by Tim Keesee
Spiritual awakenings are not just a thing of the past, when giants walked the earth—giants such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, or Charles Spurgeon. History matters, but we can’t live and believe as if our best days—and really God’s best days, too—are behind us. Sometimes we find ourselves whispering in our hearts what a tactless Gideon blurted openly, “If the LORD is with us…where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?” (Judges 6:13). The God whom Gideon was questioning was indeed alive, personal, and present—and about to do even more “wonderful deeds” through this unlikely servant.
The gospel is still powerfully at work in the world. It is power in the present tense because of the ever-present, ever-living Christ. David Garrison, describing the work of God in our day in bringing Muslims to Himself, said, “They realized that to follow Christ was not to follow a 2,000-year-old prophet, it was to follow a living Lord. That, for them, was the turning point.” It will be a turning point for us, too, if we are to be a people filled with confident expectation of the power and reach of the gospel today. Our understanding of spiritual awakenings around the world must be driven not by sensational stories, statistics, or best sellers but by the simple and essential fact that our death-conquering King really is alive. King Jesus is full of mercy and grace and life; therefore, His kingdom is always expanding.
So what does the King say about His kingdom? He has given us many stories to illustrate His saving, gathering work and our part in it. Here’s one in Mark 4:26–29:
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The “seed” is the Word of God; it’s the life-giving message of the gospel. Even though the farmer can’t make the seed grow, and “scattering” doesn’t really require a great deal of skill, he still has a vital part to play in planting—abundantly. He must have the initiative to get up and work—and the confidence to continue in hope day and night, for weeks, for months, as he anticipates a harvest.
In a number of the spiritual awakenings with which I have been connected firsthand, the multiplication effect is directly attributable to the presentation of the gospel in the native language of the people. I’ve seen this among the Berbers in North Africa, the Oromo people in the Horn of Africa, and the people groups of Southeast Asia such as the Krung, Brau, and Jarai. When the seed of the gospel was scattered, spoken—or better yet, read—in the people’s language, salvation by the hundreds and by the thousands followed.
J.D. Crowley, a pioneer missionary linguist, described this Bible-based awakening in his corner of Cambodia:
The Jarai in Cambodia received the Gospel a couple years after the 1994–1995 awakening among Krung and Tampuan, but the Jarai growth immediately out-stripped that of the other groups, going from zero to a thousand believers in just a couple of years. I wondered if one reason for this was the fact that, 25 years earlier just across the border in Vietnam, the entire Jarai New Testament and Psalms had been translated by CMA Missionary Charlie Long and his Jarai team during the height of the Vietnam War. True, it was done in a different Jarai dialect than what we speak on the Cambodian side, but it was still quite understandable, and IT WAS THE WORD OF GOD! The new Jarai believers on our side of the border were so motivated to read God’s word that they taught each other the Vietnamese-based Jarai script. Within three years, without a dime of NGO or Ministry of Education money, there were 2000 literate Jarai in a place where, a few years before, literacy was under three percent.
Life takes hold first beneath the surface; then, bit by bit, sprouts create greenness over the ground. Gradually, like one of those compound interest charts that wow you with the wealth that can be yours through small, steady investment, the field is full of grain. How did this happen? Not even the farmer knows. He did his part, but something else had to happen. In gospel terms, it is indeed “something else,” for it is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) that brings new, everlasting life.
Perhaps the greatest spiritual awakening of our generation in terms of size and scope is the church in China. The number of Chinese Christians may now be approaching one hundred million, and a truly Chinese-led church movement is under way, reaching the teeming coastal cities, spreading like wildfire across the central grasslands, and pushing west and south to the walls of the Himalayas and beyond. Every Lord’s Day, hundreds of thousands of house churches gather to worship their King and pray for their people.
However, the awakening in China has not been through mass rallies or megachurches. This growth has happened in the face of official opposition, discrimination, and at times open and fierce persecution. Like the kingdom parable about leaven in Matthew 13, the gospel’s advance has been through the quiet, pervasive witness of individual believers—one by one by the millions.
Not long ago, I was in western China meeting with several Christians in a house church late at night. They shared testimonies of the power of the gospel in the region. I recorded several of their stories in my journal—here’s one of them:
A man was sick, and as a superstitious Taoist, he sought help from seers. He went to one renowned fortune-teller in the city, but the man had recently become a Christian. His advice to him now was, “You need the Lord!” Surprised and disappointed over this “fortune,” he sought out another fortune-teller, but he too had been converted and advised the sick man, “You need the Lord!” This man went to five fortune-tellers—all of whom had now come to Christ and, upon their witness, he found that Christ was indeed his true fortune.
The parable of the farmer’s scattering seed ends swiftly. Up until now, like the mocking monotony of a ticking clock, time slows, weighed down by work and waiting with days so ordinary that you could miss the opportunity in them. But life stirs from the ground, and when it’s full and fruitful, then the harvest is gathered. The life that Christ gives through the power of the gospel is never lost. He gathers us, keeps us, saves us, loves us: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). Paul said, “I am sure that neither death nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
It is this inseparable presence of the risen Christ who is in us and with us and for us that continues to fuel spiritual awakenings in some of the most difficult and surprising places in the world. In Iran, more than one hundred thousand Muslims have been raised to new life in Christ, and the good news is still shared by word of mouth despite the real risks of prison, torture, and even death. In the Horn of Africa, according to Operation World, the number of evangelical Christians in Ethiopia has increased from 1 percent in 1960 to more than 20 percent in 2015, with much of the growth in the past decade occurring among Muslim people. Hundreds of sheiks and imams have been born again, taking up their cross and following Christ into some of the hardest regions, some of which are under the control of the Islamic terror group Al-Shabaab. Yessuf, one of the imams, after he was discipled and baptized, said recently, “I will go back to reach my people until I am kicked out or killed.” He said this not with empty bravado but in joyful expectation that even if they do kill him, he can never die, knowing that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Cor. 4:14). The risks this brother is facing right now are as real as prison bars and bullets, but they seem of little consequence next to the presence of Jesus and Yessuf’s confident expectation in the power of the gospel.
Spiritual awakenings today are not televised, stadium-housed events. There are seasons and places where abundant harvest follows abundant sowing, but as always, life is in the Son, whose sovereign, saving, worldwide power is undiminished—and His life-giving grace unending.