Have you ever sat in the middle of a modern-day tent revival? The congregation’s faces are strained. The hands are lifted. The entire crowd is begging for a supernatural move of God. I was 18 when I was first enticed by a flashy health, wealth, and prosperity ministry. It was in our small hometown church in the middle of the mountains in Upstate New York where the preacher man came with his beautiful wife and his designer suit, smelling of Calvin Klein and promising prosperity.
"He looks like a model," I said to my friend. "And he smells like really expensive cologne."
"And his wife," she said, as the wonder filled her eyes. "Did you see her? She's beautiful." I nodded and found myself pulling at my Old Navy sweatshirt and JCPenney special jeans. They stood tall and silent, almost regal among us country folk. Elves and hobbits.
In the small sanctuary of our country-grown church, 100 of us cried out night after night, for weeks on end, for a revival to come and change our town. We imagined the days of Charles Finney when thousands would come to hear the Gospel. When bars were shut down and brothels closed, and the church buildings burst at the seams with all of the humble sinners.
This is what we imagined.
Night after night, we gathered in that small church. Begging. Crying. Shouting. Arms lifted and people dropping like flies, money flying out of middle-class wallets into Armani suit pockets. I was in awe, and to this day, I can't tell you if it was God or the Gucci.
At 17, I loved Jesus. I loved being on the good side of the team. My pastor would slap my back with approval and I could pray all the right prayers and give all of the right disdaining looks when someone would “smoke, drink or chew, or go with the girls that do.” I knew how to be good. I was good at good. I could hang my hat on that. The only thing that fueled that fire was the approval of people. But at this point, it was easy enough to find this. Sing "that desperate song" one more time, he would say from his black suit while he paced the stage, and I'd close my eyes and sing again, fingers dancing over the black and white Yamaha keys and people would fall to their knees and cry. It seemed like a Spirit-led formula. Sing the song and something happened.
I remember taking the drive after dinner to the humble hillside chapel with my carpenter jeans, old sweatshirt and hair frizzing with the early winter chill. My cheeks would immediately sting with red, heat up from the November winds, blood and life pushed at my pale skin. This is where we needed to be; where I needed to be. When revival came to town, no one was supposed to stay home. If you stayed home, you might as well hang up your commitment to Jesus too, because it felt as though the actions were one in the same. The committed Christians showed up. The committed Christians sacrificed everything to be there. The committed Christians didn’t have family dinners, school events, quiet evenings fireside nor did they prepare for holiday gatherings. We were there, hillside, on our knees, begging God to see us and hear us.
When he said God would bless us, I looked at what they wore, and I wanted that. When he said God would give back one-hundred-fold to us, I imagined this in currency and things. I saw my friends and family, neighbors and pastors give from the nothing they had. Teachers, farmers, blue-collar workers giving their savings, Christmas money, bonuses, pocket change, in hopes that this Roman emperor-sort of god would see their generosity and smile kindly on us as he passed us in the street.
At the end of weeks and weeks of revival meetings, and our change purses emptied, the man in the suit with the Calvin Klein perfume turned to me and said, "Come with us."
They invited me to travel with them on their worship team as an intern, and without a second thought, we all said yes. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, I said.
Every night, I'd sing the same songs and the crowd who gathered would either sit skeptically or flail wildly among us. He'd speak for an hour about giving, and we'd rub the sleep out of our eyes, hoping the congregation would feel extra generous tonight. And then, when he'd continue to preach about revival for another hour, we'd count the coins and dollar bills in the back.
Did we have enough to eat dinner?
Did we have enough to stay in the town another week?
Would we have to tear down and shake the dust off our feet tomorrow?
The revival became more and more about the bottom line than anything else. When the keys to Jaguars and promises of luxury were dropped in the baskets, we watched the preacher man smile and say that God has blessed us.
Every night for weeks on end, I’d sing "I'm desperate for you," and by the end of a year of this, I started to feel like we were a circus. I knew how to run the trick. I knew how to follow the preacher man's hand motions and when to play the song that would move the hearts of everyone who listened. My voice became a tool, and while I wish I could tell you it was for Jesus, I think I was more concerned about how to keep the preacher man happy and making sure that we had food to eat. By the end, the lightly-attended crowd would gather at the front of the altar, and he'd lay hand on them each. Because we were desperate for God, we had faith that he would move on our behalf. And the way we proved to him that we had faith in him was when we gave Him (him?) our money, our everything. We'd scream, we'd shout, we'd yell louder and as the sweat dripped down our faces, I wondered if God still wanted more.
I'd sing the song again, he'd pray for a "move of the Spirit" and after each of them had fallen down in tears or laughter, he'd sneak quietly out the back to his green room where our late night dinner waited for us.
By day, we walked the streets with scripts in hand. “Give them the salesman head nod when you ask if they want to be saved,” our trainer said. “It works every time.” For days we’d knock on doors, approach crowds of teenagers, ride city buses, you name it all with one thing in mind — bring the names back to the arena. That night the preacher man would throw them in the air like confetti.
“Revival!” he’d shout. “Look at the masses coming to Jesus.” The room of 30 people would applaud. “Revival!” And he’d add to the tally of souls saved; an invisible thermometer of Babel reached to the sky. I’d sit there and squirm and remember the conversations of the day where I’d skim over people’s questions, doubts, fears, hesitancies. I’d give them a fire escape.
“You don’t want to go to hell, do you?”
*Shake your head so they shake their head with you*
“Well, uh... I mean,” they’d start.
“Just repeat after me...” I’d nod and start reading from the index card in my head and sometimes they would mumble along. Their name went on a slip of paper and my work was done.
When I finally left the ministry, burnt out and bitter against a greedy God, I swore I'd never pray for another revival or let someone tell me I needed to give all of my money again. Faith was a fraud. People still died. Bills still went unpaid. Hearts still stayed dark, including my own.
I sometimes wonder if this is how I found reformed theology. Like Dante's Sisyphus, I felt as though I was always pushing a boulder of faith up the mountain only for it to roll back to the bottom, every time. All of the talk led me into a dangerous self-sufficiency, and ultimately left me empty when I jumped head first into rebellion a few years later. When I finally landed in The Village Church, beat up, burnt out and messed up in my own sin, I started to hear the message of something that was water.
It wasn't a do more, give more, get more message.
It was do nothing; Jesus did. Rest here, the work is done.
It took me a few more years to make my way back around, but when I finally dipped my hands in the teachings of those like Matt Chandler, and others of the sort, I found a water that was sweet, a gospel that revived my soul, and a Jesus I could trust. Sometimes you don’t realize how thirsty you are until you take a drink.
Suddenly, prosperity wasn't monetary. It was in my heart.
Revival wasn't shouting and screaming; it was the beat of love within me for others.
Faith wasn't something I could muster up with an earth beating fist; faith was a tiny seed planted within me that I quietly watched and carefully protected. Faith wasn’t a mantra or a certain “thing” of which I needed to accumulate more; faith was a gift given to me.
When someone said “Give it and will come back to you, pressed down, shaken together and running over,” I stopped thinking about cash and actually looked up the context of the verse to see that maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about a New York City shopping spree.
The true Gospel drew me out of the dark and into his marvelous light. Revival started to look like the party where prodigals, former do-gooders, and people without two pennies to rub together could finally find hope in the Christ who had redeemed them. Our poor wretched souls bought, purchased, ransomed. Now that’s rich. I had to slowly dismantle a terrible theology that met me every time I went to sing, read the scriptures, and pray.
The message that I can't earn it, make it happen, shout loud enough, sacrifice enough, give enough, fall enough, sing long enough or evangelize enough — I will always get to the top of the hill and the boulder will crash back down. When I heard, "You can't. Jesus can," I felt like I had heard the good news of the gospel for the first time.
I turned to a friend back then and said, "If this is true, this is really, really, really good news." The gospel sunk into the dark of my heart and blew out the dust of religion.
15 years later, revival as I used to know it isn't something I'm beating the earth for. I don't want my pockets lined with the sacrifices of others. I don't want to ignite a fire in another soul with my feigned passion, or my ability to manipulate your emotions.
I know God moves in different ways, and I’m sure He can still be found moving in the screaming heart of a desperate soul at an altar. But he's also found in the mountainside, where he shows his abundance is in steadfast love. His revival is among the poor, the lackluster, the tired, the ones who don’t have a voice left and at wells where women like me sit, and he tells us that there is a water we can drink.