Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Great Awakening Through Which We Are Living

I got to thinking about 'Great Awakenings' today, as I sat in a contemporary worship service this morning.  (This is not normally my 'cup of tea' but we were there for Mary Beth's school, the staff of which was being honored by a 'megachurch' in High Point, Green Street Baptist Church.)

Methodist Camp Meeting, 1819
The United States is one of the most religious nations in the world.  This is especially true when compared to the countries of Western Europe , which have been largely secularized over the past century or two.  And the primary way this has happened over the past 300 years is by the process of 'great awakening', when an intense period of evangelical Protestant revivalism occurs and individuals by the thousands and even millions are converted from a nominal Christianity (or no faith at all) into devout, church-going, faithful Christians.

The first 'Great Awakening' is the one most people know of from our national history.  It began around 1740 (long before the Revolution), under the revival preaching ministry of George Whitefield, a British evangelical Anglican, who came to the United States seven different times and preached throughout the colonies, in a most effective way.  Even the skeptical Benjamin Franklin was impressed:
Benjamin Franklin attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with Whitefield's ability to deliver a message to such a large group. Franklin had previously dismissed, as an exaggeration, reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England. When listening to Whitefield preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centred on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he computed that Whitefield could be heard by over thirty thousand people in the open air.

Franklin admired Whitefield as a fellow intellectual but thought Whitefield's plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. He published several of Whitefield's tracts and was impressed by Whitefield's ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to crowds. Franklin was an ecumenist and approved of Whitefield's appeal to members of many denominations, but he was not himself converted. After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the: "wonderful...change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."
Rev. George Whitefield was the Billy Graham of his day, that's how powerful his influence was in colonial America.  Furthermore, scholars believe that "the evangelical movement of the 1740s played a key role in the development of democratic thought, as well as the belief of the free press and the belief that information should be shared and completely unbiased. This helped create a demand for religious freedom.  These concepts ushered in the period of the American Revolution."

After 40 years later, beginning around 1790, a second 'great awakening' began to permeate throughout the new United States of America.  According to this Wikipedia article, "the Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred in the United States beginning in the late eighteenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. While it occurred in all parts of the United States, it was especially strong in the Northeast and the Midwest. The epicenter of revivalism was the so-called Burned-Over District in western New York. Named for its overabundance of hellfire-and-damnation preaching, the region produced dozens of new denominations, communal societies, and reform movements.  In addition to a religious movement, other reform movements such as temperance, abolition, and women's rights also grew in antebellum America."

Interestingly enough, one of those new denominations/religions that sprang out of the Second Great Awakening was Mormonism (1830).

The religious effects of the Second Great Awakening kept working within American society for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, sometimes hidden, sometimes not so hidden.  Dwight L. Moody continued the revivalist tradition in the 1880s, continuing to produce a flood of newly converted Christians for the churches to take in and nurture.  At the same time, new holiness and charismatic movements produced new churches full of the Spirit and spiritual fervor.  Also, American churches lauched a worldwide missionary endeavor, effectively spreading Christianity all over the globe.

In the early to middle 20th Century, Billy Graham led a new movement for evangelical revival, and one thing he used that hadn't been done before was the use of television to spread the Word.  In this way, he reached millions of viewers around the world, becoming the best known Christian evangelist in the world (and a spiritual advisor to American Presidents!) for several decades.

I think it is plausible to assert that another Great Awakening began in the mid-1970s and has been slowly gaining steam (with some fits and starts) ever since.  Among the manifestations of this late 20th Century Great Awakening are these persons, movements or churches: Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Association, Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel Movement, John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement, Jim Baker and PTL, Jimmy Swaggert, Rick Warren and the Saddleback Church, Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston, Adam Hamilton and the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, and the list goes on and on.  (It is my experience that most traditional churches are now trying to imitate the kinds of worship and evangelistic techniques utilized by these innovative persons and churches listed here.)

Several characteristics of most of these churches and movements include: churches that grow from small through large to 'mega', where tens of thousands of people can attend on a single day;  the prominent use of contemporary Christian music, including modern rock and roll instrumentation;  a turn from hymnals to projection screens for words and video, churches that look more like theatres than traditional sanctuaries, using comfortable seating, hi-tech audio and video; informal dress; the use of television for outreach.

The church I attended this morning, though technically a Baptist Church, used all of the above 'techniques' in its worship.  And it did so in a thoroughly sophisticated way, though we were only in downtown High Point, NC (not a particularly sophisticated place).

It is my contention that the Great Awakening through which we are living is having an amazing and profound impact on our society, in ways visible and invisible.  And it shows no sign of going away.

One final point: its profound impact even on the Democratic Party can be seen in the fact that Barack Obama, hardly the evangelical world's favorite President, invited a mega-church pastor, Rick Warren, to give the opening invocation at his 2008 inauguration.  THAT is power.

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