Lent, John the Baptist, and the Asbury Revival

Lent, John the Baptist, and the Asbury Revival

February 22, 2023

by John Partridge

Regardless of whether you watched the unfolding events at the chapel on the campus of Asbury University, particularly during this season of Lent, I have been struck by the similarities between the events unfolding at Asbury and the ministry of John the Baptist. As the weekly chapel worship service at Asbury continued well beyond its scheduled ending, the students stayed because, whether they could put a name to it or not, they didn’t want to leave the presence that they felt in that place.  In Christian circles, we would say that they felt the presence of God.  Reports say that they were called to a closeness with God, they felt the call of God upon their lives, and they felt a call and a need for repentance. 

That chapel service continued for the rest of that day, on into the night, and for more than a week beyond its scheduled time.  Students arranged to lead worship in shifts of sorts, not with an official schedule, but by choosing small groups of worship leaders from among those present as the Spirit led them.  The names of the worship leaders weren’t given to the press because they wanted God to get the credit.  If you knew who they were, you could find PhD’s bringing water to thirsty people in line, pushing wheelchairs, and guiding visitors to the nearest restroom.

Students and adults from nearby towns came first, then folks from out of state, and brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world.  They came to see, and to feel, this thing that God was doing and, by the accounts that I have read, they were deeply moved and came away changed, even if their visit was brief.  But of course, they weren’t the only ones that came.  Asbury’s campus was also visited by the media, the curious, by academics who had written about an earlier Asbury revival in the 1970’s, by “ministry professionals” with decades of experience, and some who were openly skeptical.

Within days, the academics, the skeptics, and the “ministry professionals” could be found online, critiquing Asbury, its students, the worship leaders, and everything about that event.  Whether you want to call it a revival or something else, it reminded me a lot of Jesus’ baptism.  John was admittedly more than a little odd.  He dressed in camel hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and wandered the countryside preaching a message of repentance.  But as odd as he was, people felt something in his presence.  People from across the entire region flocked to hear him, to repent of their sin, recommit their lives to following God, and be baptized as an outward sign of their repentance.

But mixed in among those whose lives were changed were the curious, the academics, the skeptics, and the “ministry professionals.”  The Pharisees then, as the modern equivalents are doing even now, insisted that this isn’t how God works, that John was doing it wrong, that the people were being deceived, and that certainly, as professionals, they knew better.  And yet, God didn’t choose to work through them.  God has always chosen unexpected, under-prepared, and often unqualified people, in unexpected places, to do unexpected things, and following paths that surprise us.

So, what was really happening at Asbury University?  I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but it seems safe to say that God was doing something, even if we can’t put a name to it, or explain exactly what it was.  After all, scholars and skeptics are still trying to explain what John the Baptist’s ministry was about, what he accomplished, and what God was doing through him.  I’m certain that books and countless internet articles will debate what happened at Asbury for decades to come.  But from my perspective, I think that we can all find comfort, reassurance, and a timely message for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. 

We are both comforted and reassured as we see God engaged in human affairs.  God has not abandoned us.  God still walks the earth and is still calling us to follow him.  But particularly in this season of Lent, just as we heard from the ministry of John the Baptist, we are reminded that God is calling us to repent of our sins and to recommit our lives to following God.  I’m certain that as you read about what happened in Kentucky on the campus of Asbury University, that you will hear the voices of the skeptics, the critics, and the “ministry professionals” proclaiming that they know better.  But I also hope that you will hear the quiet voice of God in these remarkable events as he says, “Follow me, and I will give you rest.”

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