June 09, 2021

Four Historic Dynamics for a Future-Facing Church

by | Hope Is Alive

This isn’t the first moment of spiritual reset in church history, and it won’t be the last. Pressure points often yield new innovations and surface new leaders. Four stories from bygone revivals offer us hope, perhaps even direction, in our present circumstance.

Allowing these four dynamics to define our lives and churches going forward will set the stage for renewal, restoration, and decades of impact. And before we ask, “What is my church doing in each of these categories?” let us first ask, “To what extent is my life defined by each of these?”


England at the beginning of the eighteenth century was a spiritual cesspool. Drunkenness was rampant, and gambling was so extensive that one historian described England as “one vast casino.” Newborns were exposed in the streets, and 97% of the infant poor living in workhouses died as children.

The divine remedy was the 18th-century revival that transformed England and America in the 1730s. This revival cut across denominational lines and touched every class of society.

One of the primary leaders in the awakening was John Wesley, who organized thousands of converts during the revival into what he called “societies.” Wesley’s societies were characterized by intimate sharing of personal spiritual experiences.

These were not merely “prayer and share” groups, but an attempt to live godly lives through accountability to others in the group. The depth of honesty and vulnerability practiced is evident from the questions drawn up for each meeting:

  1. Do you desire to be told your faults?
  2. Is it your design to be entirely open … without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?
  3. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting? What temptations have you met with?
  4. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?

Remarkably, the discipline of the Methodist societies created a perfect environment for Christians to grow.

(Adapted from The Disciplined Christian Community Under John Wesley, by Rev. Benjamin S. Sharpe Jr.)

Dynamic #2: PRAYER

It was not a good time for churches in downtown Manhattan, and the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street resorted to creative measures, hiring a businessman named Jeremiah Lanphier as a sort of outreach minister. He knocked on doors in the neighborhood and distributed pamphlets and Bibles, but response generally was dismal.

“One day as I was walking along the streets,” Lanphier wrote in his journal, “the idea was suggested to my mind that an hour of prayer, from twelve to one o’clock, would be beneficial to businessmen.” The idea blossomed: a weekly prayer time open to anyone, bankers to broom-pushers. Come when you can, leave when you must.

Handbills advertised the first meeting—at noon on September 23, 1857. Lanphier waited for the first attenders. No one showed up for thirty minutes. Then one man straggled in, then another.

The hour ended with six men present, praying. The following week there were twenty, the next week forty. Soon a hundred. Rooms were packed. The church had to ask another church to handle the overflow.

When churches ran out of room, the prayer meetings moved to theaters. By March of 1858, the New York Times could report that Burton’s Theater on Chambers Street was packed, as famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher led a crowd of 3,000 in prayer. Some estimate that up to a million people became Christians in the 1857–58 revival.

(Taken from 100 Amazing Answers to Prayer, by William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, copyright © 2003, Baker Publishing Group.)

Dynamic #3: JUSTICE

In the late 1980s, four churches in Communist Leipzig, East Germany, had been holding weekly prayer meetings every Monday evening at five. After the prayer meetings, people would light candles and walk peacefully through the city streets, a gentle protest against the Communist regime.

The peaceful protests only grew. As many as 50,000 eventually joined in. Then came October 9, what Germans began to call “the turning point.” The East German government got involved, sending in police and soldiers with orders to shoot the protesters. Many feared a bloodbath.

When one church opened its doors for the weekly prayer meeting, two thousand Communist Party members rushed in to take all the seats. No problem: the church opened the balconies for the usual protesters and, like it or not, the Communists had to sit through a prayer meeting.

Did prayer silence the weapons? That’s what many German Christians believe. Amazingly, shots weren’t fired that night in Leipzig as 70,000 people marched peacefully through town. Or the next Monday, when 120,000 marched. Or the next, when there were 500,000—nearly the entire population of Leipzig.

In early November nearly a million marched through the capital, East Berlin. Police defied orders to shoot. The president resigned in disgrace. And soon there was an opening in the famous Berlin Wall. The stunning developments spread throughout Eastern Europe as peaceful revolutions dismantled Communist regimes.

(Taken from 100 Amazing Answers to Prayer, by William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, copyright © 2003, Baker Publishing Group.)

Dynamic #4: MISSION

Imagine 300 homeless Moravian refugees showing up at your door asking if they might camp out in your backyard for a while. Something like that happened to a 22-year-old German nobleman in East Germany in 1722. His name was Nikolaus Zinzendorf, the heir to one of Europe’s leading royal families.

At first, divisions and discord threatened to undermine the community. However, they were moved to repentance for their divisions, and on August 13, 1727, they experienced a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

A twenty-four-hour-a-day prayer chain was organized in which at least two people were at prayer every hour of the day. This prayer meeting would last over 100 years. 

Anthony, a former slave, came to speak at Herrnhut of the deplorable conditions of the slaves in the West Indies. That night, two of the young Moravians could not sleep as they struggled with a sense that God was moving their hearts to offer themselves to go and minister to those slaves. When they were told that perhaps the only way they could do this was to become slaves themselves, they said they were willing if that was what it would take. Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann left Herrnhut on August 25, 1732, to sail for the West Indies as missionaries.

Within 25 years, more than 200 had gone out as missionaries from this small community to every continent of the world. This refugee-crowded estate was transformed into one of the most dynamic and strategic missionary launching pads since the early church.

(Taken from Glimpses, Issue #127, published by Tyndale House.)