What Does God Do When We Assemble?

Thoughts in Light of the Asbury “Revival”

On February 8, a rather routine chapel service at Asbury University developed into a continuous worship and nonstop prayer meeting where God has responded to the prayers for inner healing, deliverance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. According to what I’ve been told and the reports I have read, this continuous assembly of worship is student-led and is primarily worship in song with occasional testimonies and brief lessons from Scripture. An ordinary student chapel service grew into a “revival.” (I don’t use “revival” in a technical sense but in the sense of an awakening, a transformative encounter with God.)

I understand the skeptical voices; I can sense that in myself as well. Should not revival mean the poor have good news preached to them, the oppressed are liberated, and people are treated fairly and with dignity? Some might suggest that is true revival (or true fasting, to use Isaiah’s language in chapter 58). Others might insist that revival only comes through the preaching of the Word so that hearts are convicted by the gospel. Nevertheless, I think people assembled to love on God and receive God’s love is the most basic form (perhaps the starting point) of revival.

It is a both/and. Revival gatherings like the one at Asbury are means of grace through which God works for transformation. And they are invitations to embrace the whole mission of Jesus, including sharing Jesus with others, caring for the sick, sharing resources with the poor, and advocating for justice.

In my understanding, God is doing something every time believers assemble, whether in chapel, campground, home, or a church building—no matter where they assemble.  Every assembly has the seed of revival because of God’s own initiative. When the people of God gather to seek God’s face, God is present. God has promised an active loving presence, though sometimes that loving presence becomes a word of confrontation with those who use the assembly as a “den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11).

When we approach assembly as a “den of robbers” (“we are God’s people,” so it doesn’t matter whether our lives are transformed), or as a pep rally (we are here to pump you up and create a spiritual high for you as if this were a concert), or as mere duty (part of checklist to avoid Hell), then we miss the fundamental meaning of assembling. What is that? When we assemble as a community in the Spirit, God is present for us, with us, and in us to encounter (meet) us for the sake of communion with God and each other as well as the transformation of our lives into the image of Christ.

The assembly gathers as a community of believers to love on God, and God loves on us. More accurately, God takes the initiative by calling us and gathering us into assembly to love on us, and we respond to God by loving on God and each other. This circle of love, a mutually indwelling love from the Father through Son by the Spirit, is the most significant and fundamental dynamic within the assembly, though it is often scarred by pettiness, hatred, exclusion, and discrimination. The circle of love, however, is the dynamic that drives revival or awakening when we experience it.

God transforms us through encounter, which may come with a tangible sense of God’s presence, a quiet spirit, or many other descriptors. The Spirit of God is always active when we are assembled, creating space in our hearts to know God. We may experience this inwardly through mourning, repenting, lamenting, rejoicing, or praising. We experience this communally as believers share prayers, longings, songs, testimonies, Scriptures, and the Lord’s table. We are transformed by the work of God’s Spirit within us and among us. This inner revival is a gift we receive with gratitude.

An authentic encounter with the loving and holy God also calls us into the life of God. We are invited to participate in the communion of Triune God where there is shalom. Many seek peace and security in other things, including sex, drugs, consumerism, alcohol, nationalism among many other things. The high levels of anxiety in Western culture create a deep need for encounter with transcendence. A worshipping assembly can be an occasion for such an encounter. I know have experienced it many, many times. This is, in part, what many see in the work of God at Asbury—an anxious generation seeking peace in God’s love.

Moreover, an encounter with the loving and holy God calls into God’s mission. When we experience God’s transforming grace and holiness, our response is not only gratitude but participation in the mission of God. With Isaiah, we say, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). This mission is wholistic, including not only leading others to that encounter but also sharing shalom with others through hospitality, generosity, and advocacy. If revival stops with inner renewal (as wonderful a moment as that is), it fizzles out without the embrace of God’s mission. The embers of revival will die out without participation in God’s mission. This calls for endurance and persistence.

I am not a skeptic of revivals because I believe assembly is one place where God has promised to revive us. At the same time, I do apply discernment and wisdom (as best I can) to give thanks for the good fruit and to identify the bad fruit. Though God is present in every assembly, we are still human beings, and human beings bring with them not only their genuine search for God but also their self-interested baggage, including their consumeristic expectations.

What we yearn for, I hope, is a moment to genuinely bring our hearts before God and for God to transform our self-interested, consumeristic baggage into the image of the Son, both in communion with God and on mission with God.

That is my prayer every time I gather with the people of God, and when God does something more surprising than I imagine, I hope to receive it without deconstructing it.

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