Even before its October 2010 release, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir was creating buzz. It had already garnered praise from the likes of Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, George Marsden, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and Al Mohler. The endorsements alone sound like a Who’s Who of conservative evangelicalism. It is not hard to see why.
The book was written by seasoned author John Woodbridge and young journalist Collin Hansen. Woodbridge is research professor of Church History and History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His biography reads like catalogue from a Greek drama, only instead of ships, it lists degree upon degree and award upon award. Hansen (who also has ties to Trinity having received his MDiv there) currently serves as the editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He had already made his mark with his 2008 book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. In A God-Sized Vision, Woodbridge and Hansen tackle the inspiring, though often sticky, topic of spiritual revival.
Terms and definitions
Perhaps the greatest challenge to writing a book on revival is that there are so many different understandings of what revival is and how it comes about. Hansen and Woodbridge engage this problem head on in Chapter 1 by offering a biblical theology of revival and commentary from noted figures from Christian history. Taking cues from Jonathan Edwards and Martin Lloyd-Jones, the authors present a comparatively reformed understanding of spiritual renewal. They note that “only God himself could bestow such a blessing on his people in his own sovereign time” (p. 31).
Nonetheless, they do not underestimate the complexity of God’s work and are quick to recognize that throughout history, many different “theological streams” have often united in revivals. During the First Great Awakening, “America in particular became a remarkable laboratory where several different revival traditions merged to bolster the burgeoning evangelical movement” (p. 31). That tradition grew even more complex during the Second Great Awakening with the contribution of Finney’s emphasis on human responsibility. Woodbridge and Hansen handle these seemingly disparate positions well and conclude that “though God alone can instigate revival, the church need not wait idly…. We can confess our sins…and forsake them. Above all else, we can pray” (p. 35).
The authors devote the rest of the book to examining significant revivals of the last three centuries, from the First Great Awakening to the Welsh revivals to the revivals in East Africa during the middle of the 20th century. From this vantage point, Woodbridge and Hansen identify several common elements that precede and result from authentic revival.
Among them, the authors note, earnest prayer often paves the way for revival. These are not simply prayers for the sake of prayers, but prayers that flow from the humbled hearts of those who realize “they had tried and failed to do ministry in their own power. They realized that the task before them was too huge or that their efforts using various means and methods had failed” (pp. 182-83).
Another characteristic is that once revival comes, “repentance from sin swiftly follows” (p. 183). Revivals in Korea during the first years of the 20th century were especially marked by public confession and repentance. According to eyewitness William Blair: “All through the city men were going from house to house, confessing to individuals they had injured, returning stolen property and money, not only to Christians but to heathen as well, till the whole city was stirred” (p. 108).
The revival in Korea eventually spread into China through the efforts of Western missionaries who at times had to be the first to confess and repent of sin. In particular, Jonathan Goforth,
had felt convicted about the need to reconcile with a fellow missionary, but hadn’t yet acted…. Finally, in the middle of a talk, Goforth resolved to reconcile…. Without telling anyone of this silent commitment, Goforth saw the crowd’s demeanor change. When people stood to pray, they began weeping instead and could not continue. Never before in twenty years in Henan had the missionaries seen such genuine penitence from the Chinese. (pp. 142-143)
Finally, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached with increased clarity and fervor, God revives the hearts of His children, and they in turn are burdened for the souls of their friends and neighbors. “So while revival begins with the church, its effects do not stop there” (p. 34). Woodbridge and Hansen second J. I. Packer’s observation: “God revives his church, and then the new life overflows from the church for the conversion of outsiders and the renovation of society” (p. 29). This alone seems to run contrary to common understandings of revival. Many people tend to think of revival as a series of meetings set aside for the evangelization of the community, when in reality it is the Spirit of God working among His people in an unusual way empowering them to fulfill the work of the Church.
Even so, revivals have never been without controversy. At times it was those who opposed the religious fervor of the First Great Awakening; other times it was Jonathan Goforth’s missionary colleagues who doubted that the revival’s origins were of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, revival divides Christians as often as it unites them.
Of greatest significance to our modern landscape are the controversies surrounding the evangelical growth of the post-WWII era. Woodbridge and Hansen spend the last chapter tracing the ministries of Billy Graham, Harold J. Ockenga, Bill Bright, Fuller Seminary and Campus Crusade for Christ. The American church at this time saw a marked increase in spiritual interest among students and young people, and it was during this time that these men and ministries “stepped into a void left by denominational decline and met the spiritual needs of a generation returning from war and searching for meaning” (p. 174).
But sadly, as the authors note, “though the evangelical influence shifted toward parachurch ministries, leaders could not avoid old problems related to ecumenical compromise” (p.174). Eventually fundamentalists “objected to Graham partnering with the liberal Protestant Council for his watershed New York Crusade in 1957…[and] evangelicals and fundamentalists retreated into sparring camps”(p. 174).
This period and the eventual fallout has shaped many of us. Reading Woodbridge and Hansen’s account induced flashbacks to family dinners where my stentorian preacher-grandfather intoned how “everything changed with the 1957 New York Crusade.” And like it or not, it is difficult for any of us to evaluate the revivals of the 1940s and 50s without the subsequent controversies clouding our judgment. But, as Woodbridge and Hansen note earlier when discussing Christianity’s rapid decline in Wales after the revival had ended, “we can still celebrate a precious time when God seemed to offer earth a fresh taste of heaven’s bliss” (p. 116)—in fact, we must.
Although the preface implies that A God-Sized Vision is intended for all Christians,1 the jacket cover identifies the target audience as “pastors and lay leaders.” As such, the writing, while not technical, does tend be academic, including lengthy quotations and an assumption of biblical and historical literacy. It was, after all, written by a journalist and church history professor.
And while it is not beyond the reach of the average reader, it will probably stretch more than stir him. Someone unaccustomed to academic style and pacing will find it difficult to even get past the preface and first chapter, where Woodbridge and Hansen unpack biblical and historical foundations for revival. Such readers are unlikely to ever reach the inspiring stories of Jonathan Edwards, the Welsh Revivals, businessmen prayer meetings, Jonathan Goforth and Ugandan martyrs.
That is unfortunate given that—as Woodbridge and Hansen argue in the preface—the very telling of revival stories often has the effect of inspiring saints to appeal to God for their own revival. The authors anticipate that “by taking you back to the days when God tore open the heavens and gave this world a glimpse of blissful eternity, it might stir you to offer prayers that move God” (p. 15). But, if those stories themselves are accessible to only one segment of the Christian population (the well-educated, the elite), how will the rest of the Church be inspired to beg God for revival?
This dilemma is reminiscent of an article that Collin Hansen himself wrote recently for The Gospel Coalition. In analyzing rising divorce rates among the moderately educated—those without college degrees—he notes that the church seems to have failed this demographic and that we have a “blind spot in our witness.”2 He is right. He is also right when he recognizes that this is the very segment of the Christian church most in need of revival. “We shouldn’t be surprised,” he continues, “if this is where God chooses to unleash a powerful revival.” Unfortunately, this book, with its academic approach, falls consistently into this well-educated reader blind spot.
Still, A God-Sized Vision will do exactly what the subtitle promises: stretch and stir (because faithful accounts of the work of God can do no less) those well-educated enough to read it. And they, pastor and lay leader alike, must be careful to steward what they learn, allow it to spark revival in their own hearts and eventually find ways to communicate that to their congregations. Otherwise, the book may well end up simply shelved onto already jammed bookcases, once again trapping the stories that the rest of the Christian church so desperately needs to hear.
1 Woodbridge and Hansen do not specifically state their target demographic; however, they do say that “This book is for Christians who want to bring their lives in line with their deepest beliefs” (p. 15). And later, when commenting on the general ignorance of revival history, they ask, “How many attending and even working in churches today would say the same?” (p.16). Taken together, these seem to indicate that their work is intended for both professional and lay members of the church.
2 “America’s Heartland, Suddenly Rocky” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/01/05/americas-heartland-suddenly-rocky/
Hannah R. Anderson lives in Vanderbilt, Pennsylvania where she spends her days mothering three small children, loving her husband, and scratching out odd moments to write.