James Howell: How to do a revival in 2011

How many revivals feature Jesus’ face in the Christus Pantokrator from St. Catherine’s, or his body in the Grünewald Crucifix?

Week after week I look out at people who think I’m pretty cool as a minister, love our building and their friends there, want smooth-running programs for their children, and probably say a blessing before meals in their homes.  But are they at all converted? Much less, holy? Or sanctified? Or any of those nobly aged notions we at least say matter for the Christian life?

I read Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian,” and it resonated. Actually it scared the daylights out of me.  On my watch, are vapid faith and trivialized religiosity passing for the real thing?  

So we decided to focus on this during January, to raise the big question -- although it was hard to pin down precisely which question.  Are you saved?  Too fraught with weirdness.  Wesley’s classic ways of asking it,Are you almost or altogether Christian? or Are you happy in God?  How about Have you ever made a serious commitment to follow Christ?  Clustering these, we tried to devise a catchy title.  At first we scoffed at the word “revival” -- but after other labels came up short, we went for Revival, added a slick font and the numbers 2011 (without a space after Revival!) and decided to try it.  Revival2011.

I researched highly evangelical books; I interviewed clergy of all stripes and inclinations.  My neighbor and dear friend, Leighton Ford, proved to be of inestimable value in thinking through content and process.  We advertised, with edgier titillations than I’m usually comfortable with (“Give us 15 days and nothing will ever be the same”).  We recorded my core message in advance (watch here), and set it to be released at precisely the minute the live presentation began.

Turns out people dug it.  We clarified, “This isn’t your grandmother’s revival,” although I admire my grandparents’ immense piety.  Partly this revival is nouveau due to its innovative platforms:  we formed Facebook groups, Twitter and text messaging, emails and blogs, YouTube and Vimeo.  The live kickoff presentation was well-produced, with lay testimonies (carefully edited and on film…), terrific music, and my basic message draped over dance, images, and DVD clips.  We strove for legitimacy in all this:  how many revivals feature Jesus’ face in the Christus Pantokrator from St. Catherine’s, or his body in the Grünewald Crucifix?

But more than the platforms, the substantive differences are message and invitation.  We asked for 15 days -- not 15 nights of preaching services but 15 days of focused thought, reflection, conversation, decision-making, a conscious trying out of the Christian life (you can read, see our images and hear music for the 15 days here – good stuff, I think!).  To make the revival “stick” we encouraged folks to try out new practices, like Bible reading, prayer, reconciliation, holiness.  There was considerable emotion at the opening event – but we didn’t let anybody off by offering a simplistic run-to-the-altar-and-be-done-with-it summons.  We said You have to do the 15 days; things can really change if you do.

We have made questions a big piece of this.  In our day, many people never quite commit because they wonder about other religions, or the reliability of the Bible, or whether prayer works, or whatever.  We had open Q&A Ask Anything sessions in person and online (and a FAQ page online!), not merely to settle questions once and for all, but also to honor them and to help prompt even deeper questions -- with the provision that you can follow and believe even if you have questions. Isn’t it this way too when we love another person or take a job?

Time will tell if this is a realistic way to move people from “almost” to anything like “altogether” Christian.  Early signs are good.  500 people showed up under the threat of snow and ice for the opening, and well over 2000 people tuned in online not only here but around the country.  Responses and conversation have been robust, and deep emotions have been shared and cared for by our pastoral staff.  Casual members are reading the Bible, observing silence, interacting with the pastors; the unchurched have been with us and seem intrigued.  Our staff, me included, have been stretched, found uncomfortable, yet giddy with anticipation.

My report here is more of a question though:  is revival a sustainable, worthwhile practice of the mainline church in 2011?

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.