- What the great awakenings tell us about worship today
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (Sept 2010). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
The Bible is story. It is the story of God creating the earth and all that is in it. (Gen 1-2). It is the story of Abraham worshiping and obeying a God he could not see (Gen 14-22) and his wife Sarah receiving an incredible promise to be the mother of “nations” and “Kings” (Gen 17:15-16). It is the story of Joseph standing before his brothers and proclaiming “what you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen 45), of Joshua entering the tent with Moses (Ex 33), of the courage of Deborah who followed the Lord into battle and worshiped him for the victory, and the glory of the Lord filling the building when young King Solomon dedicated the temple to the Lord—the preachers had to stop preaching (2 Chr 5 and 6).
It s a story about dry bones coming back to life (Ezek 37) and the faithfulness of Daniel to worship openly—despite threats from a misguided king (Dan 1-3, 6). It’s the stunning story of a teenage girl named Mary bearing the shame and disgrace of her community so that the savior of all humanity might be born. It’s the story of that savior feeding 5,000 on the hills of Galilee, men and women clamoring to know more about this man named Jesus, the mystery of God. And, it’s the story of how God provided a way for us to have open communication with the sovereign Lord of the universe by ushering in a new covenant.
Down through the ages God has intentionally ordained circumstances, historical events, political conflicts, war, and everyday happenings in such a way that his plan is fulfilled and His sovereign glory revealed. These events have added to the on-going drama and story of worship. And, with each generation has come a time where masses of people are confronted with the reality that God is seeking those that will worship Him in spirit and in truth. These are times and periods of mass revival and repentance from sin that shape the foundations of faith, change culture, and sometimes impact the political landscape for entire nations. Church historians often call these historical moments Great Awakenings.
Most keepers of history will agree that at least four Great Awakenings can be documented. I suspect that if one counts Pentecost as a Great Awakening, there are at least 12 periods of time since the day Jesus gave the Great Commission and returned to heaven where God moved in a mighty way, revival took root, new codes of behavior were established, culture was challenged, and the way the body of Christ worshiped was changed forever. I suggest that we can call at least 8 of these historical periods Great Awakenings.
Obviously, the dates and times of each awakening may be debated. But, most scholars agree that there are great, unexpected, and unexplained movements of God that reveal His Glory and in the process bring people back to himself. By in large, each awakening is embraced by the youth of a particular generation. With each awakening, new worship practices and paradigms are established, strategic and influential personalities emerge and assume significant leadership roles, innovations in the way the Body of Christ expresses their faith and worship takes place, and new methodologies for the greater purpose of communicating the gospel are accepted as routine and common practice. Let me document just a few:
Pentecost, AD 30
An important precursor to Pentecost was Jesus gathering with his disciples in the upper room. Jesus announced the establishment of a new covenant following his resurrection; he promised to send a comforter (Jn 13-14). Then, the Bible says that they were together in one place and the whole house was filled with the Holy Spirit. About 3,000 people became worshipers of Jesus on that day (Acts 2:1-4, 37-41). Strategic and influential personalities include Jesus, the disciples themselves, and early Believers. Early Christians worship for the first time as the body of Christ—the Church. And, they are the first to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and understand the reality of Immanuel (God in us) and how he dwells in the body of each believer. The innovations and methodologies adopted by this awakening are first seen in the fact that worshipers are no longer required to sacrifice bulls, lamb, birds, and grain. Now believers worship through Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of the father and serves as our high priest to God.
Pre-Reformation Revival, 1300-1500
Worship Practices and new Paradigms during this awakening include making available the word of God to all the people in their own, common vernacular. Johannes Gutenburg invents the Printing Press sometime between 1440-1450, making it possible for laymen to sing and worship in private, most often outside the formal church service.
The Reformation, 1517
Every part of Western European life was impacted by the events of this great movement—politics, government, church life, and family. In the development of the Protestant church, Martin Luther introduces congregational singing and Scripture reading in the vernacular as part of the worship service. People began singing secular tunes with lyrics based on, or even quoting, Scripture. John Calvin practiced singing only The Psalms.
The strategic and influential personalities during this period are Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. Congregational participation becomes an essential part of worship the Protestant worship practices.
The First Great Awakening, 1727-1790
This is primarily a European revival that spreads to the New World. Gone is the strict adherence to singing psalms. Now, congregations are permitted to sing songs of doctrine, Scripture, and testimony.
Isaac Watts, John Newton, John and Charles Wesley, and other strategic and influential personalities, are instrumental in introducing a new music genre called “the hymn.”
The Second Great Awakening, 1780-1810 (Camp Meetings)
This awakening is characterized by strong preaching, songs of personal salvation, personal testimony, and a strong emphasis on evangelism. Innovations and methodologies include song form and style. Songs are often based on folk tunes of the region. Books still contained only words, no written music notation. Congregations begin to adopt the secular musical style as a facilitator for proclaiming truth. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists win scores of African American converts and many white Protestants hear black sacred music for the first time. The message of equality before God fuels the abolitionist movement.
The Third Great Awakening, 1830-1840 (Sunday School Revival)
During this awakening congregations are given opportunity to respond to public invitation. Preaching itself becomes the focal point for evangelistic outreach (focus taken away from worship as the main thing). Charles Finney, Titus Coan (Hawaii), Lowell Mason, Robert Or, William Bradbury, George Root, and William Burns usher in innovative methodology that includes promoting events through mass media. Emphasis placed on moving the pulpit to the center of the platform. This is the first move toward a concept called “Worship Evangelism.” Strategic publishing companies of music for the church produce hymnals that include written notation.
The Fourth Great Awakening, 1857-1880 (Prayer and Evangelistic Meetings)
Often called the “Golden Age of Revival,” God uses the economic uncertainty and restlessness of Europe and America brought on by the industrial revolution as a platform to usher in revival. During this time there is a strong emphasis on evangelism, commitment to giving one’s self to fulltime Christian service, and singing “warm songs of testimony” written by popular songwriters.
Phoebe Palmer, Steven Paxson, Dwight Moody, Jeremiah Lanphier, Philip Bliss, Ira Sankey, Charles Alexander, and Fanny Crosby made significant contribution to the evangelistic efforts during this period.
The Fifth Great Awakening, 1907-1930 (Azusa Street Meetings)
This awakening set the stage for what we know today as the charismatic movement. It began at a storefront building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. New paradigms include long song services followed by longer times for preaching and times for corporate worship, laying-on of hands and healing the sick. Influential personalities of this era are Evan Roberts, William Seymour, Charles Parham, R. A. Hardie (Korea), Aimee Semple McPherson, Howard Agnew Johnson, and Jonathan Goforth (China). This is the first time that a movement of God is characterized by multi-ethnic worship. Innovations to worship practices include the use of short experience-based choruses and songs drawn from secular culture.
The Sixth Great Awakening, 1935-1960 (The Great Evangelistic Crusades)
The Youth for Christ movement and the events surrounding World War II and the Korean Conflict had a major impact on the presentation of worship across the country during this period. Strategic and influential personalities during this period of time include Billy Sunday, Mordecai Ham, Billy Graham, Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, Charles E. Fuller, and Thomas Dorsey. Congregations model their worship services after radio programs and large crusade type formats. Considerable emphasis is placed on large choirs, strong evangelistic appeal, and the song leader that now serves as a Master of Ceremonies for the worship service.
The Seventh Great Awakening, 1965-1975 (The Jesus Movement)
The Jesus Movement is essentially a counter-movement to what America experiences with the hippie revolution. Strategic personalities during this period include Ralph Carmichael, Bill Bright, Chuck Smith, Keith and Melody Green, Bob MacKenzie, Kenn Gulliksen, Don Wyrtzen, Chuck Fromm, Don Marsh, Ronn Huff, Billy Ray Hearn, Ted Smith, and host of singers. There is a strong emphasis on developing and promoting testimony song for the growing Baby Boomer generation as well as a host of small bands and traveling singing groups.
The Eighth Great Awakening, 1980-2000 (The Praise and Worship Movement)
This awakening is characterized by a greater emphasis on singing to the Lord and expressing personal love of God and country. Worship services are often driven by special events: Christmas pageants, celebration of America, regional events, conference meetings, and convention Worship (Promise Keepers and mass arena meetings, etc.). The megachurch becomes part of the regular evangelical landscape. Revival in unprecedented numbers is experienced in Pensacola, Florida, Toronto, Canada, London, England and various parts of the globe. With each revival comes a wave of new music and exciting worship innovations. Christian artists are included in the regular worship services; congregations participate in singing Scripture and enjoy lengthy song services. Strategic personalities include Steve Green, Sandi Patti, Andraé Crouch, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Mike Colman, Don Moen, Graham Kendrick, Darlene Zschech, John Wimber, Ron Kenoly, Alvin Slaughter and a host of new songwriters. There is a greater emphasis on worship as the focal point of the home and church. Worship and Praise is established as a specific genre of music and churches begin to offer different worship services based on specific musical styles: contemporary worship, blended worship, and traditional worship.
2000 Through Today (The NEXT Great Worship Awakening)
We are currently in a time of greater expression of personal experience. The information age has had a phenomenal effect on the way worship is delivered to the congregation. Not since the reformation has the evangelical community experienced the level of change as it has during this past decade. Since 2000, there is a greater connection between the Church and the secular community, so much so that secular and sacred music influences for the Evangelical Church are virtually indistinguishable. Worship services are more often driven by popular music genres and dynamic personality. With the advent of advanced recording technology, local churches are becoming centers for publishing and recording with the Internet becoming the delivery conduit for their music.
So, is there another Great Awakening on the horizon? Secular liberal and cultural political writer for the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times Lauren Sandler intends that “We are poised before the next Great Awakening in American History.” If this be the case, what lessons should be learned that will help usher in the next awakening:
1) Worship is at the heart of every Great Awakening and movement by God. There is always a recommitment to God, repentance from sin, and a change of personal behavior toward holiness and righteousness. There is often a rediscovery in how the body of Christ should respond to social needs (feeding the poor, reaching out to the marginalized, etc.).
2) God always provides an opportunity for people to understand and communicate worship in their own vernacular and culture.
3) God always uses people to proclaim his wonders. And it is imperative to keep in perspective that all of the great awakenings experienced by the evangelical community involved a cross-generational alliance and was often given a power surge by highly energized college-aged students.
4) God is in the business of changing people, and worship of him as sovereign is at the heart of this change.
5) Prepare for it. Any new awakening will be met with serious criticism from within the established church and the surrounding culture.
In fact, the secular humanist will be threatened by the sheer notion that another Great Awakening is on the horizon, those of us that worship Jesus Christ can take courage that the story of God continues. What secular liberals call anti-intellectualism and backward looking is in reality a working of the Holy Spirit. Lauren Sandler is right when she says that “An awakening entails young people” and to “hit critical mass, it takes a youth movement.” God is moving in a mighty way to draw this next generation, The Disciple Generation, to himself. And, he is doing this through worship. And, when he does—because he surely will—I suspect the next Great Awakening will be known as the Great Worship Awakening.
Dr. Vernon M. Whaley is author of Called to Worship: The Biblical Foundations of Our Response to God’s Calling and is the Dean of the School of Music and a Professor of Music and Worship at Liberty University.
 Sandler, Lauren, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. New York: Vicking. 2006. P. 11
 Ibid. p. 12.