sad and barren church splits.

During the lean years in Québec before 1972, before the Lord began to pour out remarkable blessings on the church, it would not have been true to say that although the churches were small and struggling they were all mature, sanctified, and passionate about the gospel. We did not have to wait until the period of growth and vitality (growing from about thirty-five churches to just under five hundred in eight years) before we witnessed moral failures.

In at least some cases, it may be that the growth in numbers of serious Christians brings with it a corresponding growth in the number of moral failures, without the proportion of failures being any higher. We do well not to talk ourselves into an assumption that revival must have an ugly underbelly that would not exist if the revival were not there.

2. Blessings Can Create an Underbelly

The scope and intensity of the blessings of a fruitful movement nevertheless do frequently have a bearing on this ugly underbelly, whether in perception or in reality, and this in at least four ways:

First, when many good things are happening, a calamitous failure stands out and draws attention to itself. In a time of spiritual declension and no growth, should a minister embezzle funds or sleep with someone other than his spouse, he will draw local attention to his failure, but the failure will not attract national comment. But if the minister is publicly identified with an expanding and vital ministry, not only will his failure draw much more widespread attention, but inevitably some pundits will start speculating (or pontificating!) on the intrinsic weaknesses of the movement.

In South Korea, the church saw spectacular growth during much of the twentieth century, attended by such things as the “prayer mountain movement.” Many, many leaders had suffered for Jesus, and their constancy and faithfulness won a great deal of admiration. Twenty-five years ago, when citizens were asked to rate the three principal religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism (a large majority of the latter being Reformed evangelicals) — the preference, in order, was Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. Nevertheless the very success of the movement led not a few to substantial triumphalism. All it took was a handful of public scandals, and the damage was done. Today church attendance has shrunk by about 15%, and in recent polls Buddhism comes first, then Catholicism, and Protestantism ranks last.

Second, once fruitful movements and even revivals are well established, they frequently breed a naive optimism. It’s not as if anyone would come right out and say, “God is transparently at work here; what can go wrong?” — yet something of that optimism prevails and overlooks the reality that the flesh still wars against the Spirit and that the devil still prowls around as a warring lion and as a messenger of deceit. In other words, the very revival that brings a renewed consciousness of sin and therefore a better grasp of the cross also breeds in some people a blissful assumption that things are going very well, and therefore they let their guard down in a way they would not do if ministry were perennially discouraging.

Third, a movement that is genuinely from God may display such blessing that at least some people are attracted to the blessing who are not really drawn to God. When the church suffers under persecution, there are relatively few spurious conversions or nominal Christians. But when things seem to be going swimmingly, the church is likely to attract more people who want to go along for the ride. In this sinful world, any church can become infested with a few hypocrites; in times of blessing, the attractiveness of hypocrisy becomes proportionately stronger. Hence an Ananias and Sapphira want a reputation for holiness and generosity more than they want to be holy and generous. I have read scholarly studies that have shown that nine months after the height of the revivals in Kentucky in the nineteenth century, there was a statistically significant uptick in the number of illegitimate children who were born. It is not hard to imagine. The intimacy bred by people who were getting right with God spilled over into more general intimacy, and intimacy often breeds intimacy, including sexual intimacy.

Fourth, matters may become worse if the blessings of a genuine movement from God tempt ministers and other Christian leaders to become less careful, less discerning. When people are eager to join the people of God and identify with them is precisely when more discernment is needed, not less. When the power of the Spirit is evident, there will always be some folk who want to throw money around and take the part of Simon in Acts 8, and therefore there will be a need for a Peter to tell him, “May your money perish with you” (Acts 8:20).

Of course, some observers treat these dangers as so sweeping and unavoidable that they think we should be suspicious of revivals and other movements with ostensible blessings beyond the ordinary. Bigness is intrinsically suspicious; in Schumacher’s phrase (though he applied it to another realm), “Small is beautiful.” Shall we be similarly suspicious of the astonishingly rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem? The abuses that called forth the discernment of Jonathan Edwards did not tempt this prince of a theologian to deny the powerful transforming work of the Spirit of God. Revival blessings demand not cynicism, but discernment.

3. Great Movements Produce Great Leaders

Usually great movements of God call forth remarkable leaders. The Reformation was led by Reformers with great and diverse gifts; the early British missionary movement called up William Carey and others; the Evangelical Awakening was largely led by Howell Harris, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, and the many others they trained.

Shall we conclude that in each case what triumphed was a rather nauseous celebrity culture?

Clearly the dangers of celebrity culture must not be ignored or minimized. Some preachers and other leaders seem to feed on approval and fame. This can happen at any level, of course, including the local church, but the scale of applause (and criticism!) in a large movement makes the temptations more blatant. Worse, such leaders and movements may, wittingly or unwittingly, seduce countless numbers of Christians into thinking that “real” or “vital” or “powerful” or “truly spiritual” Christian life is all about the big event, the larger-than-life leader. The result is such a massive distortion of Christian life that we turn with gratitude to the insight and wisdom of Michael Horton’s recent book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). So when some celebrity ministries implode, this is no more than what we should expect: “they will not get very far because . . . their folly will be clear to everyone” (2 Tim 3:9).

Even here, however, we should be careful in our analysis and with our labels. Celebrity culture is nothing new. In his day, Paul had to oppose certain celebrity preachers: he called them “super-apostles” (2 Cor 10–13, esp. 11:5). But what made them super-apostles (and, equally, “false apostles,” 2 Cor 11:13) was not the size of their ministries or the reach of their influence (for on that ground, Peter and Paul would both stand condemned), but their lust for power and not service, their preaching of a triumphalist Jesus and not the Jesus of the cross, their blatantly boastful accounts of their spiritual experiences in order to enhance their reputations over against Paul’s fear that people would think too highly of him (2 Cor 12:6b). Paul treats such people with severity, demanding that the church in Corinth remove them from leadership and influence. One must not forget, however, that this same Paul treats very differently those who preach the truth faithfully, even if their motives leave something to be desired: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil 1:18). And even here we are doubtless dealing with a spectrum. Paul is convinced he must correct Peter, but shall Peter be written off for pastoral and theological mistakes (Gal 2:11–14)? May not Christian leaders disagree sharply on how to handle a John Mark?

In other words, while we rightly identify the dangers in celebrity culture and grapple with the negative effects they have on a God-given revival, our analysis must not prove so shallow and sweeping that we happily condemn faithful preachers who happen to be more fruitful than we are. There is a kind of condemnation of celebrity culture that seems to be seeking a kind of celebrity over its own insight.

4. Revival Can Accelerate Celebrity Culture

Yet although the evils of celebrity culture surface in just about every generation, there is one element in revivals and other movements of God that probably accelerates them. When rapid growth takes place, it is easy to promote people too rapidly. In his provocative book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), Gautaum Mukunda establishes what he calls his “leader filtration theory.” In most industries and organizations, he argues, leaders are “filtered”: they are tested, scrutinized, battered a little, and they learn a great deal as they slowly rise through the system. A few leaders make it through “unfiltered,” and these “extreme leaders” tend to be either geniuses or wackos. I’m not sure this analysis is always accurate, but what is obvious is that when a movement is expanding rapidly there is more opportunity for leaders to rise into positions of real power without ever having been “filtered.”

The apostle sees the danger: an elder “must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (1 Tim 3:7). Transparently the question of who is a “recent convert” will vary with the context. The prophet Jeremiah was a very young man when he began his ministry; so also was the apostle John. On the return leg of his first recorded missionary journey, Paul, along with his co-worker Barnabas, appointed elders in each place where they had planted a church a few months earlier (Acts 14:23), so they were appointing men who had been Christians for a few months or a year at most. But clearly it would not do, at this juncture, to appoint such recently converted men as elders in, say, Jerusalem or Antioch. When there is rapid growth, however, that is precisely what happens, as it did in Québec in the mid-70s. One tries to compensate by putting in place various accountability structures, and by ensuring there are some older, wiser heads around to ward off the worst mistakes. The same Paul who warns against the appointment of recent converts also knows that youth can be faithful and effective (1 Tim 4:12). But the dangers are transparent.

Perhaps they are exacerbated in our generation because of the rampant individualism that shapes so much of the culture. In their zeal, some plunge into evangelism and the gathering of a church without the advantages of structure, accountability, and of voices of wisdom, authority, and experience. Either they learn quickly and painfully, and begin to seek out wise counsel, or many of them burn out and even make shipwreck of their lives and of the lives of others. In other words, Western devotion to individualism tends to draw entrepreneurs away from the church structures that often serve as an ecclesiastical filtration system. (But let us also acknowledge that sometimes what is supposed to be a system that builds leaders up and teaches them accountability merely knocks people down and discourages them, which they then use as an excuse for independence and individualism.)

In short, what begins as zealous vision sometimes slips into unaccountable and incorrigible “leadership” characterized by massive egos and substantial bullying, driven in part by painful immaturity.

5. The Promise and Danger of the Media

The astonishing range and power of the media have become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to grasp both their promise and their danger. Which of us can do anything but thank God for the ways in which gospel truth is circulating, often without expense to the end user, more rapidly and more cheaply than at any time in history — and often behind borders and barriers that cannot be breached any other way? The realities in some parts of the world are so politically sensitive that I cannot share with you distribution figures that are frankly staggering.

Nevertheless all of us are becoming aware of some of the darker sides of the digital world. Quite apart from obvious things, like readily available violence, porn, and entertainment for couch potatoes, we are beginning to reflect on friendships that hide behind digital keypads but never deal with real people face-to-face, ways of manipulating people and sales and movements by the convenient arrangement of billions of pixels, and the insidious temptation to count “friends” and “followers” and “hits” as a measure of one’s significance. Moreover, the scale and speed of the media can turn a relatively minor matter into national outrage. The media can puff people up for no substantive reason and utterly destroy them on grounds equally insignificant. So there is the challenge: how can we wisely and faithfully use the media without allowing them to destroy us?

At one level, this is nothing new; it is the scale that is new. In 1970 I was serving a church in Vancouver when what came to be called “the Canadian revival” broke out in a small town in Saskatchewan. For one reason or another I hopped across the country several times that year and had opportunity to watch the revival spread. But by the time it reached Vancouver, though it was still attracting substantial numbers, it felt phony, forced, spiritually insubstantial. I recall hearing an utterly authentic, moving, gospel-saturated testimony in the Prairies, a testimony that brought many to tears and contrition. Sadly, someone thought it was so good that he promptly talked the person who had given the testimony into flying around the country to repeat his story so that people could “catch” the revival. Pretty soon it sounded as canned as the marketing that drove it.

From this experience, and from reading of many other movements with their origin in God’s good hand of grace, I’ve come to some resolutions should God in his mercy ever place me in such circumstances again. The first and foremost is this: Don’t trust the media, and trust your own heart with respect to the temptations of the media even less. Don’t “puff” the movement: God will not share his glory with another. The second is this: Use all the spiritual and emotional energy that such a movement stirs up to train the next generation of leaders. The alternative is to focus on certain experiences, experiences that are frequently puffed by the media but that serve as a distraction from the message of the cross. That does not mean that we must not use the media to get the message across. Far from it: Paul’s “so that by all possible means I might save some” calls to us still. But it is one thing to use the digital world to circulate truth; it is another to seek our own glory through it; it is yet another to play to the media experts whose agenda is rarely that of God’s; and it is yet another to forget that, like death, the media often have insatiable appetites, a huge maw that devours people and movements with little care and less respect. If we play to the media, the chances are, humanly speaking, that they will eventually turn around and eat us.

We Beg for Ongoing Grace

“The underbelly of revival?” We must not think in deterministic categories, but reflect on the biblical narratives of times of great blessing, even though great evils attend them, and learn, too, from the history of the church. On each of the topics on which I have briefly reflected, there is a sort of “yes, but” element in the argument: yes, let us beware of the elixir of celebrity status, but let us thank God for gifted leaders; yes, let us not become snookered by ratings and digital reach, but let us use all lawful means to spread the gospel; and so forth. So we beg God for grace to persevere, to serve joyfully and faithfully, and to learn from any “underbelly” we stumble across that apart from the grace of God we are all undone. And we pray for one another in biblical terms: “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20–21).

is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, and the author of How Long, O Lord?