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A crowded chapel at Asbury University
A mass prayer gathering at Asbury University drew worshippers from across the country to campus.

Asbury University

The nonstop, two-week prayer session at Asbury University that brought tens of thousands of people from across the country to the Christian campus in Kentucky has finally ended. But speculation is continuing about why and how the event, dubbed the “Asbury revival” or “outpouring,” occurred and what it means and says about the intersection of faith and academics on religious campuses.

Videos of students and visitors praying and singing, playing instruments, crying, and embracing one another continue to circulate on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms, and the internet is rife with commentary from scholars, campus leaders and theologians attempting to contextualize the event that has captivated religious communities and campuses. Some remain in awe of the fervor and grassroots nature of the event, while others are skeptical of its motives and outcomes.

University leaders say the phenomenon started when some students stayed late after a chapel service on Feb. 8 to continue singing and praying—and didn’t leave. Then other students joined them over several days that stretched into a week, and then another week.

Zeke Atha, a student at Asbury, said he lingered at the chapel service for an extra moment to reflect and then went to class as usual. When class finished, he was surprised to still hear singing coming from the chapel.

“So, I went back up. It was surreal,” he said in a documentary by Sojourner Films, a Christian film company. “The peace that was in the room was unexplainable. A couple buddies and I just went to run around to the different classrooms and barged in on classes and said, ‘Revival is happening.’”

By the time university leaders concluded the gathering, an estimated 50,000 students and visitors had come to the campus to pray, said Kevin Brown, Asbury’s president. The outpouring attracted students from more than 260 colleges and universities, many drawn by social media livestreams and posts. Similar prayer services cropped up at other Christian universities, including Lee University in Tennessee, Cedarville University in Ohio and Samford University in Alabama.

There were also some false starts. Students at Union College in Kentucky reportedly tried to start their own service but had disagreements with administrators over logistics, Fox 56 News reported.

“I don’t view this as something solely owned by Asbury,” Brown said. “I would be excited to see the same spiritual hunger, and the same hearts being stirred, occur at colleges and universities throughout the country, throughout the world, to see that happen in other churches, to see that happen in other communities.”

Asbury is part of the Wesleyan theological tradition, which emphasizes transformational encounters with the Holy Spirit. The university has had lengthy revivals before, including one in 1970 that canceled classes for a week and included at least 144 consecutive hours of prayer, according to the university’s website.

Frank Yamada, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, said what happened at Asbury seems counterintuitive, given various research showing that young Americans are increasingly disaffected with organized religion. For example, only 38 percent of younger millennials identify religion as “very important” in their lives compared to 53 percent of Americans in Generation X and 58 percent of baby boomers, according to Pew Research Center data. A survey from the American Enterprise Institute found that a third of Generation Z identifies as religiously unaffiliated compared to 29 percent of millennials, a quarter of Generation X and 18 percent of baby boomers.

Yamada believes students were motivated by a longing for “a deeper sense of connection to God and to each other,” perhaps partly fueled by “political and social fragmentation” and “coming out of a global pandemic, a time of really deep isolation.”

“People are looking for signs of hope, looking for signs of being connected to each other rather than being divided from each other,” he said. “There are a lot of social factors that could point to this being a meaningful moment.”

Brown emphasized that young adults have had a “multiyear cocktail of really difficult things that they’ve had to process.”

“They’ve had political polarization. They’ve had economic uncertainty. We’ve seen social unrest; we’ve seen racial injustice, global wars. And then in the midst of that we had a global pandemic,” he said. “All of this is exacerbated by phones and social media, which creates this hyperawareness of unsettling phenomenon and the reinforcement of our own ideological echo chambers. There is a hunger for something more, and I think that hunger is acutely felt by younger generations … They strongly value authenticity. They want something genuine, they want something real, and they want that from their church and they want that from their Christian institutions as well.”

A Mass Influx

The surge of worshippers overwhelmed the campus and the sleepy town of Wilmore, which is home to roughly 6,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Cars streamed into the city, backing up traffic and filling the town’s parking spaces.

“We have two stoplights, to give you an idea of how large our town is,” Brown said. Suddenly having to figure out how to accommodate thousands of visitors “on the fly” was “unnerving and unsettling.”

“Our town and our institutions are just not equipped to absorb such a large influx of people,” he said. “On the other hand, it was really, really sweet and really beautiful to see so many different people, so many different ages, representing so many different geographies … just to see everyone in one space, united and experiencing something together.”

After the services continued for several days, Brown called a meeting with other campus leaders to discuss if they were willing to expend the resources needed to support the growing gathering. They agreed they wanted to nurture it but also ensure there was a “horizon,” an eventual return to the routine functioning of the university and town.

As the chapel filled with strangers, administrators set a staggered schedule where some prayer services were reserved for high school and college students. Students were also given first dibs on some of the chapel seating during services open to the public. Meanwhile, university leaders designated an auditorium on campus as a quiet place students could go to relax, study and escape the fray.

Faculty members were given leeway to decide if they wanted to excuse students from class. Some students bounced back and forth between classes and the chapel, while others stayed there day and night, with permission from instructors.

Brown noted that the decision not to cancel classes or mandate class attendance had an ideological message for students—that there shouldn’t be a “false distinction” between class as a place for intellectual growth and chapel as a place for spiritual growth.

“We believe those spaces are more porous,” he said. “The classroom, equally, can be a place that there can be a kind of spiritual development occurring as well.”

The outpouring was arguably a disruption to students’ academic routines, but Brown also saw the event as a natural outgrowth of the Christian education Asbury offers.

Even though hosting a revival-turned-pilgrimage wasn’t an intended part of the university’s mission, “I see this as a kind of outcome of our identity,” he said.

Amanda Staggenborg, chief communications officer at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, said she was moved by such a public display of faith among students. She said one of the benefits of attending a Christian college is these institutions encourage religious expression in a way secular campuses do not.

“I think it allows them to be free in their faith,” she said. “That’s one of the beauties of Christian campuses is they are so faith filled, unapologetically faith filled.”

She also doesn’t rule out that news of the outpouring could attract new students to Christian colleges.

“It definitely raises the profile of Christian colleges because it’s received so much attention,” she said.

Hope and Skepticism

The Asbury revival drew support from across the country, but it also had its critics and skeptics.

Some onlookers questioned whether it was a flash-in-the-pan moment or will turn into a bigger movement. Others questioned the point of the revival and whether it will lead to meaningful, long-term changes when worshippers go back to their church communities at a time of polarized politics and calls for racial justice.

Some Black pastors and preachers have also had robust discussions about it on social media, with some arguing that a true revival would involve an explicit push for social justice and racial equity and others praising the event and the diversity of those who participated on the predominantly white campus.

“God is sovereign,” Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arkansas, tweeted. “He sends awakening wherever He chooses. The Asbury Revival currently underway in Wilmore, Ky. should not be criticized on the basis of the people or racial group that’s in the majority there.”

Revivals, which first took hold in the United States in the mid-1700s, are gatherings that can be either “manufactured or spontaneous,” with a goal “to bring people closer to God” in a lasting way and create social change, said Christina Littlefield, associate professor of communication and religion at Pepperdine University, a Christian university in Los Angeles.

“People who experience this, this should fuel who they are for years to come, and generally when we think of fruits of the spirit, we think joy and peace and kindness,” she said. “It’s how you act. But we also generally want to see actual efforts to serve others, which is why you see, particularly on Twitter, a lot of people going, ‘Where’s the social justice work coming out of this?’”

Littlefield was initially among the skeptics of the gathering at Asbury. Some of her research focuses on how Christian nationalists have long called for a revival, and to them that means “being in charge and basically controlling all areas of culture and essentially reviving a Christian America in very conservative political terms of what that would look like.”

Against that backdrop, rumors of a revival put her on guard, she said. But ultimately she was heartened to see university leaders take pains to ensure students continued leading the gathering, and it wasn’t co-opted by outsiders, including Christian nationalists.

Students just “felt God’s presence, they kept praying, it kept going, and it spread,” she said.

Littlefield became convinced of the genuine nature of the event and was moved by it, though she and others believe onlookers won’t know if this is a revival until some kind of long-lasting social change comes out of it.

Yamada is similarly taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

“If we’re looking at the past history of revivals, there is social implications that will kind of emerge from the individual movement,” he said.

He doesn’t know what those social implications might look like, but he has hopes.

“Whether it’s about the disparities in economic class or the challenges of racism and racism in the United States and how those have really kind of reached a boiling point in many places over the last several years, the ways in which our political lives are kind of polarized along these kinds of lines … I would just hope that revival would lead to some kind of inbreaking of the Holy Spirit into those divides to bring about reconciliation and justice and peace,” he said.

Brown said the outpouring has drawn skepticism, particularly among people who have had negative experiences with religion or seen churches try to “manufacture a revival-type event,” which evokes a sense of “spiritual and emotional manipulation.”

“That’s not what Christianity should be,” he said. And that’s not what he believes he and others witnessed on campus.

Now that the gathering has ended at Asbury, he believes students need time to process what happened. He’s interested in eventually sending students who want to share their reflections to speak at other campuses, schools and church communities.

Campus leaders are still thinking through “how do we process that experience with them?” he said. “And how do we think about what’s next with them?”

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