Lessons from Revivals, by Richard Richard Riss

Richard & Kathryn Riss

Dr Richard Riss published many books and articles on revival.  Here he summarizes lessons he has learned from his research.

The word ‘revival’ is often used for situations in which God is blessing in unusual and supernatural ways.  During times of revival, the results of ministry are always completely out of proportion to the resources used to accomplish them.  For many of us it is very easy, especially on an unconscious level, to forget that the fruits of God’s blessing are not at all due to our own gifts and resources.

I remember a number of years ago, during the Charismatic movement of the early 1970s, that people would often say that if you went to a meeting in which the Lord was present, you could go up to the front of a gathering and just say anything and sit down, and the Lord would minister to those who were present.  What they meant by this was that, when the blessing of the Lord was present, his work would be accomplished.  People were brought to repentance and reconciliation, and there would be healing, not because of any formulas that were to be followed, nor because any individual human agent was important, but because God was present to deliver and heal.

The words that were spoken almost seemed incidental.  Fine oratory is no better able to convey God’s healing than broken, ungrammatical English.  Even words that seemed irrelevant or inappropriate could carry power if God chose to bless those words.

T. L. and Daisy Osborne

A number of years ago, I was doing some research on the lives of T. L. and Daisy Osborne.  The more I learned about their ministry, the more I was impressed by the fact that there was absolutely no way, humanly speaking, that they could possibly have accomplished the things that they accomplished.

They began in Oklahoma as evangelists in 1941, pioneered a church in Portland, Oregon, went to India in 1945, and returned to America through ill health.  Then in 1948 they found their way to Jamaica, where there were scores of healings and hundreds of conversions.  But then, after returning to the United States for some highly successful campaigns with other major healing evangelists, they went to Puerto Rico in 1951, where there were over 18,000 conversions within twelve days, and then to Cuba, where thousands more came to Christ.  From then onward, the fruitfulness of their ministry continued the same way, in a manner beyond my ability even to imagine.

As a result of studying their lives, and the lives of many others like them, I concluded that it can only be by the supernatural blessing of God that a ministry of this kind can hope to function.  He is the one who opens doors, he is the one who fills stadiums, and he is the one who heals people and touches the lives of multitudes.

Demos Shakarian

More recently, I read Demos Shakarian’s book, The Happiest People on Earth, which describes in detail how the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International came into being.  And once again, the one thing about that book that really stood out for me was that the tremendous blessing that was upon that ministry really had nothing to do with the gifts, abilities, plans, and resources of the people involved in it.

It seems that God was purposefully arranging things in such a way that Demos Shakarian and the other founders of the FGBMFI would recognize beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was not through their own efforts that that ministry was brought about.  During the first year of FGBMFI’s existence it was a disaster, because God had not yet begun to bless it.  Even though it was God who led Demos Shakarian to start it, it was a pitiful organization during its first year.  I believe that God wanted to show Demos and his associates what it would be like without his blessing, so that when his blessing actually did come, there would be no question that its incredible fruitfulness had nothing to do with their own hard work, plans, gifts, or abilities.

The first FGBMFI meeting was held on a Saturday morning of October, 1951, at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.  Oral Roberts had been engaged as the speaker.  Demos Shakarian had many, many friends who were businessmen, many of whom he expected would come.  He thought three or four hundred people would show up, and only eighteen actually came, even with a world-famous evangelist as an inducement.   Because there were so few people, they lacked enthusiasm.

Here’s what Demos said about it:

I looked around at the men who had come, most of them old friends.  Dedicated people, committed Christians, and most of them already up to their eyeballs in committees and service clubs and civic organizations.  The kind of men who will volunteer when a job needs doing – the kind who won’t waste a minute on an outfit that isn’t going anywhere. . . .  I stood up.  I described how the conviction had grown in me that God’s Spirit in the next decade would seek new channels to move in.  [Here and there I saw men looking at their watches.]  No organs.  No stained glass.  Nothing more that men can pigeonhole as ‘religious.’  Just one man telling another about Jesus.  I had never had the ability to put ideas into words, and I sat down knowing that I hadn’t gotten it across.

Oral Roberts then spoke, and he succeeded in sparking a little enthusiasm, but only enough to enable them to drag through about a year of meetings attended by just a handful of people.  Thirty or forty men might attend one week, then fifteen the next.  Most of the time Demos ended up buying all of the breakfasts, and there were never any donations.

By December of 1952, they were ready to close down the whole thing.  One of the five directors said that he felt that the whole concept was a dud, and that their experiment had failed.  Later, Demos’s wife, Rose Shakarian, told him that this director was probably right.  The meeting on Friday, December 26, 1952, was going to be the last meeting of the FGBMFI.  But then, something happened.

The evening before that meeting, Demos Shakarian had a vision.  He wrote,

The air around me suddenly became heavy, overwhelming, forcing me to the floor.  I fell to my knees, then on my face, stretched full length on the patterned red rug.  I could not have stood up. . . .  So I did not try.  I simply relaxed in his irresistible love, feeling his Spirit pulse through the room in endless torrents of power.  Time ceased.  Place disappeared. . . . And suddenly I saw myself as I must have looked to Him these past months: struggling and straining, a very busy ant scurrying here and there, dashing off to Europe to try to get the backing of an ‘official’ group, depending everywhere on my own energy instead of His. . .  .   I had acted as though it were my strength which counted – as though I personally had to start the thousand chapters that Oral [Roberts] had seen.  And of course I hadn’t been able to start a single one.  God said, “I am the One, Demos, who alone can open doors.  I am the One who removes the beam from unseeing eyes.”

From this time forward, everything changed.  That morning, at what was to be the last meeting, the FGBMFI director who thought the experiment had failed, handed a check to Demos Shakarian for a thousand dollars payable to the FGBMFI.  He had heard a voice from God saying, “This work is to go around the world and you’re to donate the first money.”  Then Thomas Nickel said to him that he, also, had received a message from the Lord in the middle of the night, telling him to drive four hundred miles to Los Angeles to offer both his services and his printing press for the work of FGBMFI.

Demos said to his wife that evening, “Last night at this time the Fellowship was finished.  Now we have a thousand-dollar treasury and a magazine.  I can’t wait to see what the Lord will do next!”

Ten months later, by October of 1953, there were nine chapters of FGBMFI and six hundred people showed up for an FGBMFI convention at the Clark Hotel in Los Angeles.  By the mid-1960s, there were 300 chapters with a total membership of 100,000, and by 1988, there were more than three thousand chapters in 87 countries.  But what was even more impressive was the work that the Lord was doing in the lives of the multitudes of people that this organization touched.

The experiences of Demos Shakarian and his associates during that first year go a long way toward emphasizing that, in and of ourselves, we are nothing.  It is only the blessing of God that enables us to be effective in his service.

Watchman Nee

Another individual through whom God chose to bring incalculable blessing was Watchman Nee.  Although he had great natural gifts, the results of his ministry were way out of proportion to what could be accomplished by a human being in his or her own strength.

As a Christian in Red China, he was in prison during the last twenty years of his life, so he probably never knew that his life and writings had much of an influence outside of China, but he has touched multitudes in almost every nation of the world.  This was the case despite that fact that he spent so much of his life in prison.

But Watchman Nee knew and understood very clearly that it is only the blessing of God that gets the job done in the Church, and that where the blessing is present, the results are supernatural, not only in their nature, but in their scope.  It is God’s blessing that changes lives and touches people, and it is also God’s blessing that enlarges the influence of a ministry far and wide, completely beyond anyone’s natural abilities.

It was also in 1951, but on New Year’s Day, that Watchman Nee addressed his church at Nanyang Road hall in Shanghai on this topic in a significant sermon that later gained widespread circulation, especially in China, Hong Kong, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South America, the Carribean, Africa, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Japan, the Middle East, Korea, Thailand, and New Guinea.

In this address, he indicated that, really, all of God’s work is dependent upon his blessing.  Moreover, where the blessing of the Lord flows freely, it will sweep away everything that could impede it.

We can be very faithful, conscientious and diligent.  We can believe in God’s power and we can pray to Him to show His power, but if the blessing of God is lacking, then all of our conscientiousness, all of our diligence, all of our faith, and all of our prayers, will be in vain.

On the other hand, even if we make mistakes, and even if the situations we face are hopeless, if we have the blessing of God, then the results will be fruitful.

A boy’s lunch

Do you remember the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, described in Mark 6: 35-44?  Did it make any difference how many loaves and fishes they started out with?  Of course not.  What mattered was the blessing that rested upon what was available.  We must recognize that the thing that counts is not the amount of money we have or the number of gifts that we have.  It is the blessing of the Lord, and that alone, from which humanity derives sustenance.  Our own resources, our own power, our own toil, our own faithfulness, in and of themselves, are completely sterile.  Apart from His blessing, we are totally inadequate, no matter who we are or what gifts we might have.

So many of us centre our hopes, not on the blessing of the Lord, but upon the few loaves in our hands.  We have so pitifully little, and yet we keep calculating what we can do with it.  The more we calculate, the harder our work becomes.  Yet, if we let the blessing of the Lord be upon the loaves, they will be multiplied.

If the blessing rests upon a ministry, then thousands are fed.  If it is absent, then even two hundred denarii worth of bread is still not enough.  Once we recognize this, then we can stop asking “How many loaves do we have?”  There would be no need to manipulate, no need to advertise, no need for human wisdom, and no need for flattery.  We would be able just to trust the blessing of God and wait for it.  And we would find that even if we had bungled things, somehow, things would still turn out well.  While we hope that we will be preserved from mistakes and from careless words and acts, we will find that if God’s blessing is upon us, even our serious blunders will not ultimately hinder his purpose.

Very often, we only expect results that are commensurate with our own time and money, or our own gifts and abilities.  But God’s blessing is fruit that is out of all proportion to what we are.  If we plan simply on the basis of what we put into something, then it can be a hindrance to God’s working beyond our plans.  On the other hand, if we set our hearts on the blessing of the Lord, then we will often find things happening that are totally out of keeping with our own capacities, and beyond even our wildest dreams.

Once these truths really grip us, we can discard as worthless all of our clever ways, our specious words, and our scrupulous work.  Then, even if we are not completely conscientious about the work, and even if we make mistakes, the need of the hungry will still be met.

In preaching about God’s blessing, Watchman Nee was, of course, talking about what has been known in our culture as revival.  The lessons that he taught here are some of the same lessons that we must learn in order to understand how God works with respect to revival.

Past and future blessing

One of the things that Nee observed is that “one of the most serious threats to future blessing is past blessing. . . .  If we accept what He has done in the past as the measure of His future working, then His blessing in the past will become a hindrance to future blessing.”

One good illustration of this principle comes, again, from the lives of Demos and Rose Shakarian. Their families had emigrated from Armenia, where there had been a great revival which resulted from a group of on-fire Christians visiting Armenia from Russia, just across the border, in the year 1900.  Many of these Armenians soon emigrated en masse to California as a result of a prophecy of a coming persecution, which was fulfilled in 1914.

But by 1940, things had changed.  It was still ten years before the founding of the FGBMFI, but Demos and Rose Shakarian were already being led of God into transdenominational ministry.  That summer, in accordance with God’s direction, they did a series of outdoor evangelistic meetings near Lincoln Park in Downey, California, their home town.

However, they soon began to experience resistance from the Elders of their church.  As these meetings continued week after week, the older people of their church began to protest.  For the first time in their lives they found themselves in conflict with their parents’ generation.  They tried to get the permission of the Elders, but without success.  It looked to them as though they would have to cancel their plans to hold meetings the following summer.  In the end, Demos’s father was able to get permission from the Elders.

The meetings did carry on the next summer, but it taught Demos a lesson.  Here’s what he wrote:

The wind of Pentecost, which had blown out of Russia into Armenia . . .  had dwindled by now into a denomination as rigid as any other.  It was always this way.  All through history, each fresh outpouring of the Spirit soon became, in human hands, a new orthodoxy.  The great revival on Azusa Street, for example, . . . which started out in freedom and joy and a breaking down of barriers, had solidified by the 1940s into a number of self-contained churches who couldn’t communicate even with each other, let alone with the world as a whole.

This is a principle of revival that is easily observable.  I wrote about it myself in a magazine article more than fifteen years ago, in which I observed that it is probably this phenomenon, more than anything else, that has brought about the formation of new denominations, and before that time, the founding of new monastic orders within the Roman Catholic Church.  Old institutional forms soon become inadequate for the new thing that God begins to do.

So what can we learn from this?

First, to be flexible enough to allow God to do his thing.

And second, to remember that it is God who is doing his work through us, and that apart from him, we can’t accomplish anything.  But with him, we can and will, turn the world upside-down, just as it happened in the days of Peter, Paul, Timothy, John, Barnabas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.

©  Renewal Journal #17: Unity (2001:1)  renewaljournal.com

Reproduction is permitted so long as the copyright acknowledgement remains intact with the text. 

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