The Despair of Revivalism: The Joy of Holiness

The Holiness movement as a movement proper may be long gone but much of its residuals remains. With the nineteenth-century Holiness movement comes also notions of "revival," the word referring to different ideas to different people and people-groups, ranging from personal transformation to evangelistic meetings wherein the lost are won to Christ. In the early twentieth century, the new "Pentecostal" movement is given birth, thus granting a new context to "revival."

This movement is experiential in nature, claiming to offer believers a deeper walk with Christ, through means of "the baptism with/in/by the Holy Spirit." The alleged evidence of having received this outpouring is speaking in tongues (variously understood) and other outwardly-manifested "spiritual" phenomena. By the 1960s the Charismatic movement is birthed. Unlike the Pentecostal movement, which is rather separatist in nature (people leave mainline churches to join strictly Pentecostal churches), the Charismatic movement seeks to influence members of the mainline churches -- Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran -- with similar "spiritual" experiences as the Pentecostals are noting to be experiencing.

What happens to holiness? What the Holiness movement unwittingly gives birth to is not an experience of holy living for believers in and followers and disciples of Jesus but revivalistic meetings: holiness of living is substituted for revivalism. This is so prevalent today that many are completely unaware of its actual presence -- and unsuspecting believers are caught in its web of despair (explained below).

For example, even the former conservative Southern Baptist church in which I was reared is unwittingly caught in the web of revivalism, not holiness of life but actual revivalism. These believers long for a revivalistic atmosphere when they gather for worship, thinking that singing up-tempo hymns and hand-clapping will revive the congregation, leading others to Christ. They maintain a 1950s mentality culturally, in how one should dress and appear, complete with fiery preaching about hell, damnation, repentance and the plan of salvation. But what about holiness of life?

Modern churches like Hillsong are equally guilty of promoting revivalism in place of holiness of life. The difference between Hillsong and my former Southern Baptist church is the style of the music and the apparel of the believers. What Hillsong offers believers is an amped-up emotional experience, with lights and confetti (shown below) and loud rhythmic Jesus-music, and pretty slow songs that tug at the heart but fail to inform the believer that holiness of life cannot be replaced by arena-inspired thrills and chills. Hillsong is like offering salt water to a man dying of thirst.

Revivalism brings despair. How? Because revivalism is like heroin addiction: believers perpetually chase an initial high and, failing to repeat the experience, keep thinking that the next "spiritual high" will garner what they are desperately seeking. Steve Deneff, in his book The Way of Holiness, remarks that "much of revivalism, as we know it today, is but a virtual reality compared to the deeper stuff of perfect love, a well-ordered life, and a heart on fire for God." (15) Instead of seeking a mystical-spiritual experience we need to seek God. But what does "seeking God" even mean?


Revivalism, whether that "old time religion" or the new revivalism of Hillsong, is about feelings and not about day-to-day discipleship-living. When we think of seeking God, or "seeking the face of God," what we ought to think is seeking the reality of the character of God and living as God desires us to live. Deneff writes:
But ... revival has taken a gradual turn from the substantial to the experiential, and the temptation for revivalist churches ... is to believe that holiness is just one revival after another. Like I said, this is a holiness of no risk and little cost -- an affair of style and emotion that gets the adrenaline running and adds excitement to the dull monotony of life. Those who practice this do not always see that true holiness is a long and enduring love for God, in season and out. (15)
The phrase "in season and out" is a biblical phrase found at 2 Timothy 4:2 and is loosely translated today as "whether one feels like it or not" or "whether the time is favorable or not." Revivalism will eventually drain a person and can bring about an onset of depression and despair. But seeking to live daily a holy life out of an ever-deepening longing love for God and to live before God in a pleasing manner will bring joy and satisfaction. Holiness and revivalism stand contrary to one another.

Deneff quotes nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney: "Many excitements which are taken for revivals of religion, after all, result in very little substantial piety." (16) This I have noted as well. The revivalism of the last two decades perpetuate the following in common with postmodernism: both maintain a nominal and shallow experiential context a mile long but an inch deep. The conceptual roots of postmodernism do not run deep but wide near the surface. The same is true of revivalism: the roots of revivalists do not seek the deep waters under the earth, which are driven deeper by adversity above-ground, but remain just under the surface, allowing the plant enough substance for fair weather, but despair under adversity.

There is no shallow reality to living a holy life: one either is living to please the Lord or she is not living to please God. St Paul, quoted at length here, writes:
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things [an evil way of thinking and living] the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated [partners] with them [the disobedient]. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light -- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Eph. 5:6-17 NRSV)
You will not, most likely, gain a spiritual high, goose-bumps, or much adrenaline by thinking about and putting into action these commands. But this is seeking to love, honor, and obey the Lord in holy living. This passage is not revivalistic; but this passage, when lived out because of your love for the Lord and His truth, can bring about an inexpressible and lasting joy that revivalism cannot possibly touch.


Steve Deneff, The Way of Holiness (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2010).


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.