I was very encouraged when a small group of Christians seeking to pray for revival asked me to speak to them and give them some guidance. This is an expansion of what I shared.
Revival means many things to many people. But what I am talking about is a situation where large numbers of people are fired up to seek God fully, yearn for obedience, confess sin in their life, and experience the joy and freedom of walking with God.
History shows us that there is no exact prescription for revival. It is an act of the sovereign God and we can’t dictate to God what he should do and when he should do it. I have been praying for revival in Sri Lanka since 1975. Only once have I seen something close to revival (at a conference I was part of). But I will not give up praying. In my lifetime or after, may the Lord send his showers of blessing upon our people.
While we cannot dictate to God what he will do, history shows us that there are some things that happen before and when revival comes that are worth noting.
1. There is faithful preaching of the Word before revival comes, as we saw with the ministry of Ezra, and in all the revivals in the history of the church. The Word systematically preached can create a thirst for all that the Word teaches, and the Holy Spirit can ignite the Word with fires of revival when God’s time has come. Often pre-revival preaching is characterised by a call to total commitment to God, to repent and get right with God and an extolling of the beauty of holiness.
2. The great historian of revival J. Edwin Orr has made famous the statement, “No great spiritual awakening has begun anywhere in the world apart from united prayer—Christians persistently praying for revival.” This is what the disciples of Christ did before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). People with a burden recognise others with a similar burden and they join and pray. I can tell you story after story of great revivals that were preceded by such united, persevering prayer by people who recognised that they share a similar burden for revival.
3. Unity is often the trigger for revival and sometimes the result of revival. Once when Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere was preaching in South India, his interpreter Samuel Ganesh felt convicted of the need to make peace with a person in the audience. He took leave from the preacher and went to audience and made peace. This triggered a process of person after person making peace with each other. Revival had come; there was no need to complete the sermon. Bishop Festo left room for the Spirit do his work. The Bible speaks of the urgency of believers being united (John 17:31, 23; Eph. 4:1-3). One of the most important callings of leaders is to yearn and pray for unity and do all they can to facilitate it. The Holy Spirit can use a leaders’ yearning to trigger revival. Those who pray for revival should make sure that they have done all to be at peace with others.
4. Another revival key is earnestness (Jonah 3:8). The famous revival prayer, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psa. 85:6) suggests a tone of earnest desire. Revival is preceded by people seeking God with all their heart and wanting to see God’s glory among his people. My favourite example of such praying are the students at Pandita Ramabhai’s school in India who fervently prayed, and God answered by reviving them and many others through them. The young Evan Roberts, whose ministry triggered the Welsh Revival, often prayed, “Bend me, O God.” We are open to whatever it takes for God to be totally in control of our lives!
5. Every genuine revival I know of has been accompanied by the confession of sin (2 Chron. 7:14). Some so-called revivals have been characterised by exotic experiences without much emphasis on repentance. People go to such places like tourists to see what is happening. I wonder whether we could call that revival. After the revival at Asbury College and Seminary in 1971 many students came to the bookstore to return things that they have taken without paying. That is a powerful sign that they had got right with God.
Preaching against sin before the revival often contributes to revival and influences what sins are sins confessed. In the history of the church there were times when some sins were neglected in revival preaching—like sexual impurity, exploitation, race, class and caste prejudice. This has resulted in revived churches perpetuating sins that the revival should have addressed. In other revivals, like the 18th century Wesleyan revival in the UK, revival helped influence social reform and attack injustice.
6. Often revivals are accompanied by spectacular phenomena, especially during the start of the revival. The revivals associated with the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards had people falling down with somewhat violent reactions under deep conviction of sin. We need to be open to God’s “surprising works” and be careful about stifling such. But we also need to remember that after some time these phenomena could become rituals that have lost their original meaning. Sometimes these phenomena could be taken to extremes that make them unbalanced and unbiblical.
7. Revivals start in different, sometimes surprising, places. In Wales it was a group of young people under a seminary student Evan Roberts, who came home from seminary to seek God sensing that he had lost his fire. Roberts started a prayer group which grew and grew and became a nationwide movement resulting in about 100,000 people being converted and joining the church. In the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, there were two single house-bound ladies in their eighties, Misses Smith, who prayed earnestly for revival. At the same time in another part of their island seven young men met regularly to prevail in prayer until revival broke. In Korea in the early 1900s God spoke to the leaders of the church and revived them first and that led to a national awakening. In an Indian girls school it was the prodding of a devout leader Pandita Ramabhai which fired up students to prevail in prayer and trigger revival. Five university students in the USA gathered at a haystack and prayed for missions and helped give birth to the great missionary movement of that nation.
8. While revivals usually result in the awakening of Christians, they are also accompanied by a powerful witness to those outside the church. Unbelievers see the power of God at work in the revived Christians and these Christians are emboldened to share their faith. The result is that large numbers of people are saved. So effective evangelism generally accompanies genuine revival.
Do not lose heart, dear friends, keep yearning for a great visitation from God. The seven young people in the Hebrides Islands made Isaiah 62:6-7 their watchword as they prayed for revival: “You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.” Let us take no rest and give no rest to God until he sends revival to our people.
*Ajith Fernando is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He served as the ministry’s national director for 35 years. He is the author of seventeen books, including Discipling in a Multicultural World, and lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his wife. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.