Navigating Special Times of Refreshing
By Suzanne Nicholson
What do you do when the streams of living water suddenly burst into a flood? The spiritual outpouring that began at Asbury University on February 8, 2023, was spontaneous and unexpected. After an ordinary chapel service, a number of students felt called to linger and praise God. As students responded, the Spirit brought an immense sense of joy and peace. More students came. The Spirit remained, and so did the students. Over the course of two weeks, thousands of Jesus-seekers poured into our small town of Wilmore, Kentucky.
Theological Reflections. The day before the revival began, my Growth of the New Testament Church class was discussing Peter’s speech in Acts 3 after he healed a man in front of the Temple. Peter had described Jesus’ death and resurrection and then challenged the audience: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21). Our class had discussed the beauty of the description, “times of refreshing,” only to experience that refreshing the very next day!
My students had noticed in Acts several places where – after the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost – the disciples had been described as being “filled with the Spirit” (e.g., 4:8, 7:55, 13:9). They wanted to know if Luke was simply reminding his readers that the disciples had been filled with the Spirit previously, or if this was a new filling. At the time I described it as sort of a turbo-charge: there’s always gas in the tank, but sometimes you need an extra burst of power for the task at hand.
In reflection, two other metaphors might be helpful. It’s important to remember that the Spirit who was present at Asbury in early February is the same God who was present three weeks previous and is the same God who is still here now that the crowds have dispersed. The difference is in the level of communion we experienced. God is always feeding us by his Spirit, but some occasions are a bit more special. It’s like sitting down to meals three times a day, but occasionally indulging in a fantastic Thanksgiving feast, enjoying all the special dishes with the best of ingredients, and sharing the overwhelming spread with anyone who shows up to partake.
My favorite image, however, arises from Psalm 1:3. Those who delight in the law of the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” Believers who regularly commune with the Lord through prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, receiving the Eucharist, and other means of grace are the trees planted by streams of water, receiving their nourishment. But occasionally we need flood waters to spur new growth – not the destructive floods that wipe away homes, but rather the essential spring flooding of the Nile that brought much-needed water and nutrients to agricultural lands in the ancient world.
This is where we found ourselves at Asbury. We are planted by streams of water, but the dry air of secular culture had left us thirsting for more. The thousands of visitors to campus only demonstrated how much spiritual thirst exists right now. These people were desperate for relief, life, and hope, and they were willing to wait in line for hours to enter the place where the veil between heaven and earth was remarkably thin. The Holy Spirit graciously sent gentle flood waters to revive us, reshape us, and empower us for the work ahead. We received a sort of spiritual Miracle-Gro, a nutrient boost to inspire new growth. We drank deeply from this refreshing gift.
Not everyone found it comfortable to explore this movement of the Holy Spirit. Some students said they felt pressured to go and join in the revival; others were skeptical or fearful of what they would encounter. Some students experienced the refreshing of the Spirit as they prayed in their dorm rooms, rather than joining the immense and, for some, intimidating crowd. Some students stayed in Hughes Auditorium for a few minutes at a time, while others remained for hours or even days. These different experiences should remind us that we need to be gentle with one another because what each of us needs from the Holy Spirit may be different. God is gracious enough to meet us where we are, and we are all at varying points in our walk with the Lord.
Yet we should also keep in mind that there is something powerful about being in community and hearing testimonies of how God is working among the body of Christ. When others publicly repent of their sins, we may be moved to do the same. When others praise Jesus in loud voices, we may experience a similar joy in the Lord. When others intercede in prayer for the nations, we may be urged to follow suit. Witnessing together the movement of God, we are strengthened for our own testimony just as we strengthen those who are giving testimony. Ephesians 4:15-16 reminds us of God’s desire for the body of Christ to be knit together in this way: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Some have asked how this outpouring of the Holy Spirit came about. How can it be replicated? The simple answer is that this was a spontaneous act of God, a beautiful act of grace. It was not manufactured. Asbury University simply had another average, ordinary chapel service, and God chose to move. We did nothing ourselves to make this happen.
That’s not entirely correct. People have been praying for revival for years – some, for decades. God delights in these kinds of prayers. God responds in his own timing to the cries of his people. But make no mistake: this is not a “work.” The prayers of the people are a response to what God has done previously. God’s grace comes first, the people respond with prayers for more, and God pours out his grace once again.
What was so stunning about this kind of outpouring is that it was locally focused. We regularly preach the truth that God who created and sustains the universe is accessible anywhere – whether in foxholes or brothels or athletic fields or beaches or homes or churches. God is available to all who cry out to him. And yet there are times when the Spirit appears profoundly in a particular location. When Moses met God, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed, and he was told to remove his sandals because the place on which he was standing was holy (Exodus 3:1-6). When God led the Israelites through the desert, he did so by a cloud of his presence during the day and by fire at night (Exodus 13:21). God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38). When the Spirit poured forth at Pentecost, it filled a house in Jerusalem where believers had gathered (Acts 2:1).
These kinds of manifestations of God’s presence have continued through the centuries as God regularly revives his people. Now God chose this season to pour forth abundantly his Spirit at Asbury University. But this does not mean that God is any less accessible in your home church. Pray for the refreshing Spirit of God to bless your community. Be persistent. Wait with longing. Don’t give up hope. And don’t forget that even as you await the flood, you are trees planted by water. Drink deeply of the Spirit who is always present. The flood is no replacement for the daily drinking from the streams of God’s goodness.
A Few Practical Notes. As the Spirit began to move, the campus leaders worked hard to keep the emphasis on Jesus. No one leader emerged, but a large team worked together to make sure the music, the testimonies, the personal narratives, the discussion of Scripture all focused on glorifying God rather than on individuals in the room.
Repentance was a large part of what God prompted among those in attendance. In order for God to revive us, we must confess the ways in which we have followed our own wills rather than the will of God. We must be willing to flee sin and be transformed by a loving God who desires to give us a life of flourishing (2 Chronicles 7:14). We have been called to a life of holiness.
Flexibility is an incredibly important part of responding to the Spirit. Our churches and institutions often have policies and procedures – routines that keep the cogs of progress running smoothly. But when the Spirit suddenly shows up in powerful ways, the rule book may need to go out the window. Our administration at Asbury encouraged professors to be flexible with assignment dates and attendance policies for those who felt called to worship in Hughes Auditorium. Leaders were creative in addressing unforeseen needs – a snack table outside the back door of the auditorium for those who remained for hours, portable toilets outside for those who waited in line to gain entrance to the packed auditorium, a baby changing table placed outside the restrooms (not your typical equipment here!).
In the early church, organization developed over time. At first, the believers simply gathered together and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Later, in Acts 6, deacons were appointed to distribute food to the Hellenistic widows who had been overlooked in the daily food distribution. Structure was introduced to make sure the needs were met. Similarly, here at Asbury systems were developed quickly to meet pressing needs.
Discernment was one of the greatest needs. How is God moving? How can this gift best be stewarded? Where might people intentionally or unintentionally be leading this community in a different direction than God desires? Constant prayer was an absolute necessity.
Spiritual outpourings today contain an element not foreseen in previous generations: social media. Word about this movement of God spread like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. In the past, teams of evangelists needed to travel from town to town to spread the word, but now in a matter of days people on the other side of the planet heard about what was happening in Wilmore, Kentucky. For the first week and a half of this outpouring, Asbury University intentionally chose not to livestream the revival (other than our previously scheduled student chapel services). Some in the crowds, however, were livestreaming non-stop.
We were concerned about the potential for abuse. Those who were unaware they were being filmed but were moved by the Spirit to repent publicly of their sins – even in a room of 1,500 people – were not expecting to later see their testimony spread to millions across the globe (including family far away who may not appreciate the personal revelations) or that their images may have been turned into memes. When we post under these conditions, we should consider posting short snippets of praise and worship so that God may be glorified. But we must be careful not to abuse others in our eagerness to share. Just because we can post intimate personal testimonies to social media does not mean that we should.
What Happens Next? There was a point when police officers had to close access to the main road into Wilmore. The town simply did not have capacity for more visitors.
The crowds were unsettling to some of our students, who found their routines significantly disrupted. Yet I was reminded that the newcomers were standing where we were two weeks previous when we drank deeply from the well of the Spirit – thirsty and desperate for a touch from God.
Our administrators did well to support the public longing for God, but they also recognized that this outpouring was not meant to remain here, but to spread. At one point, President Kevin Brown announced that the services at Asbury for the general public would end on Monday, February 20, although evening services for high school and college students were to be held through February 23. After that, services would need to continue at locations other than Asbury University.
This refreshing Spirit was not for us alone, and there is plenty to go around. Scripture is full of language describing the abundance of God: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
The challenge occurred, however, after the flood waters receded. We must not forget that we are still trees planted by living water. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, even if we experience God in different ways on different days. We cannot forsake the normal means of grace in search of floodwaters alone. Our faith communities must disciple those who have found new life as a result of this outpouring. We need to teach Scripture in depth and provide small-group support and accountability to help people make sense of what they experienced and challenge them toward deeper relationships with Jesus.
This flood was meant to revive us for a purpose – to share the joy and the love of God with those living in a dark world. As the revival occurred, we simultaneously watched tens of thousands of dead being pulled from the rubble after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. We witnessed several more mass shootings, including one on the campus of Michigan State University. We continue to see famine and poverty, addiction and despair, racism and sexism, abuse and ailments across the world and in our homes.
We needed this refreshing of the Spirit more than ever as a testimony that God has not abandoned this dark world. We tasted and saw that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). This is the hope for a world gone wrong.
Our experience of this hope empowers us to go and preach the good news to the dying and the destitute, not only through our words, but also through our actions. God calls us to perfect love of both God and neighbor. If we keep this refreshing Spirit to ourselves, then we have missed the point. God gave us shalom – wholeness and healing and flourishing – so that we can bring the love of God to others. If we proclaim the love of Jesus but do not demonstrate God’s love by helping the poor and destitute, then we are nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). God forbid that we turn these songs of praise into nothing more than a noisy interruption.
Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Dr. Nicholson is an Elder in the Global Methodist Church and serves as Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand. This essay has been adapted and republished by permission of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).