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‘God Is Up to Something, and It’s Big’ : Revivals: Evangelicals say wave of religious spirit not seen since 19th century is sweeping the country.

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

It is Friday night at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Pasadena. The guest preacher, Pastor John Arnott of Toronto, is standing before an enthusiastic crowd, wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

“Fear not, little flock,” he reassures the 600 souls in the rented auditorium. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!”

Amid fervent prayers and shouted praises, hundreds of uplifted hands sway above the heads of believers, as if reaching for a piece of heaven.

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A woman falls to her knees, weeping. A few yards away, a man stands still, an island of calm in the midst of tumult. He closes his eyes to seek the face of God. His lips form a prayer.

Arnott tries to continue but the din of ecstatic murmurings, “holy laughter” and clapping hands drowns him out. “Thank you Jesus!” someone shouts. “Oh, God!” a man cries out.

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For growing numbers of Christians, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals, there is a palpable sense that the kingdom of God is near, that God is up to something big--and that it is going to happen soon.

Some think a spiritual revival not seen in the United States since the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries will sweep across the land like a cleansing fire.

Others believe fervently that Christianity is nearing the fulfillment of Jesus’ “Great Commission” in the Bible, directing Jesus’ followers to spread the Gospel to prepare for his second coming.

“The churches believe that everything is coming to a head and that God is moving,” said the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham. “Many people in the evangelical community believe that the return of Jesus Christ could be at any moment--and I’m one of those.”

To be sure, preachers since biblical times have warned the wicked and proclaimed to the righteous the approach of a new world order--the kingdom of God. Without exception, each prediction of the world’s end or the literal return of the cosmic Christ has proved wrong. Whole movements built around apocalyptic predictions have faltered and scattered like ashes after a revival fire.

But many of this generation say they have never seen anything like this.

“Through the years we’ve seen the harvest. We’ve seen all these tens of millions of people respond to the Gospel,” said Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ and author of “The Coming Revival.” “But . . . what’s happening today has been unprecedented, I’m sure, in all of history. I doubt there has ever been a time like this.”

The signs, they say, are everywhere--from hundreds of thousands of men attending Promise Keeper rallies and a march on Washington to beg God’s forgiveness for their failures as husbands and fathers, to Christian college campuses where students are making public confessions of lust, pride, premarital sex, spiritual apathy, materialism and racism and vowing repentance.

Others point to the fall of atheistic communism, racial reconciliation among Pentecostal denominations, growing movements of prayer and fasting worldwide, and reports of unprecedented conversions to Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

And the approach of the year 2001--the third millennium--only serves to heighten expectations among believers that God will soon show himself in dramatic ways.

“We’ve all expected that God is getting ready to send a mighty move of his spirit upon the earth,” religious broadcaster Pat Robertson recently told 3,600 believers attending a fasting and prayer meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center. “I am totally persuaded in my heart that . . . all over this world there are people by the millions who are hungry for the knowledge of God.”

At the same time, concerns over the seeming decline of traditional values in society are widely voiced, not just by the politically motivated Christian Coalition and conservative evangelicals, but by Orthodox rabbis, Muslim leaders, old-line Protestants, Pope John Paul II and Gordon B. Hinckley, the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If booming sales of books on religious and spiritual subjects are any guide, interest is keen indeed. From June 1993 to June 1994, one of the nation’s largest book distributors, Ingram Book Co. of La Vergne, Tenn., reported a 249% increase in demand for such books. And from 1994 to June 1995, the distributor reported an additional 62.8% increase, according to Publishers Weekly.

Sociologists and historians of religion say there is little doubt that religious fervor is on the rise.

But they say the heartfelt longings of believers to see the face of an “unchangeable” God is a predictable reaction to an accelerating tide of secular change throughout society, as well as economic uncertainty and a sense that traditional values and human decency are on the wane.

“Everything has speeded up,” said Harvey Cox, author and professor of religion at Harvard University’s Divinity School. “Changes occur with great rapidity. . . . People come and go in political life, songs and movies, fashions. There’s a general sense of acceleration and therefore a kind of dizziness or giddiness that propels people to look for something to hold on to.”

And the aging of baby boomers is accentuating America’s search for spiritual meaning, according to Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publishers Weekly.

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“It’s the first time in this country that almost all or more than half of its adult population either has just turned 50 or is approaching 50. Like it or not, 50 is when you begin to ask those questions. That may not be heavy with theology, but psychologically it’s right on,” said Tickle, author of “Rediscovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America.”

But will the flames from heaven that seem to be igniting the hopes of believers within the church spread to the larger culture? Some sociologists think not.

Jay Demerath, a sociologist of religion at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, admits to being “a little bit jaded” when he hears new reports of the spiritual revival.

“I think these movements will have some impact,” Demerath said. “But I do think there is a kind of stained-glass ceiling on how far they’re likely to go.”

The revival fervor is largely confined to evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, who are already among the most religious faith communities in America, according to William Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston.

“That’s not the same thing as a reversal of the tide of secularism,” said Martin, who is working on a history of the religious right for the Public Broadcasting System.

Moreover, those searching for a road map to a new spiritual reality don’t always find their way back to traditional churches.

Even among baby boomers whose quest for spiritual meaning has become a cliche, the church no longer holds the attraction it did as recently as 10 years ago. In the mid-1980s, boomers began returning to church by the millions, according to George Barna, a Glendale-based pollster whose clients include Billy Graham and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

They returned to church for many reasons, he said, among them the challenges of marriage and the desire to expose their children to moral grounding.

“Having spent the better part of two decades exploring materialism, utilitarianism, consumerism and agnosticism, these people felt there must be something bigger, something better, something more pure or something more substantive than the vacuous reality they had been experiencing for so long,” Barna wrote in his book, “Evangelism That Works.”

What they got in church, Barna said, was disappointment. So beginning in 1991, these same boomers began a “massive retreat,” complaining that they had failed to find the relationships, wisdom and world view or the personal benefits they had expected.

Indeed, a study this year by a Christian research group found that while some denominations are growing, churches overall have a decreasing institutional presence in the United States. In 1968, the 37 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church represented 45% of the U.S. population. By 1993, the latest figures available, that percentage had dropped to 40%.

“There is a genuine openness and hunger and searching now,” said Harvard’s Cox, but today’s spiritual seekers are as likely to turn to New Age mysticism or Eastern religions as to the conventional Christian church.

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That is unlike the Great Awakenings, a wave of revivals that swept across Colonial America beginning in the mid-1700s, which led many into newly energized faith communities whose worship style was as ecstatic with emotional energy as this month’s praise service in Pasadena.

“In some ways the church [today] is closer to a nap than an awakening,” sociologist Demerath said. “What you’re seeing is people responding on the margins to this nap. . . . We’re talking about small pockets of people alarmed about the whole direction the whole society is taking.”

Barna said many churches do not work hard enough to sustain new members through ongoing evangelism and teaching. He cited statistics indicating that, on average, within eight weeks after a person makes “a decision for Christ,” he or she stops attending church.

Still, today’s concerns among those searching for spiritual meaning have their parallels with the Colonial awakenings. Then, as now, the revivals were prompted in part by secular challenges to traditional Christianity.

The 18th century awakenings were part of a larger evangelical reaction throughout Western Europe to attempts in the “Age of Reason” to reduce Christian doctrine to rationalist explanations.

Today, many believers who pray for renewal within churches and revival throughout society are alarmed by what they see as the unraveling of traditional values. But they take comfort in the biblical promise that where sin abounds, so will grace.

“I believe there are two streams rising to their own crest,” said the Rev. Jack Hayford, a leading Pentecostal and senior pastor of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys. “They’re going in precisely the opposite direction but going at the same time. The one is the rising stream of God’s grace that I believe is going to dramatically impact multitudes.

“At the same time, I think there is a fundamental hatred for God in some small sectors of the community. . . . The influence of that group is not going to go away. I don’t think MTV is going to get purer because of a revival. I don’t think there is suddenly going to be a revolution in Hollywood where everyone says let’s do Frank Capra films again. . . . [But] my inclination is to believe there will be far and away more people that respond to God’s grace than otherwise.”

And from Oregon to Florida, pastors and evangelists insist that what is happening is the work of the Holy Spirit. Sociological explanations, they said, can only account for so much.

Prayer movements are catching on. In October, 30 million Christians were said to join in an event sponsored by AD 2000--a world evangelism organization--to pray for countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

In February, the burgeoning Christian men’s movement Promise Keepers plans its first conference specifically aimed at preparing pastors for God’s work, and more than 70,000 are expected to attend.

In November, Hayford’s church hosted a prayer conference that attracted 1,500 church leaders from 40 states and 15 nations representing 35 different denominations.

In California’s Central Valley, pastors are reporting what they say can only be described as the work of the Holy Spirit moving within their churches.

Earlier this year, a reported 33,000 people either became new Christians or rededicated their lives to Jesus during the two-month run of a religious play, “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flames,” at the Calvary Temple Worship Center in Modesto.

“It was obviously God because the play itself is very, very simple,” said church secretary Tracy Morris.

And something as simple as cooperation among the city’s clergy is seen by the Rev. Wade Estes of the First Baptist Church of Modesto as a sign that the Lord is at work.

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“Something unique is happening that we have not seen for at least 20 or 30 years,” Estes said. Each week, he said, up to 60 ministers meet just to pray for each other. “It appears to me as if the Holy Spirit has orchestrated this. . . . There is a widespread opinion that God is up to something, and it’s big.”

In Portland, Ore., the Rev. Joseph C. Aldrich, president of Multnomah Bible College, presides over what have come to be known as prayer summits--gatherings of pastors that began in 1984 and have since been held around the world. And participants come not just from evangelical or Pentecostal denominations but from old-line Protestant churches, including United Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

“I sense we’re on a countdown to the third millennium,” Aldrich said. “I feel we could be in for the last times. I really feel there’s enough happening. . . . It’s what I live for.”

Like other evangelical and Pentecostal leaders, Hayford is not surprised by the skepticism from academia and the media.

“I think,” he said, “a full-blown revival could hit this country eight weeks ago and it still wouldn’t be acknowledged on the 6:30 news.”


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