January 25, 2021

Leaving Revivalism Behind?

Are evangelicals moving away from revivalism? Gordon T. Smith thinks they may be. In a provocative article at Christianity Today, Smith suggests that evangelicals are moving toward a new perspective on conversion that is leading to changes in the way they do church.

“It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.”

The “evangelicalism” we talk about here on Internet Monk is marked by “revivalism” — in fact, I often use the latter term in discussions to clarify what I mean by “evangelicalism,” because “evangelical” has become a somewhat amorphous term. As Smith explains in his article, revivalism has connections to the 17th and 18th century Puritan and renewal movements, but its true emergence happened in the 19th century with the Second Great Awakening, the influence of such people as Charles Finney, and the development of mass evangelism efforts under such preachers as D.L. Moody.

The key concept of that influenced the practices of revivalism is that of CONVERSION.

Conversion was viewed to be a punctiliar experience: persons could specify with confidence and assurance the time and place of their conversion, by reference, as often as not, to the moment when they prayed what was typically called “the sinner’s prayer.”

The focus of conversion was the afterlife: one sought salvation so that one could “go to heaven” after death, and the assumption was that “salvation” would lead to disengagement from the world. Once converted, the central focus of one’s life would be church or religious activities, particularly those that helped others come to this understanding of salvation that assured them of “eternal life” after death. Life in the world was thought to hold minimal significance. What counted was the afterlife. And if one had “received Christ,” one could be confident of one’s eternity with God. Conversion was isolated from the experience of the church. Indeed, it was generally assumed that a person would come to faith outside of the church and then be encouraged, after conversion, to join a church community.

Smith lists some other characteristics of this approach:

  • Evangelistic efforts toward making converts focuses on the presentation of a “plan of salvation” that is designed to persuade a potential convert, leading him to “make a decision” for Christ, usually through praying a prayer “accepting Christ as [one’s] personal Savior.”
  • Baptism is practiced subsequent to conversion, and is essentially optional.
  • The church is largely defined as being in the business of making converts, and success is measured in terms of “conversion growth,” i.e. the number of converts a church is able to make.
  • Conversion is sharply distinguished from “disciple-making.” The latter is viewed as something that comes after one experiences conversion, and it happens through different processes than evangelism.

But Smith asserts that the fundamental underpinnings of this way of practicing Christian faith are coming undone. Evangelicals are reaping the harvest of reading and appreciating authors like C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and others that come from non-revivalistic traditions. New developments in Biblical studies have enriched our understanding of soteriology and ecclesiology. Cross-pollination from other disciplines and other Christian traditions from liturgical to pentecostal has had an impact. Growing global awareness has been a factor, as has been a growing appreciation for Christian history. Smith mentions the name of Lesslie Newbigin as a prominent voice in the current discussion. Through these and other influences, he suggests that evangelicals are moderating their revivalist ethos.

On each of these points, evangelicals are moving toward a thorough reenvisioning of the nature of conversion and redemption. Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.

The fundamental categories and assumptions of revivalism are thus being questioned as never before.

Gordon T. Smith sees this as a “fork in the road” moment for evangelicalism. “The only question that remains, then, is whether evangelicals will trust these instincts and devote themselves to Christ-centered worship and kingdom-oriented mission.”


  1. “The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ”. What does that mean? Sounds like the same old stuff with a slightly different emphasis.

    • petrushka1611 says


      “Immediate” sounds like a bad word choice, to me. But I think the rest of the sentence explains the first part: “…and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques.”

      • Well, I still think “choreographed by the Spirit” is stll “Christianese” for who knows what. I don’t know. All the evangelists believe their stuff is choregraphed by the spirit as well.

  2. Joseph (the original) says

    does this mean that Billy Graham style Crusades are not going to be a regular thing here in the USA?

    what about the hyper signs-and-wonders type Revivals such as Brownsville & Lakeland?

    have people wised up now about the fiasco that was Bentley’s religious circus & will be on guard the next time someone claims God is ‘moving’ in such-and-such a location, so come on down for a miracle today. and, oh, by the way, the good folks putting on this circus, er, revival need to be rewarded in earthly dollars for their heaven-minded sacrifices. give, give generously. give as a seed faith offering. give until you don’t have any money left to go back home…

    Lord, have mercy… 🙁

  3. petrushka1611 says

    “Indeed, it was generally assumed that a person would come to faith outside of the church and then be encouraged, after conversion, to join a church community.”

    Or, they will be enticed down to the altar by someone saying “We don’t want you to give money, we don’t want you to join our church; we just want you to get saved!” As soon as salvation happens, the convert is told, “OK, now that you’re saved, you need to join a good Bible-believing church (ours, of course), and tithe so your finances will be blessed.”

    Bait and switch.

  4. I remember reading this article and thinking, “Is this iMonk or CT?”

  5. I don’t see the fundamentals changing (there is still the need to “tell others about Jesus”) but there is finally more of an understanding that, as Dr. Larkin from CBS/SM puts it “The Gospel travels over the bridge of relationship”.

    Quite simply, people aren’t as apt to listen to a preacher who they don’t know, preach at them about how they are a sinner (even though the message is true). The change is more about tactics, than fundamentals.

    In “Surprised by Joy” Lewis indicates that there was a time when he was not a believer, and then there is a time when he did come to Christ. Did he walk the aisle? No, but there was a “conversion experience” in his life. It was a process, but it was still there.

    There are many different venues through which we can share our faith, and many opportunities to discuss and talk, especially with the popularity of Dawkins, Hitchens et al.

    We must continue to preach the Gospel. There are so many unreached people in the world. Yes, how we go, has changed, but we still must go.

    • Isaac / Obed says

      We’ve talked about this quite often in my home group. We’ve come to use the shorthand of “Damascus Road Experience” to refer to conversion that was at a specific (and often dramatic) identifiable moment. We’ve come to refer to the more gradual process of conversion that others experience as the “Emmaus Road Experience.” I’m definitely an example of the Emmaus Road sort of fellow.

      • Nicely put.

      • Thank you…was about to make a very similar comment.

        Evangelicals seem to think that the “sinner suddenly converted by a huge event” is the only valid story of salvation.

        I am one of many who never had this experience…just a journey from childhood to grandmother status with lots of small awakenings, and often three steps forward, 2 3/4 steps back. Besides the language difference, that is why I could not respond to “are you” or “when were you’ “SAVED”. It is an ongoing process, not an event.

        • I grew up with the need for the immediacy of conversion in Fundi Baptist thought process. My husband and I left that view of faith; we are now Episcopalians – Dio of SC. Our children’s youth minister wants the kids to have this form of story – go figure. It is frustrating – we baptize the children in the promise that they will be reared in the faith and ask them to live the faith from that point on. It is really hard to get saved if you’ve always understood (in the various age appropriate levels) the love of God for humanity. I really wanted him to have them do a timeline of their family’s faith. Not so much. I think he wonders if my husband and I aren’t “Saved.”

          • Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says

            Yeah, despite being an Anglican church, we’ve got many folks in our parish who are similarly uncomfortable with the idea of an Emmaus Road experience. In fact, I think the reason we came up with the Emmaus/Damascus shorthand in our home group was due to some tension in discussions resulting from the revivalistic background of some of the folks in the home group. Fortunately, our parish’s rector is an Emmaus Road sort of fellow. And while the other clergy are Damascus Road folks, they get the concept and hope that most of the kids (including their own) being raised in our church end up with Emmaus Road stories as they grow to maturity.

          • “It is really hard to get saved if you’ve always understood (in the various age appropriate levels) the love of God for humanity”.

            Amen friend! Very well said.

      • I think my journey is more aptly called “40 yrs. out from Egypt.”

    • Actually, Lewis relates an experience in a bus where he shifts from atheism to theism. Then the process led to his trust in the risen Christ.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Things are changing but there will be remnants of revivalism that last a long while. I have some fond memories of Methodist revivals when I was a kid. Back then (1950’s) it was something to do in the summer that almost served as a form of entertainment. Preaching wasn’t too bad, music was gospel hymns, and the atmosphere something that can’t be matched these days.

    The city I was born in had gospel tabernacle type building, was large, with sawdust trail, and had well known evangelists of the day like Neil Macaulay. These meetings were attended by people from many denominations and were influenced by YFC type evangelism. My parents and friends all went to these events, and they could extend for two weeks.

    The thing is, some lives were definitely turned around and some people made dramatic changes. We live in a different world now, but we can’t forget evangelism of some kind, hopefully healthier than the old.

    • The Previous Dan says

      I have the same types of fond summer memories. I see the shortcomings of a view that says revivalism is the only legitimate path, but I have trouble seeing revivalism as a dirty word.

  7. This is very exciting. And, I think it might be true. A lot of scholars today emphasize community and an organic process of Christian growth (sorry, I can’t think of another way to say it) that is ‘this world’ oriented together with future kingdom asperations.

    “Growing global awareness has been a factor, as has been a growing appreciation for Christian history.”
    This is definitely true. The atomization of church life and belief – with every church tradition seeing themselves as ‘The Church’ – is becoming less and less pronounced. For this trend to spread into the more entrenched and sheltered parts of American Christian culture is just a matter of time. People can grind their heels in and resist only for so long. Those who resist may campaign their cause by throwing a bunch of shibboleths around to rein people into their fold, but that can’t possibly succeed in the long term. People in such an atmosphere see the neurotic isolation more and more and flee from it, toward a more whole, accepting and healthy world. (In the past many people had nowhere to go, or no means to understand a different point of view).
    Some might fear the large money making industries that propagate this sheltered thinking, but kingdoms fall all the time. And I think they’re past due.
    As for bearing witness to Jesus, people within a community that nurtures one anothers’ health is in a far better position to share the message of Jesus Christ than any group that neurotically agonizes over their doctrinal stances at the expence of loving their neighbors.

  8. It’s about time. That’s all I gotta say. It’s about time.

  9. How do we go? How do we share? Is walking the isle or inviting Jesus into the heart to be born again a step in the right direction or unnecessary? I am truly asking here… I am confused, because I did walk & invite Him in and was baptized.

    Yet, as I am honest I didn’t change all that much (can say this now without fear of being rebuked) I am still very much a sinner. I was a devoted-hard working church lady who became overwhelmed because Jesus didn’t seem to be transforming me or making me into a new creature as I renewed my mind, prayed, served…

    Getting out of the fundamental culture has brought some grace to my heart… I know that living with kindness & love towards others is key, but how do we (or do we) lead/bring others to Christ? I feel like a kindergartner asking this and in a way I am because I have so much to learn & understand. Most theology is so far over my head, but I long for my wild friends and family to believe in Jesus.

    • Gail, you will not find the phrase, “inviting Jesus into your heart” anywhere in the bible. I don’t know where this concept originated, but it doesn’t come from the bible.

      • I see that. I’m sure you are aware that this was/is the drill at many churches. whew. (I’m just trying to unpack what I was taught)

      • Tim and Gail ~ I believe it comes from John, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God…” 1″12

    • Faith is born out of the hearing of the Word and also in recwiving the sacraments.

      Our decisions are weak, qualified, vacilating…and don’t really amount to much. But God’s decision for us is always true and steadfast.

      Take 10 minutes, gail, and read this:


      It is quite liberating.

      • Thank-You Steve!

        I have bookmarked this so I can spend more time absorbing it, at first glance very liberating… I so want to unravel the things that I was taught by the church I attended for years…

        This is amazing- “The covenant act of baptism would now be the moment when God, through the giving of His Spirit, would make His decision for the believer rather than the other way around. It would be a baptism rooted not in my decision for God (however sincerely taken), but rather in God’s decision for me!”

      • That’s a good article, Steve. Thanks for the link.

      • Thank you, Gail.

        Abd thank you, JoanieD.

        God bless!

  10. “Conversion is sharply distinguished from “disciple-making.” The latter is viewed as something that comes after one experiences conversion, and it happens through different processes than evangelism.”

    This winds me up so much. If the Disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26) then why have we decided that the label ‘Christian’ needs to come first? Well, for the reasons outlined in the article above I guess. When did Peter ‘become a Christian’? A redundant question! He was a disciple that walked and shared life with Jesus, getting it very right and very wrong all the way through.

    I think that Jesus’ call for us to be His disciples is a much more meaningful and credible approach than asking people to admit their sins and say the prayer. It also moves us away from a “who’s in and who’s out?” mentality and forces us to relate to individuals as the people that they are, with their own stories and own faith journeys.

    I’m happy to drop “conversion” from my vocabulary.

    • David Cornwell says

      “It also moves us away from a “who’s in and who’s out?” mentality and forces us to relate to individuals as the people that they are, with their own stories and own faith journeys.”


      • …and a gilizion points on the continum of “knowing and serving Jesus”.

        Not “yes” or “no” but from beginner to master (with a small “m”)

  11. Meh. Let’s be accurate: Evangelical academics are moving away from revivalism. Evangelical pastors, unless they allow themselves to be influenced by the academics, appear to me to be just as revivalist as they’ve always been. They emphasize getting people saved; they care about, but slack on, getting people discipled.

    I regularly read articles like this about a big switch in Evangelicalism. It’s all based on anecdotal experience: “Here’s what I see; here’s what I deduce.” Even our beloved Michael Spencer based his coming Evangelical collapse on the trends he noticed. Were there any stats to back up these assertions? Nah. Not saying Michael wasn’t right (though I’m still skeptical): Just saying his evidence isn’t based on hard data. And it would be nice if some of us actually included some hard data, instead of pitching our logical guesses in its absence.

    Nobody bothers to commission a poll and provide some hard proof of an actual trend. They just notice Scot McKnight wrote a book on the Kingdom gospel over the soterian gospel. They notice N.T. Wright confirming that yes indeed, McKnight is correct. They notice all the other folks in the amen-corner blogosphere. They hear some buzz from their pastor friends who have read this stuff, and agree with it. (Whether it changes their actual practices, though, we have no idea.) But they conclude, from the buzz, that by golly the Evangelical church is changing. Well, maybe it is. But nobody’s proven it. Show me the evidence.

    Yes, it’s a thought-provoking article. May it provoke thought, and not preemptive conclusions.

  12. I was raised in a tradition that did not emphasize conversion but went forward at a crusade because they said you are not a Christian unless you do this. But it was a very moving experience for me accompanied by a joy that was quite foreign to my life experience to that point. For years then, I considered myself evangelical and even moved to an evangelical church. But I grew tired of them constantly coming back to the need for conversion, when most of those in a given service were well past that point. Eventually I returned to my original church, only to find it filled with people who mostly could not point to a single point in time when they became Christians. Yet we were all seeking to walk with the Lord together and I could not see a difference in our faith.

    Last year I was reading a devotional by E. Stanley Jones, in which he observed that in his experience, about 60% of people raised in churches simply grew into their faith, while the other 40% needed a conversion experience. This was very freeing to me, especially coming from someone who was primarily an evangelist. I hope we can move toward a both/and understanding, instead of this becoming yet another pendulum swing where the extremes are nearly always damaging.

  13. A friend sent me the article from CT on Friday. I printed it out and have been reading and studying. It brings me to ask the same question I have asked myself as I have journeyed in the wilderness. Don’t laugh – I have to push this to the back of my mind every so often. Am I a part of “the great falling away”. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 And yet right now I am AGAIN listening to the anguish of a friend who, for over 30 years, has tried desperately to convince herself to believed that her son and husband are saved because they accepted Christ. Several times. Yet the verbally abusive behavior etc. continues. “What happened to him?” she asks me and my heart is wrenched. What can I say? I sent her this article. Yet she just excuses the behavior (like father like son) as being a symptom of the end times. Which, I tell her, is not an excuse from confronting these 2 men about their damaging behavior. Just making a decision is not enough for me – I guess I’m from Missouri, SHOW ME.

  14. Without going into the long story of how I got there I now attend a small evengelical church that is doing exactly what the artical talked about. My experience has taught me that it is VERY dificult to turn the Titanic around. A pastor cannot just walk into a church and tell his congregation that things are going to change today. I have spent the last 20 years talking, confronting, praying and hoping to be some influence in making the many changes necessary to become a Christ centered worshiping, serving community. The road has been very dificult and yet I am reluctant to leave as I believe God has placed me here for such a time as this.

    Those of you outside of the evengelical church often see only the ‘big name’ picture, they give all of us a bad rep. There are many, many of us within the church who have been wounded along the way but who have friends and loved ones that we wish to influence towards a much more orthodox path. Pray for us.

  15. If this is a fork in the road, then I’m pinned under it. It’s a blessedly painful experience. Evangelical sacred cows are getting smashed, and we have the opportunity to take the best of our tradition(s) and apply them to a shifting culture longing for community and experience.

  16. I personally happen to be one statistic that validates his observations. If this truly is a trend, I certainly don’t mind being a part of it. Revivalism has draged both evangelicalism AND reformation protestantism kicking and screaming away from their foundational roots into a circus void of any tangible concept of “church.” Crucicentricism used to be a foundational pilar of Evangelicalism, but not the Cross could not be further from their crosshairs. Revivalism went far beyond synergism into blatant semi-pelagianism. Nothing quantifies spirituality like hyper-conversionism.
    I was raised in a highly revivalistic tradition, and it leave you with deep psychological scars, or “convictions,” that produce alienation from God and man. It sought pragmatism at all costs, and in the end, it doesn’t work. Lewis, Packer, and Stott, lead the way! Let Evangelicalism collapse and original Protestantism experience a true revival.

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