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The Asbury revival sparks prayer, reflection at other Christian universities

“We can only hope something like what happened at Asbury would happen here at York. Until then, we watch and wait in hope.”

Students sing during a chapel assembly at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. Photo by Audrey Jackson.

(Religion Unplugged) — “Nothing good happens after midnight. Except for this.”

So proclaims the Facebook page for Midnight Worship, a weekly gathering hosted by the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.

More than 1,000 miles from Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky — where a seemingly routine chapel assembly turned into a 16-day revival last month — Abilene Christian University students sing and pray into the wee hours each Friday night.

“We just worship and pray, which has been really cool to be a part of,” said Clark Sullivan, a 21-year-old Bible major who leads Midnight Worship.

“Y’all, pay attention to what God is doing,” he urged fellow students as the Asbury revival drew an estimated 50,000 people to that small Christian university from Feb. 8 to 24.

At 8:30 p.m. on Sundays, spiritually minded students at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, come together to sing for two hours at the Downtown Church of Christ.

They lifted their voices to heaven a little longer as the Asbury revival attracted millions of views on social media and made its way to the front page of The New York Times and other major news outlets.

“After word about Asbury got around, they just started singing as long as people were willing to be there,” said Emma Jones, a 21-year-old Harding junior double-majoring in psychology and theological studies. “And people were there at Downtown singing, I think, until basically curfew, which is midnight.”

Differences in theology

With roots in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, Asbury University emphasizes seeking God through repentance and sanctification — and looking for transformative movements of the Holy Spirit.

“Their history carries with it expectations of revival, seeking revival and a history of revivals,” said John Mark Hicks, a Bible professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, noting that similar revivals have occurred periodically on the Asbury campus since its 1890 founding.

Churches of Christ don’t tend to share the same expectation for outward expressions of spiritual manifestations, said Hicks, a Restoration Movement scholar.

“Rather, we typically followed Alexander Campbell in a more cognitive approach of preaching and teaching,” Hicks said, referring to a 19th century leader of the movement.

“Thus, we had protracted gospel meetings to teach and preach,” the Lipscomb professor added. “We have the expectation that the word of God will revive souls and lead them to conversion rather than a revivalist gathering as in the Holiness movement.”

Despite the theological differences, many students and leaders at universities associated with Churches of Christ greeted news of the Kentucky college’s experience with excitement.

“I think the authentic expression of faith and revival that I have seen at Asbury and other universities is a reminder that God moves in powerful ways,” said Josh Stephens, dean of students at Lubbock Christian University in Texas. “I love seeing people in awe of what the Lord can do and will do.”

Spiritual awakening

As Mitch Henry, president of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, sees it, the COVID-19 era has ignited a spiritual awakening.

“Coming out of this pandemic, people are hungry for social and spiritual reconnection,” Henry said. “They have endured social distancing, forced online worship and mask mandates long enough, and they deeply desire to be cleansed spiritually.”

Like Asbury, universities associated with Churches of Christ typically require students to attend regular chapel services — although recent years have brought new options, such as service projects or small-group meetings, to multiple campuses.

“I would like to think something similar is possible,” Scott Young, campus minister at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, said of the Asbury revival.

“I think the word ‘revival’ makes us nervous,” Young added, referring to Churches of Christ. “We start thinking of tent meetings and maybe loud music and speaking in tongues and healing services — just things that make us immediately critical or apprehensive to experience anything like that.”

Garrett Best, chair of the Bible department at York University in Nebraska, earned his doctorate from Asbury Theological Seminary, across the street from the college. Many of those sharing firsthand reports from Asbury “are friends and trusted mentors,” he noted.

Best said he’d be surprised — pleasantly — to see an awakening event like the one at Asbury break out at York.

York calls its daily chapel service The Well — a reference to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

“I think a feeling pervades the student body that our chapel service at The Well is mandated by the university, and so, for many, it’s boring,” Best said. “We fight just to keep students off their phones for 15 minutes.”

Such a revival might be more likely to occur in the smaller, more intimate evening worship gatherings conducted in York’s prayer chapel, he said.

“However, as the Asbury awakening demonstrated, you cannot plan or manipulate God’s Spirit,” he said. “We can only hope something like what happened at Asbury would happen here at York. Until then, we watch and wait in hope.”

Natalie Harrell, spokeswoman for Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Arkansas, said, “While nothing similar to Asbury has made its way here yet, I think there is definitely a chance it could due to the similarities in what we teach and practice here.”

‘God’s got your back’

David Shannon, a preacher before becoming president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, said he couldn’t speak to the probability of an Asbury-style revival.

But he said, “I know the presence of God is seen powerfully through the moments of worship and the power of fellowship during chapel. Chapel informs us we are not alone. It is deeply meaningful to have all the school pray for you during losses or hardships and celebrate with you during high moments of success.”

T.J. Kirk, Freed-Hardeman’s vice president for student services, agreed.

“We may never have an Asbury-like revival where the participants remain together all day, but often the worship continues even after we have left the assembly,” Kirk said. “It spills over into the classes that follow, conversations during lunch and even in students’ own devotionals.”

Hannah Beth Byers, a 19-year-old cheerleader at FHU, earned a scholarship from the Herald of Truth for her evangelistic efforts.

Byers said she tries not to watch the news “because it scares me sometimes,” so she was unaware of the Asbury revival.

But daily chapel at FHU helps build her faith, she said.

“It’s never the same,” said Byers, whose home congregation is the Baxter Church of Christ in Tennessee. “They have singing chapels. They have regular speaking chapels. And sometimes they’ll do just, like, funny things to keep us interested. It’s very encouraging. … It’s like a midday reminder that God’s got your back.”

What God is doing

Back at ACU, students prayed and worshipped at the Chapel on the Hill — a stained-glass sacred space in the Bible building — from 2 p.m. to midnight on a recent Thursday.

The assembly began with six students and ended with 100, said Cyrus Eaton, ACU’s dean of spiritual life.

“One group of students gathered with me to pray specifically for the revival in Asbury and that we would have eyes to see where God is stirring our community for revival,” Eaton said.

Sullivan, the Midnight Worship leader, said the response to the Asbury revival has caused him to reflect.

“In my experience in Abilene, I’ve seen a lot of student gatherings pop up and imitate that and try to recreate that same experience,” he said.

That approach concerns Sullivan, who grew up in Abilene attending the Highland church.

“I think our goal should be to glorify the Lord,” he said. “If we’re going to gather for worship and prayer, that should be our purpose — just to love on God and love on each other.”

He expounded on his point: “I think that God has an individual thing that he wants to do in different gatherings. I don’t think the work of God looks the exact same way for every single worship gathering.”

At the same time, Sullivan said he has seen many of his Generation Z counterparts lose faith during the pandemic.

Given the Asbury revival, he prays that God “is doing a new thing in the hearts” of people his age.

“I don’t know necessarily that revival is the word that I would use,” he said. “But I sure hope that God is increasing the faith and belief of people my age.”

Learning to be a disciple

At Harding, Jones — who grew up in the Keizer Church of Christ in Oregon — said the mandatory nature of daily chapel lessens the spiritual impact.

While stressing that she appreciates the unifying nature of the large gathering, she said most students don’t seem to want to be there.

“Not that they’re antagonistic, but it’s just kind of a required ‘going through the motions,’” she said.

She can’t imagine an Asbury-like revival happening at Harding. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in her opinion.

“I mean, the spiritual high that comes off a revival is temporary,” said Jones, who worships with the Living Way Church of Christ in Searcy. “And I think the Churches of Christ tend to focus more on long-term teaching and understanding.”

In her own case, Jones said attending Harding has benefited her spiritual development in a powerful way.

“For me, I was able to be in honors Bible classes my first two years of Harding,” she said, “and that really, really shaped my whole theology and understanding of what it means to be a disciple.”

by Bobby Ross Jr., a columnist for and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle

A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999. This article was published first at The Christian Chronicle.