BACKGROUND I spoke at Emmanuel church on Sunday 13 October 2019 on Zephaniah 1 and began my talk speaking about some of the revivals which have taken place over the past 200 years and mentioned my visit to Brownsville, Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 1998 when I attended a Conference on ‘The Principles of Worship’ (it was an interesting insight to ‘why they did what they did!’) The conference was led by Andy Park who, interestingly, wrote ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord’ which was the theme song for our series on Zephaniah.
A few people have asked me about this and so I’m uploading a copy of an article I wrote for the Handforth parish magazine (where I served my curacy) which was later used as a discussion paper for the Chester Diocese clergy conference (they did pay my airfare after all!!). Whilst some of this is now dated, it gives you an insight to my experiences at the time.
THERE HAS, INEVITABLY been many comments written in the church press (and in book form) about Brownsville. However, I don’t always believe what I read, good or bad, about any subject so I went with an open, but cautious, mind.
THERE WERE SEVERAL REASONS FOR GOING TO BROWNSVILLE which could be best described as follows: I felt dearly that God wanted me to go. I wanted to see, feel, taste, touch and experience, at first hand, what was happening and make my own judgements! It was a fact finding mission. I wanted to see what God was doing and how that manifest itself in the everyday life of the church and its members. I wanted to prepare myself for what I might encounter in my future ministry – I’ve still got about 30 yrs. to go! There is, I believe, a national spiritual awakening in this country, and we, as a church, have a responsibility to respond with sensitivity, love, power and the authority of God. I want to be better informed/aware as to what that might mean. I have done a lot of reading about Revivals, Great Awakenings, Times of Refreshing etc. – hence the curiosity to go to Brownsville.
IN THE FIRST INSTANCE, HOW DO WE INTERPRET THE WORD REVIVAL? Revival is when whole towns or cities or countries are affected by how God is moving by His Spirit and working through His people. The Revival associated with the Wesley’s and Whitefield in the 1700’s and the Welsh Revival of the early 1900’s would be examples of this. Many thousands came to a saving faith in Jesus. It is well documented that people fell down on their knees in the street and in the workplace in confession and repentance – something that we don’t see that often in the world today. Revival could be best described as a spontaneous outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit in a given time and place in history that draws ordinary men and women to a saving faith in him.
NO TWO REVIVALS ARE THE SAME so we can’t apply historicity to authenticate what may, or may not, be a move of God. We can, however, use historical principles to increase our awareness of what to look for in order to determine a genuine Revival.
THINGS BEGAN TO HAPPEN when the Pastor, John Kilpatrick, who was so fed up with apathy and a lack of passion for God in his church, cancelled the Sunday evening service and replaced it with a prayer meeting. Over a period, time, church members found a renewed passion for the things of God and a renewed desire to share their faith with others. Many had their ‘life values’ turned upside down! All of this culminated with a visit on ‘Father’s Day by Steve Hill, an evangelist who was then ministering in Argentina, when God moved powerfully on the congregation in a way they had never experienced before.
STEVE HILL has been there since and, for the past three years, Revival meetings have been taking place at Brownsville for four nights a week (Wednesday to Saturday) with people travelling from all over America, if not the world, to get a glimpse/taste of what God is doing there.
THE REVIVAL MEETINGS start at 7.00pm (often finishing as late as midnight) though the doors open at 5.45pm they close at 5.55pm! The main sanctuary holds 2,500, with TV relay to the chapel for 1,500 and other rooms accommodating another 500. People queue for up to 12 hours just to be sure of getting a seat to hear the word of God. Something I still can’t comprehend if I did not have the photograph to prove it!
I MUST CONFESS that it took me a couple of days to ‘loosen up’ in the sense that, as a leader, I spent a lot of my time analysing what was happening around me. Subsequently, this meant there was a barrier to my fully participating. A difficulty, I’m sure, for every church leader who worship’s elsewhere on their Sunday off! (If you ever go to Pensacola, make sure you go for a week – a couple of days is definitely not enough!)
THE WORSHIP IS LED BY LINDELL COOLEY a truly gifted Psalmist, who leads a choir of over 100 and an excellent team of musicians. The worship was, though you may disagree with me, the nearest thing to heaven this side of heaven! It was uplifting, encouraging and emotional, moving me from laughter to tears then back to laughter. And, as I ‘loosened up,’ I was able to open myself to the Lord’s presence and be ministered to in a way I have never experienced.
THE WORSHIP USUALLY LASTS FOR ABOUT AN HOUR AND A HALF (Yes, it’s not a typing error!) before Steve Hill takes the stand and preaches the Gospel. Worship has been a vital part of this Revival. The Brownsville leadership believe that worship prepares people’s hearts to receive from God all that he wants to do in and through them. They also believe that those who are not Christians are challenged by the words of the songs and by the sense of God’s presence in the meetings and by being a part of the worshipping community, that when the Gospel is preached, the ground has already been prepared for them to respond positively. Something, I believe, we would all agree with, even though the style of music may not be to our liking!
WHEN THE GOSPEL IS PREACHED and the opportunity to respond is given through the Altar Call, hundreds of people, literally, run to the front to make Jesus their Lord and Saviour. It has to be seen to be believed. On the Friday night I had the opportunity, as a registered visiting minister, to pray with some of those who had responded to the Gospel. I shared with two young men, in their mid-twenties, one had driven for 18 hours just to be there because, “I’m looking for a purpose in my life and I heard something was happening down here and thought coming here might give me the answers I’m looking for.” The other had driven for 6 hours and queued for 6 because, “I wanted to give my life over to the Lord and I heard that God was here.” Can you imagine driving all the way to Lands’ End just to go to Church? But these are just two of the many people being drawn to Pensacola by God’s Spirit.
INCIDENTALLY Brownsville are not in the ‘Numbers Game’ as far as conversions go. Discipling plays an integral part in their strategy for developing the new found faith of many who become Christians. They have their own Bible School which allows them to do this and also enables them to send out Missionaries to support, and build up, the church in places like the Ukraine, Africa and parts of Eastern Europe.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT IMPRESSED ME most about the people there was the sheer enthusiasm they had for God, and the commitment they gave to God, and the church, in time and money. Anyone who wants to be in the choir, serve as an usher, work in the creche, record the services etc. are all expected to tithe as an expression of their commitment, not only to God but to the church. Failure to tithe means being relieved of their responsibility, because, they believe, it shows a backslidden heart (Radical stuff!).
‘REGULAR’ CHURCH MEMBERS who want to go to the Revival meetings have, as you might expect, to queue like everyone else. However, many church members ‘serve the Lord’ in ways I’ve already mentioned. Those who serve in this way, sign up for 12 months and are committed to 4 nights a week as well as the Sunday morning service. All of these are people who have 9 to 5 jobs, who just want to serve the Lord and serve, and minister, to those who come to visit their church.
IN CONCLUSION when examining much of what is happening at Brownsville I believe we have to remember there’s is a very different culture than ours and we must take the Americanisms out so that we can get to the heart of what God is doing, how he is changing lives and see the fruits of that.
FROM A THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE It is Trinitarian, Biblically based with a sound Christology (that is, the focus on Jesus and how he is proclaimed.) Jesus is worshipped as Lord; the preaching is Christ centred and Jesus is proclaimed as the answer to life itself. Something, I believe, that few of us could find reason to disagree.
THERE WERE SOME AREAS THAT DID GIVE ME CAUSE FOR CONCERN particularly as a leader with responsibility for my own church members and the wider church. However, Brownsville don’t pretend there they’ve got it all right either! (Conversely, there are many things that are worth emulating).
IS THE PENSACOLA REVIVAL A MOVE OF GOD? Yes, I believe it is and I believe it deserves the support and prayers of the world-wide Christian community. And, whilst many will continue to argue about its good or bad points, those in Pensacola will continue to do what they do and draw people into the Kingdom of God. It’s interesting to note that when the Wesley’s started preaching in the fields and workplaces – because the established church refused to minister to the needs of the people – many said it was a work of the devil! In hindsight, we recognise the Godly legacy they, and others like them, have left to the church today. No two Revivals are the same. It is a spontaneous outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit in a given time and place in history that draws ordinary men and women to a saving faith in him.
I REALISE that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what I experienced, and what I could share, but if anybody would like to talk further about my experiences, I’ll be only too happy to do so.
MY VISIT TO PENSACOLA is indelibly marked in my memory and will remain so for the rest of my life – not least because it’s given me a renewed hunger for more of God!
I PRAY that as we remind ourselves of the way in which the Holy Spirit enabled and empowered the early Christian church to witness and gave them a desire and a passion to do God’s will, that you too will experience something of the life giving Spirit of God in your lives. It’s there for all of us, we’ve just got to ask for it.