Historians have noted that these revivals were in some ways a reaction against Enlightenment rationality, which often marshaled reason and science to question and marginalize religion. The larger reaction—Romanticism—encompassed the arts, literature, music, and philosophy, which together exalted the role of intuition and emotion in human affairs. Many Christians expressed their disdain for Enlightenment values by pointing to revivals and noting that they could not be explained rationally but only as products of divine intervention.
But some Christians, already deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, looked at the revivals rationally and noticed sociological patterns. And they began applying them to their ministries. The most famous is Charles Finney. In his Lectures on Revivals of Religion,he argued that a revival was “not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [meaning, scientific] result of the right use of constituted means.” To be sure, he believed God gave these means to produce revivals, but as Tim Keller puts it, “Finney insisted that any group could have a revival any time or place, as long as they applied the right methods in the right way.
This morphed into a religion of crisis, a religion of decision, and a religion where the manipulation of emotion became the centerpiece. Instead of a genuine encounter with the living God, the movement became infected with too many who sought not so much to know and love God as to have a remarkable religious experience. This has been our Achilles heel ever since—more of that below.
Some were alert to this corruption early on and reacted against it. One reason: Try as they might, this genuine religious ecstasy never came to them. One such person, Phoebe Palmer, after a crisis of faith, determined that “She didn’t need ‘joyous emotion’ to believe—belief itself was grounds for assurance,” as a Christian History article summarized it. “Reading Jesus’ words that ‘the altar sanctifies the gift,’ she believed that God would make her holy if she ‘laid her all upon the altar.’” She fine-tuned John Wesley’s teachings about perfection into a three-step process: “consecrating oneself totally to God, believing God will sanctify what is consecrated, and telling others about it.”
Out of this grew the holiness movement, where complete sanctification stood erect at the center. The life of faith became for many not so much a pining after God but after moral perfection, not so much seeking grace as pummeling the will into submission. No question that there was a need to depend on the power of the Spirit, and to be sure, many rigorously pursued holiness that they might see God. This movement produced more than its share of Protestant saints. But much of it also predictably degenerated into religious narcissism. For many, it was more and more about the pursuit of personal holiness and not so much the pursuit of the Holy One.
This passion for personal reform soon spilled over into the social realm, so that evangelical believers also became known for striving for the reformation of society—from prison reform to abstinence to the abolition of slavery to care for the urban poor. And for some, this blossomed into the social gospel movement, whose gospel origins and godly motives one cannot deny.
Walter Rauschenbusch in his A Theology for the Social Gospel, said, “The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it.” Though evangelicals today reject Rauschenbusch’s theological liberalism, his emphasis on the nature of the church’s mission has woven itself into the very fabric of evangelical religion.
It must be said—and I’ll say it over and over in these essays—such activity for God is laudatory. It is to be commended and encouraged. One of the jobs of the church is indeed to love the world. But when mission becomes the center, the focal point of the Christian life, I believe that life will inevitably degenerate into an active and busy religious life void of God. It will become a life increasingly fascinated with technique as it seeks to efficiently accomplish mission. We may begin and end our missional meetings with prayer, but we know deep down, we don’t even need God’s special blessing if, as Finney argued, we already have the means at our disposal to accomplish our ends.