Innovation is often born out of adversity.
Problems, setbacks, and challenges require us to find new paths forward. New solutions are needed. But this is not always the case. There are other times when innovation is the result of God’s blessing and favor. Stewarding a move of the Spirit feels more like riding a wave and learning how to adapt to maintain spiritual momentum.
This was especially true of the Asbury revival.
In February I journeyed to Wilmore, Kentucky, to participate in the awakening that was stirring. I spent the weeks prior wrestling through a few key decisions and sensed God drawing me to Hughes Auditorium for an extended time of prayer and worship. His manifest presence was on full display that afternoon and evening, and God met me in a special way.
I noticed a lot of activity and effort being made behind the scenes, as people tried to steward what God was doing.
I also noticed in my time at Asbury a lot of activity and effort being made behind the scenes, as people tried to steward what God was doing. This was rarely featured on social media or online articles. Pastor Craig Groeschel once famously remarked, “We often compare our behind the scenes with other people’s highlight reel.”
In this article, I want to move away from the “highlight reel” by looking behind the scenes at the Asbury revival as a case study for innovation and stewardship.
Innovation as Stewardship
Stewardship is a big deal in the Bible.
In Matthew 25, Jesus shared his famous parable of the talents. The man who received only one bag of gold was scared to invest his money and finally told his master in verse 25, “I went out and hid your bag of gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (my paraphrase).
I’m always surprised when I read the response of the master. My inclination would be to offer grace to the servant, excusing the man’s behavior. But the master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant” (v. 26) and then directed his associates, “Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30). Yikes!
God takes stewardship seriously. This is especially true when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit and stewarding a move of God. Innovation is required.
I was recently visiting with Dr. Tom Tumblin, professor of leadership at Asbury Seminary, to learn more about what was happening behind the scenes during the revival. Much of this article is a result of his account.
The sparks of revival began on February 8 when Zach Meerkreebs, an assistant soccer coach at the university, preached a sermon on love in action. His text was Romans 12 and there seemed to be very little response. A final song followed his message and 15-20 students stayed after to pray. Zach wrapped up, grabbed his jacket, and then texted his wife, “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”
An hour later, a dozen or so students continued to persevere in prayer. God began to move through the prayers of these students and word started to spread on campus. An unexplainable peace had descended on the auditorium. A few dozen more students began to converge in the space to pray and a few hours later, the crowd had grown to more than a hundred.
Something was happening, and the leadership at Asbury had a decision to make. Would they steward what God was doing?
To do so would require a spirit of sacrifice and hard work, creative energy, and constant discernment. The easier move would be to simply do nothing, bury their talents, and wait to see what might happen next out of fear of messing up or doing the wrong thing. Innovation is hard work. It requires courage and perseverance.
[Good stewardship] would require a spirit of sacrifice and hard work, creative energy, and constant discernment. The easier move would be to simply do nothing, bury their talents, and wait to see what might happen next.
By the grace of God, they chose to listen and innovate. How was God leading them to provide new wineskins for this move of the Spirit? The initial team consisted of an ad hoc committee of staff, faculty, administrators, and friends. They gathered in a storage closet to the side of Hughes Auditorium. There were questions to be answered.
- Would they allow the students to spend the night in prayer? Yes.
- Would they turn the sound system off? No.
- Would they let students keep bringing guitars into chapel? Yes.
- Was security required? Yes.
These were questions they had never considered before.
Innovation as Discernment
The wineskins of the revival were formed through questioning, listening, discernment, and innovation. By Friday afternoon, only two days after Zach’s sermon, thousands of people would pass through the doors of the chapel.
Asbury University president Kevin Brown told Christianity Today,
There were 100 people volunteering at any one time, just to make these services work on the fly. There was a classroom that got redeployed into almost a command center. If you walked in, there were flow charts on the wall and the whiteboards were covered with information…. It was one of the most impressive technical feats I’ve ever seen.1
During my time at Asbury, I watched the altar workers receive and pray for students, rotating teams of musicians lead from the stage, hosts working the auditorium, greeters at the door, and security guards on the front lawn. Who was coordinating this effort? How did it evolve?
In some cases, quick decisions needed to be made and Spirit-led discernment was vital.
- Did they want to put up screens for the lyrics of the worship songs? No.
- Should ministers who spoke on stage introduce themselves? No.
- Should they put up signs asking people not to livestream? Yes.
- Should outside worship leaders give leadership? No.
Kari Jobe, the contemporary Christian music singer who won a Dove Award for “The Blessing,” went to Asbury for prayer. It would have seemed natural to invite her to lead in worship, but the team sensed God calling them to steward this movement in a different direction.
These were only a few of the hundreds of decisions that required prayer and discernment.
Student life vice president Sarah Thomas Baldwin shared with one media outlet, “We were just trying to keep up…. There are people… showing up and they’re desperate for God. We’re just trying to stay alive and trying to honor what is happening.”2
By Friday evening the crowd had grown to about 3,000 people, and the university leadership made another discerning decision to set up overflow rooms and stream to other parts of campus. This type of thing was unprecedented. Like the Israelites in the book of Joshua, they had “never been this way before” (Joshua 3:4).
They were innovating along the way.
People from the community began to set up tables and provided food, cookies, and even protein bars. One person started organizing housing for guests. Another began tackling security and invited local law enforcement to get in on the action. An event manager from Phoenix showed up with a plan to coordinate volunteers. A human resources coordinator spent the week answering outside calls.
Altar workers and hosts were trained in crowd management. When I attended the event, an older woman began blowing a shofar periodically during worship. I noticed someone take her aside and gently encourage her not to draw attention to herself. Another person wouldn’t stop praying aggressively and was invited to go outside.
Tucker Carlson, former host of the most-watched TV news show, did an incredible piece on Asbury, and former vice president Mike Pence shared that he was deeply moved at the event. These accounts and others continued to spread the word, and people began coming in droves.
The town of Wilmore was soon overwhelmed, traffic was impossible, and new challenges continued to present themselves. Screens were set up in the grassy semicircle outside the chapel as nearly 20,000 visitors descended on the city the following weekend.
Innovation became a daily activity of hearing from God and moving with the Spirit. God began to lead the team to narrow their focus on Gen Z and Gen A. Soon, the revival spread to other colleges and campuses around the country.
I could go on.
Innovating When God Is Moving
In a previous article, I showed that Jesus gave us a clear word on innovation. In Luke 5:38 he said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” New wine often requires new wineskins and the discernment to understand how to steward all God is doing. Innovation is vital. Stewardship is necessary. Discernment is mandatory.
To use the analogy of a sailboat, we often think of innovation as navigating our way out of stormy weather by learning how to address problems and setbacks. There are other times when we find ourselves sitting on a calm lake waiting for wind. There are no visible storms, but also little movement. We innovate by raising the sails and hoping the winds of the Spirit would blow.
We innovate to prepare for God to move.
But in the case of Asbury, innovation had less to do with navigating storms or raising the sails, and more to do with steering the boat as the Spirit was moving. It consisted of the wisdom and foresight to preserve the new wine being poured out so as not to lose anything God was doing. The Asbury revival was a reminder that innovation is stewarding what God is already doing.
The Asbury revival was a reminder that innovation is stewarding what God is already doing.
What new thing is God doing in your life? Where is he blessing your ministry? What testimonies are you discovering?
While there will always be challenges in life and ministry, perhaps today is a reminder to steward his blessings as well.
- Daniel Silliman, “‘No Celebrities Except Jesus’: How Asbury Protected the Revival,” Christianity Today (online), Feb. 23, 2023.