There have been periods of great religious revival in America and around the world and these were often preceded by conflicts like we see today. Schisms open the door to renewal and revival. Schisms force parishioners to choose a side, to ask themselves what they stand for, and are they willing to fight for their beliefs. These events should be and are uncomfortable for all concerned, but also cleansing.
A Fifth” Great Awakening” may be upon us, brought on by schisms within mainline churches such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others. I did not have my eyes open to this possibility until I read the article by T. Q. Manning last month titled “A Prayer for America.” In the article he references the “Great Awakening” (the First Great Awakening actually) and that got me thinking.
In the first three installments of this discussion, we considered the issues and progress toward schism of the United Methodist Church (UMC). It is likely that the fight and struggle will go on to and through the next General Conference in 2024. The UMC will do everything within its power to slow, stall, and block the exit of many local churches. Even if the United Methodist Church wins, they lose because the UMC is dying as it blocks the exit of parishioners. The decision to exit transitions from a congregational one to a personal one. The long, slow exodus of members to other denominations and forms of worship will continue, even speed up.
In the end the UMC may be left with enough empty buildings and rapidly declining membership to sink them financially. But the schisms across America are being forced by far left ideologs, who think they can remake the church by forcing change that is harmful and sinful. This forced change may leave many current congregations in ashes, but ultimately open the door to revival.
“Each of these ‘Great Awakenings’ was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers, a sharp increase of interest in religion, a profound sense of conviction and redemption on the part of those affected, an increase in evangelical church membership, and the formation of new religious movements and denominations.”
Matthew A. McIntosh
Great Awakenings are not well defined because they are usually recognized through the lens of time. They are often uneven in application in different regions around the world, but historians do agree on general periods.
Earlier Great Awakenings
The First Great Awakening in America covered the period from 1730 to 1740 and started in Georgia with the arrival of George Whitefield. His work was one of the catalysts for a demand for religious freedom in our Constitution. Whitefield traveled up and down the colonies and awakened people of many denominations. He was a key figure in an evangelical movement that played a pivotal role in the thoughts of colonists as we entered the Revolutionary period. Whitefield was an Anglican priest and was influenced by the work of John Wesley.
The Second Great Awakening lasted from the late 1700’s until the middle of the 1800’s. This movement seems to have been concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest and served to bring a religious revival to the poorly educated and common man. The term “Hellfire and Damnation” stems from this period and gives some insight into the style of preaching. The Second Great Awakening also spawned many new denominations. This is the era that touched off women’s rights, abolitionists, and the temperance movement.
The Third Great Awakening is attributed to the period from 1850 until 1900. During this period, we saw new denominations, a rise in missionary work, the Chautauqua Movement (Christian adult education,) and a gospel focused on social issues. The revival produced the theology that went with soldiers into the Civil War. During this time, we saw the rise of Sanitary Commissions and Freedmen Societies,
Whether or not there was a Fourth Great Awakening can be debated, but it seems to me to be well defined by the rise of preachers like Billy Graham in the 1960’s. This era was also defined by the “Hippie Movement,” a start to the decline in membership of the mainline denominations, and the rise of conservative, evangelical churches. These denominations began to increase in power and influence on the national stage, a trend that continues today. I also see this as the period when traditional Christianity was challenged by the far left and our current schisms began to take root. These splits have had both political and theological implications for us as a nation and have brought us to a point of reflection and decision.
The Fifth or New Great Awakening
Are we on the threshold of the Fifth Great Awakening? I believe so and that it will have theological, social, and political implications. Everywhere congregations are separating and then reassembling based on deeply dividing social and spiritual issues. The Evangelical Movements that began during the Fourth Great Awakening are becoming a potent force and are now recognized as legitimate denominations. They attract people along religious ideology and social issues, and not race or other divisions of the past. These new denominations are under attack from traditional denominations because they threaten the existing power structure, and from secularists because they threaten to define boundaries of their behavior; and because they attract parishioners away from traditional churches along with the tithe they contribute to their church.
As an observant lay person, I believe there to be three broad issues in the Fifth Great Awakening. First is the role of centralized denomination governance and the rise of bureaucracies. Second is the validity of the Bible as it relates to modern social issues. Third is the divinity of Christ. These three critical issues are linked when worshipers embrace a more traditional view. These issues are key to Christianity and have no “give and take” in acceptance. There are rigid dividing lines along issues such as abortion, LGBTQ clergy, gay marriage, and limiting the power of the central denominational bureaucracies. It is not a coincidence that this mirrors the social arguments outside of churches.
Many on the side of traditional worship view this as a fight for the survival of both the Church and our Nation. With rising influence from Communists and Socialists these divisions are also key to the survival of Democracy. Many traditionalists see the secular issues being pushed by the left as an alignment with declining morals that attack both Christian and Democratic values. Communism and Socialism share a common belief, Atheism. It is no accident of fate that our primary adversaries on the world stage are Communists and Socialists.
The success or failure of a Fifth Awakening will rest on the shoulders of both clergy and lay people. All will need to have the courage to stand up and fight for the survival of our Nation and Christianity. The Bible and our Constitution set limitations on our behaviors in the religious and secular parts of our lives, and their survival as behavioral boundaries is key for all humanity. These two documents form the foundation of liberty that makes our nation the beacon of hope for so many around the world. I believe a Fifth Spiritual Awakening is the catalyst we need to return the Nation and our churches to order and civility.
How Will We Know
We started this discussion with Methodism and their straying from the teachings of John Wesley. Once his faith solidified, Wesley became a minister of unwavering faith and had the ability to draw large crowds to hear him preach. At times he questioned his faith and the success of his mission, but he always turned to the Bible for strength. The words to describe the time of Wesley are best to end this conversation. Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth century historian, described congregations in Wesley’s era:
“Stomach well alive, soul extinct.”
Sir William Blackstone described the First Awakening this way after visiting every major church in London:
“…did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero.” (ca. 100 B.C.)
During their time and ours, you often must be an outlier, a dissenter, to bring Christ into the discussion from the pulpit. It was Wesley’s meetings in homes, his large and small outdoor meetings, and a willingness to stand against those who would tear down the faith that made the difference.
We may only recognize the Fifth Great Awakening with hindsight. Just like the first four, the start and end will not be well defined. They were growing movements with uneven acceptance or implementation, and blurred boundaries. For now, our mission is to work together to push back on those who look to destroy our faith and our beliefs, while at the same time pushing forward to share it.
Each time I am at the end of this discussion there always seems to be more and new developments worth sharing.
Resources Used In This Article
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