Though the concept of revival (or spiritual awakening) is certainly not absent from Scripture, it is my contention that some of the ways in which this topic is frequently broached in contemporary North American Evangelicalism are either Scripturally unbalanced or unfounded. One example of this is our tendency to talk of revival more on a nationwide than citywide level. An unfortunate consequence of this perspective is the inherent linking of spiritual revival in the minds of some with a rise in patriotism and other forms of nationalistic pride.
In the Old Testament, it is undeniable that the theme of nationwide (or kingdom-wide) revival and the lack thereof is prominent in the spiritual history of theocratic Israel and Judah. Times of spiritual renewal and decline on a nationwide basis are many times linked to the rise of godly or ungodly monarchs. But when you take away the element of theocracy—both in the Old Testament and the New—it appears to me the focus on revival and spiritual awakening is much more local (or citywide) than national.
Consider the following examples from the Old Testament. God’s judgment for widespread wickedness fell upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah was sent to preach to the city of Nineveh, where a significant citywide movement toward repentance took place. In exile, the captives of Judah were exhorted by the prophet Jeremiah to pray for and seek the welfare of the city of Babylon.
In the Gospels we find Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. He pronounces woes over the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. He sends His disciples to preach the gospel from town to town, indicating some towns would be more receptive to their preaching than others and instructing them to shake the dust from their sandals upon leaving the unreceptive towns. After His redemptive conversation with the woman at the well, Scripture informs us that many throughout the city of Samaria believed in Jesus.
In Acts, the progress of the Christian movement also follows a city-by-city path. Certain cities are more receptive to the preaching of the gospel and others less so. The Epistles of Paul are mostly addressed to groups of believers located in various cities throughout the Roman Empire. In the interest of balance, it should be noted that the gospel also spread on a regional basis throughout all Asia Minor as an outgrowth of the spiritual awakening in Ephesus, and the Epistle to the Galatians is addressed to a regionwide group of Christians. But the preponderance of examples of both collective revival and collective rejection of the gospel are presented in local, citywide settings.
It appears to me, throughout Scripture, there is a certain implied subsidiarity of revival and spiritual awakening. According to Wikipedia, “Subsidiarity is a principle of social organization that originated in the Roman Catholic Church. In its most basic formulation, it holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution.” Considering the origin of the social and political concept, it is ironic to me that down through history the Roman Catholic Church appears to be the most significant violator of the principle of subsidiarity when it comes to ecclesiastical and spiritual matters, centralizing religious authority on a global basis in the city of Rome. I believe it can also be argued that one of the factors underlying the spiritual vitality of the Anabaptist movement and the subsequent Baptist movements in Britain and North America was their emphasis on local congregations of Christians and locally-based spiritual renewal.
In addition to all the above, I believe there are several practical reasons favoring a local rather than a nationwide focus on revival. True spiritual awakening occurs as individual hearts break and turn to God in repentance. Personal relationships and intimate spiritual communal life with healthy accountability structures are important factors facilitating this dynamic. The most effective ministry of the church is often done on a local level, touching the lives of individuals and families one by one, and meeting practical needs in neighborhoods and cities. The unity of the Body of Christ is most tangibly experienced among fellow brothers and sisters in your own community you see on a regular basis.
The emphasis on nationwide revival, on the other hand, while not a negative thing in and of itself, can easily become a distraction from what ought to be our main focus. Much energy and resources are poured into national media presence and the promotion of Christian celebrities and large parachurch ministries. In the meantime, the impoverished family down the street who desperately needs some godly TLC can easily get lost in the shuffle. Political platforms promoted by talking heads can divide believers who would otherwise come together to make a difference in their community. Lost souls who may otherwise be open to the consistent, compassionate witness of committed Christians and congregations in their personal sphere of influence put up emotional and intellectual barriers because they fear they are being recruited to bolster the numbers and purse strings of powerful nationwide organizations.
Am I saying we should quit praying for and working toward revival in our country? Definitely not. But I am saying that perhaps we need to reflect and do some soul-searching regarding our underlying motives and make sure our energy, efforts, and resources poured into promoting nationwide revival are not at the same time diluting what should be our priority emphasis on citywide and local revival.