June 18, 2008
Pete Grieg wrote recently about the ‘Lakeland Revival’ or ‘Florida Outpouring Meetings’ being led by a 32 year-old, tattooed, Canadian called Todd Bentley and aired daily on GodTV. Thousands have attended since it all kicked off back in April in Lakeland, Florida; still more have checked out video-clips of the meetings on YouTube and other websites; and there are many thrilling reports of healing, salvation, and a deeper desire for God. Many of my friends have been to Lakeland and have been deeply impacted. We are joining with other churches in our city to hold special meetings, inspired by the events in Florida, in our church building here in Southampton, England, so I’m certainly excited. But I confess that I also have questions.
Of course, as with any such phenomenon, opinion is divided between those who denounce the meetings as dangerous, deceptive or distracting, and those who are sure that this is ‘it’ and are therefore joining the crowds of hungry pilgrims bound for Florida. Like a newborn baby, it’s too early to say what the true character of this new life will be, but inevitably more and more people are asking what we think…
The movement and the community
Perhaps the first thing to say is that, because the 24-7 movement really is a movement, our ability to give party-lines on anything is limited! At the heart of the movement, however, is an eclectic and diverse community with an international leadership team which seeks to bring guidance to the movement whilst giving lots of autonomy to national and local teams. We don’t have many positions or policies that are imposed from a central hub but seek to collectively hear God and move forward together, sometimes agreeing, sometimes holding different opinions but remaining committed to one another and the vision God has given us. So if you disagree with what I’m about to say, please don’t abandon the community or the conversation.
With the intensity of interest in this latest ‘rumour of revival’ we have been having various conversations across the leadership of the 24-7prayer community, between Boiler Rooms and in many prayer rooms around the world and we want to offer some perspectives and guidelines.
1. Is this a work of God?
John the Baptist was in prison and had a crisis of confidence in the so-called Messiah. He sent his disciples to check his half-cousin out. Jesus’ response was to invite them to look around, and report back to John what they saw – the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Like John the Baptist, we may wonder whether the Lakeland Revival is the thing we have been praying for in our prayer rooms and waiting for in the desert.
Whether we like the style of Bentley’s ministry ethos or not, it does seem that there is evidence that God is at work. It is hard to verify all the testimonies of healings, miracles and salvation that are being broadcast daily, but even if it is just a small percentage of reports that are accurate (and we pray that it is more than this) then we are witnessing some amazing signs of God’s power at work. Every morning delegates attending the meetings in Florida are being sent out into the streets of Lakeland to preach the gospel and pray for the sick. 24-7 has always championed this model of taking the prayer out onto the streets, so it’s just wonderful to see this happening amongst people who could so easily ‘hide away’ in an excited Christian bubble.
Of course, Jesus warns us that although signs and wonders can be an evidence of his Kingdom coming, they are not a replacement for the greatest miracle of all which is a real relationship with him: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.” (Mat 7:22) In our hunger for miracles, let’s not put Todd Bentley on a pedestal, and let’s continually look for the most important impact of Lakeland on those who don’t know Jesus.
2. Christian TV, platforms and personalities
We bought into the vision of 24-7prayer – a nameless, faceless army of young people, free from materialism, utterly committed to the cause of Christ. Therefore, I suspect most of us have concerns about the style of what we are witnessing in Florida and would question some of the theology and practise of those involved. Many of us probably avoid Christian television and have an aversion to ministry-styles which appear personality-driven and platform-based. The whole approach may seem to fly in the face of the values we espouse such as authenticity (an absence of hype), creativity, friendship and fun, justice, common-sense and humility. Jesus did say that it is ‘the meek’ who will ‘inherit the earth’ (Mat 5:5), so let’s not abandon our convictions. We need these values more than ever in such a context. But let’s also remember that Jesus who was meek, relational, fun and authentic, also preached to vast crowds of hungry pilgrims, he did plenty of controversial miracles, and he always enjoyed jumping out of the religious boxes of anyone who thought they’d got Him taped.
What if God actually is choosing to use a brash, young, tattooed, pierced evangelist (with a chequered history) whose theology is questionable and who shouts a lot, to challenge us all to humble ourselves and believe for more? What if the couple who run GodTV and completely re-arranged their schedules in order to broadcast this ‘revival’, really did hear from God? What if God is bigger than our comfortable cultural norms and doesn’t mind some of the stuff that bothers us?
Of course, the role of GodTV in the spread of this phenomenon cannot be under-estimated, with a potential viewership of millions and wall-to-wall coverage. Although similar miracles (and actually greater ones) are happening all over the world, not just in Africa, China and parts of Latin America, but also in hotspots like Redding, California, these ‘revivals’ are not getting the same exposure. 24-7 prayer rooms often report the most amazing signs of the Kingdom, some of which find their way onto this website. And we must also recognise that works of mercy amongst the poor and the preaching of the gospel are also signs of the Kingdom. Jesus didn’t just list miracles in response to John the Baptist’s doubts; he also pointed out that the gospel was being preached ‘to the poor’! Let’s not get so focussed on what’s happening in Florida right now, that we lose sight of what’s happening in Burma, South-West China, Zimbabwe or even amongst our neighbours, over the same period of time.
Let’s resist the idea that this is an exclusive or ultimate ‘it’; that we will somehow miss out on God’s blessings if we don’t go to Lakeland, Florida. Something amazing seems to be beginning in Lakeland, and if you are so hungry for God that you undertake a pilgrimage to go there you will probably be blessed because God loves such hunger. But Lakeland doesn’t have a monopoly on God’s blessing.
I’ve heard some say, and have even said it myself, that we don’t get to hear about the miracles taking place in remote parts of Africa or Asia. But is it just possible that God, who chooses the foolish things to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27), may have ordained Lakeland and Todd Bentley to profile his power and provoke the cynical and ‘sophisticated’ western world?
3. Oh no, not again?
I am aware that, while this may be a new and exciting phenomenon for many in their teens and twenties, many people in their 30’s and 40’s have been a bit disillusioned by all the talk of revival in the mid to late 90s, with things like the Toronto blessing and Pensacola. I have to confess, I bought into it – I was believing for it. You can even hear me declare, ‘dare to believe that this is a generation to see massive revival’ on the Delirious? ‘Live And In The Can’ CD recorded around that time! But it didn’t happen as we thought it should. A number of my friends were so disappointed that they are no longer walking in the Way. Others gave up on church. Some just settled for safety. And now this comes along and it throws up all sorts of questions and all sorts of emotions are churned up again.
I do think we need to be wary of ‘revivalism’ – the sort of cycle of crusading, religious, hyper-intensity espoused by certain wings of Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism too. But whilst rejecting the hype of revivalism, we simply cannot surrender the underlying desire for revival itself.
4. Taking a lead
The word ‘revival’ is not a biblical word. However, we do find throughout the Scriptures times of renewal and restoration; times when the work of God was accelerated. Throughout church history we find similar patterns, seasons of divine grace that propelled the mission of the church forward. It does seem that from time to time God comes to faithful, committed saints to renew and empower them for the task in which they are engaged. The fact is that – without a sovereign acceleration of God’s purposes and an increased awareness of his presence at large – we will never see the church renewed and society transformed in the way we are praying. Business as usual simply won’t get the job done!
If this current ‘outpouring’ is for the whole church, and that includes us as the 24-7 community, then the God who loves diversity does not expect us all to copy what we see on GodTV but maybe, just maybe, we have to embrace it and find ways to enculturate in our settings? Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to believe Him together for a fresh outpouring of the miraculous in our prayer rooms and Boiler Room communities?
History will judge whether the outpouring in Lakeland was ‘merely’ a moment of religious revivalism with limited fruit, or whether it was a wider transformational gift to society. Let us pray that it is revival and not just revivalism, because we all need more hunger, more power and more faith. Above all, let’s remain humble and meek and open. That will guarantee God’s grace and our inheritance.
Let’s be discerning. There are bits to embrace and bits to discard (Matthew 13:30). Pressing in for more of God does not mean we endorse the methodology or embrace all aspects of the theology or the practises that we see. For instance, GodTV has been inviting viewers to email prayer-requests to an ‘upper room’ in Jerusalem where they will be laid on an ‘altar’. “I was horrified and deeply saddened,” writes the Bible teacher and network leader, Terry Virgo, “that Christians were being encouraged to do such a thing when the Scripture makes it clear that we have a great High Priest who has gone through the heavens on our behalf. An altar in Jerusalem is hardly relevant!”
And let’s remain focused. I am convinced that, as a movement, we must not be distracted from the vision and strategies that God has given us – the pursuit of transformation through prayer, mission and justice. Lakeland is perhaps best viewed – for the time being – as a prophetic sign for the church, provoking us all to greater hunger for God’s power and especially for His presence. Lakeland is perhaps not meant to be a lake in which we stay and swim, but rather a well, from which thousands are drawing refreshment along the way as they serve Jesus.
More than a decade ago, Professor Richard Lovelace made a helpful observation about the Great 18th century Awakening of Jonathan Edwards whose “final approach to the Great awakening was to subject it to the most rigorous critique, on the one hand, and to solicit extraordinary prayer for its advancement on the other. These,” he says, “are the strategies we need to follow today.” Let’s pray with all our hearts for the advancement of the Lakeland Revival, but let’s not kiss our brains (or our values) goodbye, in the process.
As a movement we must continue to pray, go to the forgotten places and be alongside the downtrodden and marginalised. And we pray that all we do is infused with much more of God’s presence and power.