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The Asbury Revival, Emotionalism, and Group Psychology

The Asbury Revival, Emotionalism, and Group Psychology

After one chapel service at a small religious university in Kentucky, some students did not leave. They stayed and continued to pray and worship for hours. As word spread, by the next day, hundreds of students were participating. And by the end of this second day, students from other universities had arrived to join in.

The revival continued and grew for days as people packed the school’s chapel.

The school—Asbury University—has ended the “public phase” of the events, moving these off-campus because the school (and surrounding small town) simply cannot handle the sudden influx of people who have come to participate.

Emotional Highs

Hearing about this news story, my thoughts have been mixed. If the Asbury revival is a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit and faith, then praise be to God. This nation does need true revival and more strong, brave, and faithful Christian men and women. But I am generally skeptical of claims of religious experience solely based on emotional highs, and admittedly, as far as many mainstream Protestants go, I’m fairly stodgy and private with how I practice and experience religion.

From a distance, there’s really no way to know what the dynamics of this event are. But a professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary writing for Christianity Today says:

“As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation. …

And truth be told, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.”

Others are more skeptical and say that some students are taking advantage of the event to push a left-wing social agenda within the church.

Either way, the Asbury revival is a microcosm for other group events, crowds, or movements.

Emotionalism is often a key part of many religious experiences for people. There’s nothing wrong with emotion in religion—and, in fact, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be an intensely emotional experience. Emotions are integral to the human experience, and I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t have emotions tied into their beliefs: We get angry when someone does something immoral, and we may be joyful in a religious experience or when spending time with friends and family. But emotion as the sole fuel for one’s beliefs is shaky ground.

Feelings will come and go, which means a belief built only on feelings will come and go. Plus, a worldview built on emotion may not be logically or theologically sound. As an article from Not the Bee explains:

“I heard this trend put best by a woman who once tweeted about how she lost her faith. She grew up feeling like she was deeply in love with Jesus, but then she attended a Taylor Swift concert with the same emotional vibe and she realized she just liked the high she got from attending concerts.”

This same principle can be applied outside of religion as well. If we base any of our foundational beliefs on emotion, we run the risk of having them undermined at a later point when our feelings change, when we discover something else that gives us that same emotional experience, or when we are confronted with factual arguments that refute our beliefs.

Group Psychology

When talking about emotionalism and crowds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention groupthink. Throughout history, there are various examples of people being caught up in the energy or ideas of a crowd and behaving irrationally or in ways they normally wouldn’t.

Especially in public settings, people with dissenting opinions who do not see anyone else dissenting are likely to conform with the opinions of the group, even if they think the group is wrong.

Psychologists explain:

“There are several causes of groupthink, which makes it preventable. When the group is highly cohesive, or has a strong sense of connection, maintaining group harmony may become more important to the group than making sound decisions. If the group leader is directive and makes his opinions known, this may discourage group members from disagreeing with the leader. If the group is isolated from hearing alternative or new viewpoints, groupthink may be more likely.”

In other words, going along with the ideas of a crowd or movement without logically considering those ideas can result in us easily adopting beliefs that we don’t truly understand. For instance, getting caught up in a political movement that we initially have some shared opinions with could lead us to unintentionally hold other opinions that we haven’t even fully considered. Some students with conservative parents can move out to college, end up surrounded by left-wing ideology, and return home detached from reality. This is why examining our opinions, and the opinions of those around us, is so important.

Beyond the Asbury Revival

Back to the Asbury revival, I’m not saying that this revival is bad. Rather, I think that emotional and group experiences need to be accompanied by deeper contemplation of our beliefs. And whatever your opinions on the Asbury revival, we can certainly use this event as a catalyst for discussing how we formulate our worldviews.

Image credit: Flickr-Brian Pennington, CC BY 2.0



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  • Avatar
    Scott Rees
    February 28, 2023, 1:34 am

    I'm glad you addressed this. We need discussion. The tweet about "leaders" who are deep in unrepentant sin (queers) is discouraging. God can use non Christians, to be sure. But embracing them to lead worship may be a poison to the well.

    • Avatar
      Tionico@Scott Rees
      February 28, 2023, 2:20 am

      I wish the piece had been more clear. If those perverts have repented and are now walking rightly before God, that's one thing. but the "leadership" of this must examine this issue and if those folk remain in their lawlessness and sin, they MUST be addressed and asked either to repent (with suitable fruit) or step down from their leadership roles. Leaders must be solid and proven over tme. If they were sodomists last week and are caught up in this emotional situation, they yet may well remain sodomists. Not right.
      Jesus often commanded those escaping from wretched lifestyles "repent and be baptised". BITH are necessary.

  • Avatar
    February 28, 2023, 2:15 am

    emotional and group experiences need to be accompanied by deeper contemplation of our beliefs.

    while this is true it is far from enough. Look back to the record as reserved in Acts: yes, the church went from maybe seventy to above eight thousand in just a few weeks. WHY? Because those who were saved did not shrug their shoulders and say "that was nice. Now what?" No. they continued in fellowship house to house, breaking bread, praying for one another, each one looking upon the cares of the other, and let THE LORD grow the church.. which He did a few weeks later with a secind large "catch" of about five thousand.

    So far these have remained holed up in their buildings. Yes its cold outside i Kentucky these days, but folks stil DO get out and about in winter. I will know this is "of the Lord" when the buildings in which they are meeting become too smallm they begin pouring out the doors and bring what they have to everyone in that town.. and the next one jup the pike, and the one beyond that… hey maybe get a bus or five and head on down to Palestine//East Palestine that is, in Ohio. Not far if I remember my states rightly. Exit the bus with shovels in hand, hammers, maybe hazmat suits as well, and turn to the task of helping those folks get back to normal, whatever that will look like after the hell they've just endured. And when East Palestine is set right, maybe hop in the busses again and head further south, just south of the border, and turn to with the hordes trying so hard to illegally enter the US. Give THEM the hope of the gospel. Don't speak spanish? No worries. If the Spirit of God is withh them, just talk and their listeners will hear them and understand. But start with the Good News of salvation. The rest is all chump change.

    Holed up in their warm buildings with comfy seats and good lights isn't much of a challenge. And eotions will not carry much weight outside the buildings when the rubber meets the bumpy road.

  • Avatar
    Dave Oslin
    February 28, 2023, 3:57 am

    Please read Galatians 5, slowly and out loud, particularly verse 15 and meditate on that. And 1 John 3.

  • Avatar
    Nadyne A Buck
    February 28, 2023, 4:10 pm

    Fervor is usual at the beginning of one's journey into the love of God. However, to continue forth, a deeper dive into the Bible and a consistent prayer life is necessary for complete transformation. Acceptance of Christ as a personal Savior comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit to help remain on this journey. The outcome of this revival remains to be seen. I will watch with hope and prayer.

  • Avatar
    February 28, 2023, 6:45 pm

    We were in the 1970 Jesus Movement and saw a lot of emotionalism as well as authentic spiritual movement. It did not take long for us older folks to weed out the manipulation and immaturity chaff from the wheat.
    However, when young people who got high on dope were getting high on Jesus it was trading a bad habit for a good habit. And, many stayed for the meat after playing with the jink food.
    Thousands went on to maturity, marriage, education, and ministry leadership.
    As a therapist I see many who resist “emotionalism” because they resist all emotion and that is as harmful as too much emotion. The naysayers are too often the “Elder Brother” who refuse to attend the Prodigal’s Party.
    Following every revival there is a high need for more Therapists because so many deeply broken people come to faith. That is part of my story in the USA, Scandinavia, Russia, and Asia.


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