In preparation for this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, SBC President Steve Gaines penned a letter to Southern Baptists encouraging them to pray and fast for the forthcoming meeting. Gaines reminded Southern Baptists, “God does things when we pray and fast that He does not do if we don’t pray and fast.”
The theme of prayer carried over into the meeting itself, which had the theme, “Pray! For such a time as this.” Gaines, in his presidential address derived from Acts 13, encouraged those present to minister to the Lord through prayer and worship in order to see the power of God.
The theme of prayer and petitioning God was ever present in this year’s convention. From the podium and throughout the auditorium, prayers were lifted for our Lord to do a mighty work in our land. It was a beautiful time of worship and a reminder of what unites us as Southern Baptists. Now I ask: Since we have gathered to pray and been encouraged to pray, what must we do to see the power of God move—like we prayed for?
To that question, I would provide two answers:
1. Keep Praying
History is rife with examples of the influence of persistent prayer on spiritual awakenings. There is perhaps no greater example of the power of prayer to spiritual awakening than the Laymen’s Prayer Revival of 1858.
Jeremiah Lanphier, a Dutch Reformed city missionary to New York City, began his ministry with a simple prayer: “Lord, what will thou have me to do?” Lanphier, convinced of the power of prayer and seeing the spiritual and moral decline in the city around him, felt compelled by God to establish a prayer meeting in the city. To attract attention to his prayer meeting, Lanphier dispersed a handbill embossed with the words, “How Often Shall I Pray?” The handbill answers,
As often as the language of prayer is on my heart, as often as I see my need of help, as often as I feel the power of temptation, as often as I am made sensible of my spiritual declension or feel the aggression of a worldly spirit. In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity and intercourse with men for intercourse with God.
Lanphier’s prayer meeting was initially met with little interaction. On the first day, Lanphier began the meeting alone and attracted only six attendees by the end. In the second week, 20 showed up to pray, and by the third week, 40. On October 14, after having decided to meet daily, there were more than 100 in attendance.
As the meeting continued to grow, scores of individuals became convinced of their need for Christ and turned to Him. As the prayer meeting grew, similar meetings sprung up across the city, the state and, ultimately, the nation.
As the meetings spread, so did the conversions. The growth of the prayer meetings prompted evangelistic services and meetings throughout the nation. Over a two-month period, more than 3,000 individuals were converted in Newark, New Jersey. In New York City, more than 10,000 turned to Christ. The revival ultimately spread throughout the nation and into towns, cities and universities where many were engaged in intense prayer and thousands were converted to Christ.
God’s work through fervent prayer is evident in the Laymen’s Prayer Revival, and I must say God can surely do it again! Gaines’ call to prayer at the SBC meeting is but a starting place for us as individuals and as a convention. If we harken back to Lanphier’s original handbill and ask ourselves, “How often shall I pray?” certainly the answer is, “More than we already do.”
If we were also to ask, “What should we pray?” I think the answer would be Lanphier’s original prayer: “Lord, [if we are to see awakening in our churches and nation,] what would you have me to do?”
As the Lord answers this prayer, I would encourage you to start preparing yourself and your churches for whatever the answer is.
2. Start Preparing
Every season of spiritual awakening has begun with a season of spiritual preparation. Surveying the history of spiritual awakenings, awakening leaders always prepare their hearts for service and their minds for action.
John Wesley, Charles Wesley and George Whitfield—all stalwarts of the first Great Awakening—studied together at Oxford University. As they studied, these men sought to encourage one another in their studies as well as in their spiritual lives. United together in what was called the “Holy Club,” they prepared their hearts for faithful service to the Lord.
Whitfield remarked about the Holy Club:
Never did persons strive more earnestly to enter in at the strait gate. They kept their bodies under, even to an extreme. They were dead to the world, and willing to be accounted as the dung and offscouring of all things, so that they might win Christ. Their hearts glowed with the love of God and they never prospered so much in the inner man as when they had all manner of evil spoken against them. … I now began, like them, to live by rule, and to pick up the very fragments of my time, that not a moment of it might be lost. Whether I ate or drank, or whatsoever I did, I endeavored to do all to the glory of God. … I left no means unused which I thought would lead me nearer to Jesus Christ.
The preparation and example of the Holy Club illustrates for us what must happen if we hope to see Spiritual Awakening in our churches and nation. We must prepare our hearts and live in such way that we reflect the glory of God instead of our own worldliness. As Lewis Drummond notes, “A spiritual awakening is no more than God’s people seeing God in His holiness, turning from their wicked ways, and being transformed into His likeness.” Our only hope for seeing spiritual awakening is preparing our hearts by patterning our lives after the example of Christ.
The example of Whitfield, the Wesleys and the Holy Club shows not only the preparation of their hearts, but also the preparation of their minds. The Holy Club, with its founding at Oxford University, comprised a group of men committed to studying and preparing their minds for great service to the Lord. In addition to the Holy Club, William Tennent’s Log College exhibits the preparation that has often been a part of great spiritual awakenings.
In the early 1700s, William Tennent came to America and built a Log Cabin to serve as a theological training center for his sons. Burdened by the state of the church, Tennent found it necessary to educate his sons and eventually other young men in language, logic and theology. In addition, Tennent instilled in each of these young men a passion for preaching the Word and reaching others with the Gospel.
George Whitfield, having visited the school, remarked, “From this despised place seven or eight worthy ministers of Jesus have lately been sent forth; more are almost ready to be sent; and the foundation is now laying for the instruction of many others.” Whitfield would later call Tennent’s eldest, Gilbert, and other graduates of the Log College the brightest lights for the Gospel in the whole Colony of Pennsylvania.
These men set out from the Log College having prepared for Gospel ministry and were used mightily in the time of revival known as the first Great Awakening. The preparation by those involved with the Holy Club as well as those who attended the Log College allowed them to have a fruitful ministry during the awakening. I would say to those of us who are praying for awakening that we must also prepare for awakening by devoting time to preparing our minds for Gospel action.
For some, like Tennent, the Wesleys and Whitfield, this preparation requires engagement in formal theological education. In our context, formal theological education most often takes place in a theological seminary. Devoting oneself to the study of theology helps prepare both the mind and the spirit for service to the Lord. Armed with a formal theological education, a young minister seeing the fruits of revival is able to rightly apply the truth of God’s Word to the world around him, and he is able to protect the church from any sort of doctrinal drift that may arise and seek to disrupt a vast movement of God. As a map lays out a proper route for a trip, so a formal theological education guides the life and work of a minister. Though a map may not indicate every roadblock that is in the way, it will always indicate a way forward. Though a theological education may not provide every answer a minister needs, it will provide the right resources to indicate the proper answer and prepare them for whatever ministerial roadblocks they may face.
Vital to an awakening will be individuals who have prepared for service via formal theological education. For some, this should serve as a call to begin preparation for ministry at a seminary. For others who have already completed their time in seminary, this should serve as motivation to “call out the called” and encourage them to begin the pursuit of theological education, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel and for the purpose of seeing awakening in our world. Should God choose to send an awakening, will He find individuals formally prepared for service to Him? This will depend on commitment to participate in or call others to participate in formal theological education.
For others, who may have already completed their formal theological education, preparation for awakening requires a commitment to training others for Kingdom service. Just as William Tennent used the training he had received to train others, so should those who have been blessed with the opportunity to receive a theological education use what they have received to train others. Certainly, every sermon and lesson is training, but what if, as a pastor or leader, you endeavored to work closely with a small group of individuals who seem passionate about serving the Lord?
What if, with the training you have received previously, you instructed a small group in evangelism, apologetics and theology? What if you were able to send out from your church into the work force and world a group of individuals who were fully prepared to share, defend and disciple others in the faith?
A ministry like this will look different from church to church and from pastor to pastor, but if we really want to see awakening in our churches and communities, we will not be able to do it alone! Training others to assist in the work of the ministry will be vital if we hope to see an awakening in our time.
John Wesley was himself convinced of the importance of small groups training for lay ministry. Wesley, quoting from The Country Parson’s Advice to His Parishioners, remarks:
If good men of the church will unite together in the several parts of the kingdom, disposing themselves into friendly societies, and engaging each other, in their respective combinations, to be helpful to each other in all good Christian ways, it will be the most effectual means for restoring our decaying Christianity to its primitive life and vigor, and the supporting of our tottering and sinking Church.
Inspired by this quote, Wesley founded his own group of select brethren in which he trained them in doctrine and commissioned them as ambassadors for Christ. These individuals served as the leaders of the Methodist movement and helped spread the awakening message of Wesley throughout England.
If we truly wish to see revival and awakening in our midst, banding together in prayer and in preparation is our best hope. If we really believe that God hears and will answer our prayers, we must begin even now preparing our communities and ourselves for God to do a mighty work. If we really believe Ephesians 3:20, that God is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, we must commit ourselves to faithful prayer and preparation until we see God start an awakening in our land.
Much of the historical information and figures throughout the article have been taken from: McDow, Malcolm, and Alvin L. Reid. Firefall: how God has shaped history through revivals. Enumclaw, WA: Pleasant Word, 2002.
Dallimore, Arnold A. (2010-03-04). George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Kindle Locations 178-183). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Drummond, Lewis A. Eight Keys to Biblical Revival. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1994. pg. 107
Henderson, D. Michael (2016-02-10). John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples (p. 101). Rafiki Books. Kindle Edition.