A tent erected for a couple of weeks each year out on the edge of town became the center for personal spiritual renewal and evangelistic zeal for a century or more. Traveling evangelists would ignite dry-wood believers and leave fiery faithful in their places to continue their work in the local church for another season.
But in post-war America, the tents were packed away and revivals moved inside, until they disappeared almost completely. Without a phalanx of itinerant evangelists, invigorating the faithful for personal evangelism falls to the local pastor.
On top of this, there’s the declining culture in which we live and work today, and what some theologians are calling a period of deconstruction. Some people are systematically taking apart their faith and deciding what to keep. This is especially true among younger people, in urban areas, and among mainline adherents.
This phenomenon was first named in 1965. In its most complicated form, deconstruction questions every belief, including those unrelated to faith, saying that all beliefs are secondhand and must be deconstructed before they can be owned. It arose from the 60s seedbed of distrust in business, government, media, and, yes, religion.
More recently, the absence from church caused by Covid closures not only broke good habits, it caused some people to seriously doubt their faith. Among 1,000 pastors surveyed by Lifeway Research, 3-in-4 have heard of deconstruction; in the Midwest the number is 9-in-10; but only 1-in-4 say they have seen it in their own churches.
This is the environment in which we live and move and share our faith.
The American culture that accelerated its dismissal of Christian belief around 2000 is now taking the faith foundation apart brick by brick. Coming to the place of personal ownership of one’s beliefs is a good thing. It’s common for teens and young adults to go through a period of distinguishing between their parents’ faith and their own. But the phenomenon that asks “Is anything worth believing?” looks different when it’s engaged by people in their 30s. Or 60s.
So is the outcome. As Millennial writer Joe Terrell says, deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy.
Now arises a new debate over the role of the altar call and the timing of baptism. How public is one, how immediate the other? These may be framed as contemporary expressions of the discussion on “revival vs. revivalism” that says inward renewal is good but emotional commitments may not be lasting—or good for the church long-term.
And there is this pertinent question: Will the church be sufficiently revived in our time to awaken our decaying culture to the life-giving claims and call of Christ?
IBSA Evangelism Director Scott Harris is leading Ignite: the Illinois Baptist Evangelism Conference with two-day sessions in three locations this month. Editor Eric Reed asked Harris what the old practices and new developments mean for evangelism through the local church.
Illinois Baptist: The Ignite Conference has expanded this year. What is your goal?
Scott Harris: At the heart of our Ignite Conferences is the desire to see God start a Holy Spirit-directed gospel movement that sweeps across our state.
One focus is equipping young people to share their faith with a training called “The Four.” It’s a simple gospel presentation based on four statements: God created you. God loves you. We’re separated from him because of our sin. Jesus came to solve our sin problem. What do you want to do with this information?
The Four is from CRU, the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. IBSA has partnered with them and they’ve allowed us access to their training materials. This is a six-week course. Really it does a great job of training students in spiritual preparation for sharing the gospel.
If we’re gonna turn the trajectory in our state, we have to start reaching the younger generation. When you look at the great revivals, God always worked through the younger folks.
IB: Your second focus in the conferences is prayer. Why prayer rather than technique?
Harris: Yes. We’re not gonna see a great movement of God until our people really start to pray for God’s power, for God’s anointing, but also for divine opportunities to share their faith.
If we’re not praying for people who are lost, we’re probably never gonna share with them. In the process of praying, God changes us. God gives us a passion for that person and breaks our heart over that lostness.
We want to encourage our pastors to make time in their worship services to call the church to prayer for lost people in their sphere of influence. We’re starting to see that happen in some pockets across our country, where churches have made that kind of prayer an ongoing weekly part of their service. Those churches are starting to see signs of revival.
IB: What does this look like in a worship service?
Harris: One thing pastors can easily do on a Sunday morning is in a three-to-five minute prayer time—leading people to pray.
A Texas pastor told at a conference how he was moved by the example of Robby Gallaty. He was under such conviction that some mornings he would lay prostrate on the platform. He could no longer just kneel. He was giving 20 minutes to prayer for lostness.
And one pastor said, “Well, man, I bet that’ll kill a service. You know, you’ll lose people.” But just the opposite.
At the church my son attends in North Georgia, the pastor began praying for lost people in the service. I was there one Sunday and got to witness this. The pastor said, “If you’re able, would you make your seat an altar?”
Probably 800 people simultaneously got up out of their seats, turned around to kneel, and started praying. You could just feel the place filling up with the Spirit of God. And they are baptizing people every Sunday, many more than before.
IB: How important is it for pastors to see this?
Harris: Oh, I think it’s very important. We need to hear the stories of guys who struggled with the decision to go in that direction, but also hearing what God did—because God still honors the prayers of his people.
I’m convinced that the lack of evangelism, of seeing the growth of the gospel in America today, is a direct correlation to the lack of prayer in the church.
IB: How do you move beyond ‘organ recital’ prayer, listing everybody’s ailments?
Harris: We train our people how to pray—because it’s a spiritual battle.
You are interceding, which means you’re stepping into the place of that lost person to pray for things they don’t realize. They don’t realize that they’re dead, they’re blind, they can’t hear truth. The enemy has made them so drunk with their sin that they can’t grasp grace. They can’t grasp their need for salvation.
And so when we’re praying against strongholds, we’re asking God to give them eyes to see the truth, ears to hear the truth.
IB: Is there a revival in history that speaks to you particularly about the role of prayer?
Harris: They all do. There’s the businessmen’s prayer revival in New York in the 1850s. One man had a desire to pray that God put on his heart. He asked folks at his workplace, “Hey, would you guys start meeting for prayer?”
I think six people showed up for the first one, but soon there were cities in the northeast where churches were full from noon to one every day.
IB: Why haven’t we seen this in our lifetimes?
Harris: The 1900s came and went, and it was the first generation in America with no Great Awakening. We saw the crusades led by Billy Graham and the Jesus People movement in the 1970s. Even today, Greg Laurie is holding crusades and we hear about salvations, but it’s not a national movement. And we haven’t seen the effects across the nation.
Before the First Great Awakening in the 1700s, drunkenness was rampant. There was a perversity in the nation. Women wouldn’t be out on the street at nights for fear of what would happen to them. But when that Great Awakening came, great change swept America. Same thing was true with the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s.
I think most Christian historians would say we didn’t have a Third Great Awakening that radically changed the direction of our country in the 1900s, which is why we are where we are in 2022. And if there isn’t another awakening, where will America be?
IB: You’re drawing a distinction between revival in the church and awakening in the nation.
Harris: Yes. An awakening is a national spiritual movement such as in the book of Jonah, where everyone from the king down was in sackcloth and ashes and broken and repentant. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.
Awakening is a supernatural work of God.
Jesus said that the wind blows where it will, so does the Spirit. But what we also see in those awakenings is that it’s across churches, across denominations, across the nation. We see this quickening movement of God that begins as people in the church weep over their sin.
Jesus himself taught us we’re the salt, we’re the preservative of the culture. If the culture’s rotten, we don’t get to point over there and say, “Look how rotten the culture is.” We have to look at us and how un-salty we are.
IB: Robby Gallaty is talking about immediate response to the gospel and immediate call to baptism at a time when so many of our churches are going away from altar calls.
Harris: When Robby shares how God really transformed him, it was first an encounter. In the early days of the pandemic, he was in prayer every morning on his deck. And God said, “Well, you know, here’s what I said in my word (about baptism), and here’s what’s preventing me from doing it.”
Robby was so broken that he said, “Okay, God, I’m gonna honor you.”
He sent out an email to his deacons, his leaders, his staff, and said, “I want the tanks filled. I want towels. I want t-shirts. I think I’ve heard from God; we’re gonna do this.” And that Sunday they did it. He called people to repentance and to be baptized immediately. And they baptized in every service.
That was the floodgate that started that whole movement. What we’re seeing in my opinion is the impact of one pastor being broken that we’re not being obedient to the biblical text—gospel sharing and calling for immediate decisions.
IB: You’ve described ‘pockets’ where the Spirit is at work. Are you seeing this in Illinois?
Harris: We’re seeing pockets of it. I could tell you about churches in Wayne City and Centralia where pastors are seeing baptisms again. I’m working with churches across Illinois that are focusing on evangelism and the role of prayer.
At Alpha Baptist Church in Bolingbrook, Pastor Bruce Kirk is trying to reach men, because he said in their cultural context the men are missing. He’s asked the church to give names of lost people. And they go up with markers and write down names. They’re praying as a church. Every Sunday he brings the men on stage. He prays over them, he’s leading them to pray for their friends.
Those are just a few examples. I believe we can see so much more as the Spirit moves supernaturally to revive the church and awaken lost people in Illinois.