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I admit I’m in kind of a quandary.
The pastor at the the Assemblies of God church my wife attends spent 45 minutes last Sunday pleading with God for a “community wide revival”. Now, although I was baptized in a church that isn’t known as a hotbed of revival, I spent around thirty years of my life between 1973 and about 1996 in and out of different revival-oriented churches. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the church into which I was baptized was not a church to be taken seriously by serious Christians, and in 1973, I considered myself a serious Christian. You see, I had a serious “come to Jesus” moment. After several years in the late sixties, early seventies drug-and-rock-and-roll culture, something of a revival broke out among people my age. It was called The Jesus Movement, and I don’t want to think about the influence it had on American Protestantism because dwelling on that depresses me profoundly. Suffice it to say that in 1968, Protestantism was a pursuit for grown-ups and for those young people who aspired to that label. Fast forward forty years and the most important thing in Protestant Christianity is that it be relevant, i.e. amenable to a group of people who, as CS Lewis said of Susan Pevensie, want ” to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as [possible] and then stop there as long as [one] can.” Boomer fingerprints are all over early 21st century Protestant Christianity, and you can barely see inside for all the smudges.
The church into which I was baptized was a Constantinian church, that is to say, a state church or an ethnic church. It was old-school. A Christian was someone who was born into the ethnic group and who had been baptized into its fellowship as an infant. The Assemblies of God church I found refuge in in 1973 was what I guess you would call a Revival church. Father Stephen Freeman, on his excellent blog Glory To God For All Things, does a very good job of explaining the difference. You become a member of a Revival church by “getting saved” and undergoing baptism as an adult. It was implied that something was defective if you had only the first level of Christianity. It was implied that the only thing baptism accomplished for you as an infant was to make you wet. I remember the Assemblies of God pastor and many of the more eminent layfolk considering people in my native church valid objects of evangelism. I did too, and it led to some embarrassing incidents where I displayed too much zeal and too little discernment. There are a lot of very pious people in the Assemblies of God. I could tell the difference even when I was very young. A Congregational minister in whose choir I sang because my mother earned a stipend as their choir leader often allowed his Assemblies of God-ordained sister to preach when he was absent. The difference was between night and day. It took a while, and a lot of growing up, before I could appreciate the serious Christians in my ancestral church.
The “Jesus Revolution” started in earnest in my neck of the woods in the early 70s. A lot of the ne’er-do-wells I hung around with at the time put down the hash pipes, picked up Bibles and headed for the churches, especially the more progressive, cooler ones that embraced coffee houses with lots of espresso and folk-rock bands as a means of attracting truculent, “hard to reach” young people. The idea was that we would funnel from the coffee houses into the churches, eventually. What a surprise to find that the coffee houses digested the churches and now it is very, very difficult to find a church that still acts like the churches of my parents’ generation, what with introits, Kyries, responsive readings, and all of that panoplia. Indeed, it is hard to find a church that will admit to being a church at all – we are overwhelmed with Worship Centers, Family Life Centers, Gathering Places, Deliverance Ministries, etc, and sometimes you have to dig pretty hard to find out what brand of Christianity is subscribed to.
Now, I did not leave Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism because I was “disillusioned” with Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism fulfilled its purpose in my life. It introduced me to Jesus Christ, which 20 years as a member in good standing in my ancestral Reformed church did not do. This bothers me, because it was not that I didn’t have ample opportunity to meen Jesus in the Reformed church. It was that I wasn’t paying any attention. When I finally started paying attention, it was the Pentecostals who benefitted. It was the miracle stories, really, I guess. The Pentecostal God was the kind of God I assumed from my glancing knowledge of the Scriptures. But once Evangelicalism introduces you to Jesus, there isn’t a whole lot further it can take you. It’s a design flaw, really. Everything about Evangelicalism is designed to get you to Jesus as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Whether you stay with Him is pretty much entirely up to you.
I left Evangelicalism in its Pentecostal variety because I encountered the Orthodox Church, and I was convinced of her claim to be the apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the Holy Apostles. That meant that the original design was much more like my ancestral Reformed church than it was like any of the Revivalist churches I spent time in afterwards. People are born into it and find their spiritual subsistence there. Pastors of revivalist churches often scratch their heads when I explain this to them, because nobody in the Orthodox Church is “born again” according to their lights. Except the converts from Evangelicalism, who by those rights should be the ‘best’ Christians in the Orthodox Church, but who usually aren’t.
But once again, I wonder what Orthodox spiritual renewal looks like. I know the Orthodox Church went through some very decadent times, when the faith of the faithful was reduced to a handful of superstitions and family customs. Apart from this historical understanding, the stories of St. Cosmas of Aitolos and St. Nektarios of Corinth make little sense at all. I mentioned to my parish priest that the career of St. Cosmas of Aitolos reminded me a great deal of that of John Wesley, his contemporary. Now the Orthodox Church does not do “revivals” or “renewals”, like you see so often in the history of Western Christendom, but SS Cosmas and Nektarios were instrumental in “reOrthodoxing the Orthodox”; like Wesley, they founded churches, schools, and orphanges, rekindled parish life. Father replied, “Wesley, sadly, provoked a schism. St. Cosmas created unity.” That started me thinking. In every major Protestant awakening, from the first flutterings of Pietism and Puritanism in the 17th century to the Emergent movement in the 21st, the price of increased spirituality always came to be paid in the coin of schism, with one group of Christians labeling their predecessors as lacking in zeal and not really worthy of the term. Maybe monasticism takes the place of this in the Catholic and Orthodox Church.
I know what my wife’s pastor is saying. The darkness of this age is getting so thick it is nearly palpable. At a time when we need to love each other or perish, we cannot abide the sight of one another. Jesus has gone from being the Savior of penitents and the Lord of the Church to a nosegay for our culture and an issuer of seals of approval for our political positions, left or right.
But I don’t want another revival. Please, Lord, don’t send another revival. We won’t survive another revival.
Send the Holy Spirit, but Lord, to be honest, I haven’t been Orthodox long enough to know what this would mean for my wife’s pastor’s community, for my county, for my city, right now.