The leader of Asbury Theological Seminary reflects on what is happening at their campus in Kentucky
For the past two weeks, thousands have been flocking to a small Christian university in Kentucky after a chapel service turned into a ‘revival outpouring’. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary appeared on a recent episode of Unbelievable? to talk about what has been happening on campus. He was joined by author, pastor and theologian Gavin Ortlund, who has been following the revival and gave his thoughts on the history of revivals in the US and elsewhere. Christian speaker, author, vlogger and podcaster, Alisa Childers, also appeared on the show, having visited Asbury soon after news of the revival broke. She shared her hopes and concerns for what she is seeing there. Below is an adaptation of what Timothy Tennet shared with Justin Brierley on Unbelievable?. Listen to the whole show here.
On February 8th, this chapel service across the street, which is right outside my office now, continued on after chapel was completed. I looked up from my office and saw a student running across the lawn and he was coming to the office and he said: “There’s something happening at the university.” That was my first word of it. That was probably around 11:30 on Wednesday. And it’s just been building ever since.
We saw a particular surge that happened this past weekend, probably 15,000 people coming in from around the world. All of our chapel sites, our cafeteria, our gymnasium, all the sites are full. We said early on we weren’t going to have people watching it, so we have prayer stations at every site, prayer teams praying for people. And I’ve been in all these sites every day and night and they’re just full of people seeking and searching after God and some amazing answers to.
Revival is always a surprise. Jonathan Edwards called it “the surprising work of grace”. We definitely were surprised by it. We have had students that have been earnestly praying for revival for several years. One of our students graduated several years ago and he phoned to say he felt called to stay in the city and he literally circled our town every day praying for revival. There were groups that met on Friday afternoon praying for revival.
But, even with all of that, it’s the work of God and we were completely surprised that this happened on that day. There was no preparation for it. We’re just delighted that God is moving and we’re trying to steward that as best we can.
God seems to be doing something particular with Gen Y and Gen Z. And so the chapel has been preserved regularly for just people 25 years and younger. We’ve had a lot of focus on the younger generation – that’s been a real important part of this awakening.
There’s a desperation in young people to move beyond the impasses we’re in. And I do sense that, in our student body and among the young people across the street, desperation and a desire to move beyond a life of casual prayers, the kind of domesticated Church life, and realise the New Testament is inherently disruptive. And it inherently challenges the way we domesticate the gospel and the way we try to fit it to our moulds. They’re hungry for something deeper that God might do in their lives.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
The phrase that seems to be used most to describe what it feels like is ‘radical humility’. That really seems to capture it. I tell people you’re more likely to hear quiet weeping than loud shouting. It’s actually a much quieter event than what you might expect. If you go into a service – and if you’re not used to contemporary Christian music it may seem like a lot – but it’s a very quiet event; a lot of people at the altar just quietly praying, weeping, sharing. It’s a very solemn kind of experience, more so than what perhaps has happened at other revivals or awakenings.
We’re actually calling it an awakening not a revival, but we’re trying to emphasise that part of it. In the long run, revivals are known by their fruit and whether people’s lives are truly transformed. And so we’re seeking to steward something.
History of revival
If you go back and look at Asbury’s own history of revivals, we were founded by a revivalist in 1923. The city had a revival in 1885, which is why Asbury College is here to begin with.
In 18th Century revivals with John Wesley, you can see how it was also messy, it was challenging. John Wesley used to clean off dung from his coat at night because people would throw cow dung at him while he was preaching. We look back and tend to romanticise past movements, but, in fact, every one of these movements has all kinds of stuff that happens.
We’re seeking to just listen to God’s voice. And having been at the altar with people night after night, I would say there’s no question that there is deep work of God happening in people’s lives. And so we just have to steward that and trust God in that and see where it goes because there are people here that are hungry and desperate.
Space and place
While we believe God meets people everywhere, we think this has to go from a ‘come and see’ to a ‘go and tell’ phase. That’s already happening. But we believe in the means of grace – there are times when God meets people at particular times in particular ways. And so we have to steward the fact that, for whatever reason, right now, people are coming here hungry.
I look out the window right now and see 1,000 people right outside my window. They’re singing, they’re praying. They will not be able to get in tonight, I know by looking at the crowd, they will be out there until midnight tonight. And they’re hungry, they really want a touch from God. And so I want to honour those prayers, even if I don’t fully understand it or fully know their stories. We’re having to trust God to help us in this time.
The incarnation and resurrection fundamentally changed the Christian view of space and time. And we believe that, by virtue of that, Christ’s risen presence is present everywhere and the truth of the gospel is present everywhere. But it is also true that God does honour historicity. He honours places, and we don’t understand why certain places and times become accentuated in certain moments, but we know through history that has happened.
We have no idea, and we take zero credit for what has happened here, we’re just as surprised and we hope and pray that it spreads to other places and becomes even more fruitful in places outside of Wilmore. This town is way too small to receive this many guests. So we’re praying for God to bring it from here out to other places because we’re not trying to hold on to this, we don’t own it, we’re just trying to understand it ourselves.
This is something you don’t spend a lot of time talking about, you just want to be in awe of it. Because when you talk about it, you just can’t get it. You can’t talk this thing through it’s too difficult to understand.
Timothy Tennent is President of Asbury Theological Seminary. You can hear more of him on Unbelievable? The Asbury Revival: A new move of God?