Much of my academic research has been on The First Great Awakening, an eighteenth-century revival movement that played a major role in shaping the religious and social landscape of early America.
Today, we are witnessing another revival of sorts, one that has the potential of being a “game changer” as much or more than the Great Awakening.
Revivalist preachers (New Lights) in colonial America often called into question the salvation of main-line, non-revivalist ministers (Old Lights). If a minister could not recall a time and place of immediate conversion, the authenticity of his faith was questioned.
Some ministers like James Davenport of Connecticut went to extremes with wild emotional outbursts as well as intemperate accusations against other Christians. This over-the-top emotional criticism earned for some New Light ministers the infamous label “Enthusiast” (from enthous‘possessed by a god).
Davenport deserved this caricature. He promoted public bonfires and told converts to throw anything in the flames that hindered their dedication to God, such as fancy clothes and anti-revivalist books. In the spring of 1743, Davenport worked himself up into such a religious frenzy that he took off his pants and threw them into the fire as a sign of spiritual dedication. A woman bystander quickly jerked them out, threw them in his face, and accused him of insanity.
This is not to suggest that the Great Awakening was overall characterized by such excesses. All in all, it was a powerful, evangelical movement that did much good, ushering many into the Kingdom of God. But it also did much harm. Some like Jonathan Edwards, who reflected deeply on the Great Awakening, concluded that many, far too many, even of his own converts, blindly rushed into the emotional grand gesturing of the moment, only to fall away in due course.
We are living in the midst of a new Great Awakening, more specifically the Woke movement. This is not a Christian revival as such, but one that clearly bears all the marks of an over-zealous religious awakening. This Great Awokening is expanding by leaps and bounds, especially on college campuses (secular and Christian) and is swiftly finding its way into main street America.
To be woke, the online Urban Dictionary says, is to “get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth” (i.e., conversion). More specifically, as one contributor noted, the woke have“been enlightened” to understand “some politically Progressive ‘truth’ about society….” A more sarcastic definition appears in the same dictionary— woke is “a state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.”
The woke throw out prejudicial “phobias,” “isms” and other stereo-typical labels against any who are not in lock-step with this progressive revival. Rare is the day I do not hear someone being attacked with words like racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, white privilege, etc.
The saturation level is so high that the terms are beginning to lose their meaning. Thus, more accusatory terms are invented to point out ever-growing societal violations. The sad part of all this is that by calling out everyone for everything, these “evangelists” unwittingly minimalize the real problems of human justice.
Wokeness is most directly connected with the Black Lives Matter movement, but the concept has morphed into all corners of the progressive social justice movement. The changes (or conversions) that have followed on the heels of this modern revival are striking. I cannot recall seeing deeper and more rapid cultural changes as in the past five years or so, especially involving the redefinition of marriage and gender.
During the infamous summer of 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage, altering the most foundational institution of western culture. As recent as 2008 both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton strongly denied the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, but now believe the opposite. What was believed a few short years ago, is now heresy, and what was rejected, is now orthodoxy.
This is conversion.
What was believed a few short years ago, is now heresy, and what was rejected, is now orthodoxy.
Also in the summer of 2015, we witnessed the Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner transformation. This long and painful episode helped propel the nation into a season of slow repentance altering how we view the most fundamental differences between male and female.
By June of this year the World Health Organization finally labeled “gender incongruence” as something other than a mental illness. Thus, that which has long been considered a mental condition is now (without adequate study or consensus) celebrated as normal.
That is insanity.
How should Christians respond to all this? The Christian message calls us to be compassionate and caring for all mankind. The church must reach out to all and offer them love and truth. Sadly, Christians have not always had a good track record of “speaking the truth in love.” By the same token, love without truth is not Christian love.
It is not compassionate to pretend all is well with those who are caught up in the clutches of sin. The evangelical gospel requires a recognition of personal sinfulness, or else salvation is meaningless. The gospel is only effective for those who know they are sinners.
The Church must reach out to all and offer love and truth. By the same token, love without truth is not Christian love.
Unfortunately, some conservative woke evangelicals are increasingly critical of those who choose not to mix the gospel with social justice mandates. The Gospel Coalition has become a flag-ship organization for believers hungry to signal their virtue “creds” by mixing gospel proclamation with progressive ideas. Just recently, John MacArthur and company made a step toward countering this trend with a measured statement that seeks to affirm both biblical compassion and gospel purity.
I do not know where all of this will end. Lines are being drawn among the faithful. Balance is needed. Like the early Awakening, the modern Awokening movement has its good and bad elements. Who can deny that we should be just, kind, respectful, and truthful to everyone?
But the same problems that plagued early revivalist ministers plagues the woke as well, namely, over-heated emotion and un-tempered criticism. Sitting in the academic ivory tower or standing in the pulpit reigning down woke-isms and phobias will not produce the conversions desired, at least not real and lasting ones.
Until the James Davenports among us calm down and come to their senses, we have no choice but to try and snatch their pants from the fire and call them to sanity.