The National Fellowship for Revival
(within the Uniting Church in Australia)
Peter J. Blackburn
The term "revival" conjures up many different images – mouth-to-mouth! going on a trip to the past to bring back the "old and irrelevant"! an old-fashioned American evangelistic rally!
There are those in the Church who think the users of such a term quaint or antiquated, as well as sympathisers who favour the term "renewal". A recent American visitor suggested we should speak rather of "PROvival" – which suggests to the present writer some new kind of breakfast cereal!
For the National Fellowship for Revival, the name continues to be significant. It speaks of the restoration to the Church, of the awareness of the Presence and Power of God, of the cleansing and empowering of God's people for mission.
I recall a particular Sunday in my teenage years when, using J.B. Phillips' paraphrase, I read the book of Acts from beginning to end. What a gripping story! What a natural sequel to the Gospel record! What a beautifully open, unfinished conclusion!
But – what a contrast to the Church I knew! And look as I might among the denominations, congregations and fellowships of that time, I couldn't help coming to the conclusion that there were vast and striking differences between the New Testament Church and the Church of today.
The answers of that day seemed to form into two major streams. On the one hand there was the push of existential and neo-orthodox theology in a quest for integrity and relevance. This was allied to liturgical renewal and ecumenical dialogue. On the other were the concerns of the evangelical for historical and biblical truth and for authenticity of Christian doctrine and experience.
At that time a number of us became linked with the Methodist Revival Fellowship in the U.K. The very existence of such a body provided support, encouragement and focus as we sought to learn from the lessons of the past and to be open to the God of past, present and future in His leadership of our lives and of the Church of today.
During the twelve years 1960-1972 in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania there spontaneously came into existence a number of unofficial Evangelical Fellowships within the Methodist Church with the common objective of seeking a renewal of the spiritual life of that Church.
These groups were known as the Aldersgate Fellowship in New South Wales and Queensland, the Fellowship for Revival in Victoria and Tasmania and the Aldersgate Fellowship for Revival in South Australia. A National Conference of these fellowships, held at Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne, on 4th and 5th August 1972, resolved to constitute a National Fellowship for Revival (NFFR) linking these state fellowships.
After the incorporation of the Methodist Church into the Uniting Church in Australia on 22nd June 1977, the National Council met at Camberwell on 4th and 5th November 1977 and confirmed an earlier decision to continue the function of the NFFR as an independent organisation with the goodwill of, and within the life of, the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Fellowship for Charismatic Renewal (now finding a point of focus nationally in Australian Renewal Ministries) began as a later development in the life of the Church as numbers of people came to a specifically "charismatic" renewing experience. This movement sought, and gained, a much higher profile in the life of the Church. In its general aims there have been points of contact with the NFFR and the latter body has expressed the desirability of co-operating, wherever appropriate, with that and other movements, in the pursuit of common goals and in the promotion of revival emphases.
The NFFR clearly affirms its task "effectively to encourage evangelical life, faith and witness within the Uniting Church; to seek revival through prayer and evangelical witness, but not in any way to cause division or misunderstanding" (Constitution, Declaration, 1).
The Fellowship affirms a doctrinal basis which is broadly similar to statements of other organisations within the conservative evangelical stream. It has before it a number of objects – these include seeking spiritual renewal within the Uniting Church, witnessing to and seeking to propagate the evangelical faith within that Church, encouraging the study and exposition of the Scriptures from an evangelical viewpoint and encouraging growth in disciplined Christian living and holiness under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit (ibid., Basis, Objects).
In summary, the Fellowship is not proposing a new creed, but seeks "to promote a common basis for all Uniting Church members and adherents who accept (a) the Biblical doctrines of conversion and holiness, (b) the authority of the Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule for faith and practice and (c) the necessity for fervent intercessory prayer for the renewal of spiritual life and witness of the Uniting Church in obedience to the Holy Spirit" (ibid., Declaration, 2).
Within the Fellowship there has been a healthy balance between those who have wanted our only emphasis to be on prayer alone and others stirred by doctrinal concerns within the life of the Church and the need for witness to the evangelical faith. Clearly, revival is the work of God, the act of God. But as we are open to the action of God, we will ourselves be moved into action.
People of Faith
In Luke 14.25ff, Jesus called on His hearers to consider the cost of discipleship. He expected a priority of love (far above the dearest human relationships) and a priority of commitment (the carrying of a cross).
He went on to give two illustrations of what He meant. If you are building a tower, He said, you figure out the cost and check whether you have enough money to do the job. If a king is going out to war, he compares the strength of his army with that of his adversary and, if necessary, seeks peace. Jesus then said, "In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (v.33).
This is a hard saying! What did Jesus mean? That discipleship is not simply a matter of receiving the benefits of God's love, but a commitment and submission to His purposes. Sadly, when the Church and her members fail to count the cost of being the Lord's people, we have also failed to claim the divine resources which God has made available to us by the Holy Spirit. In consequence, we have too often failed to be the watchtower of the Lord and have made our truce with the forces of darkness about us. If we were completely submitted to Him, we would have the resources we needed, but instead we settle for what we have the capacity to do!
Those who pray for and seek revival have to count the cost of discipleship, and of what it means to be the people of faith.
We look at this word "faith" in a number of different ways. Sometimes we talk about "the faith". For example, Jude wrote to urge his readers to "contend for the faith that was once entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).
Here faith is the body of revealed truth. "The faith" is more important than we realise in our prayer and preparation for revival. Our minds too need to be submitted to Him!
On 15th May 1984, Rev. Dr. Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri died. One of the truly great Christians of this century, he was concerned to help Christians understand the mind-set of our time and to help relate the Christian gospel to thinking people of our day. At the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism, he made this statement, "Salvation is bowing twice – first metaphysically and then morally".1 He was saying that a Christian has to be submitted to God's truth.
Doubts about the reality of God the Creator and of His revelation in Word and history, questions about the Deity, Death, Resurrection and Coming Again of Christ, a weak doctrine of sin and of redemption – these have affected and infected the life of the Church. Revival is not merely or principally a return to certain theological basics, yet the Church today has too often been crippled by theological doubt and therefore not open to the revival God seeks to bring.
Faith, of course, is more than knowledge about God, beliefs about Him. It is dependence on Him, on what He has done for our redemption, on what He does with us now, on the future plans of His love.
Those who commit themselves to pray for and seek revival in the Church can only do so as people of faith, people who are expecting God to do something, trusting His promises, depending on His Word. Think of the staggering teaching of Jesus in Matt. 21.22 – "If you believe, you will receive anything you ask for in my name"!
And faith needs to expressed in action, not just passively waiting for God to do something. It is to be positively involved in response to His command, knowing that God will indeed act, both through and apart from our own actions.
I have sometimes wondered whether this is the background to the teaching of James 2 about faith and works – "I will show you my faith by what I do" (v.18b). The reference here is surely not to deeds done independently of God, but to what we do in response to God, what we do in faith, depending on God's reality, God's activity, God's faithfulness. Notice that the New Testament sometimes joins faith and obedience together (as in Rom. 16.26; 2 Thess. 1.8).
It is because of God's reality, revelation, redemption and continued interaction with our lives and history that prayer is such an important factor in revival.
People of Prayer
At 4.30 a.m. on 14th March l977, it happened! Revival began among the aboriginal people in Arnhem Land – and it has spread! Kevin Rrurrambu, school teacher from Elcho Island, told the story to delegates at the UCA's Third National Conference on Evangelism in Melbourne in May 1984.
Kevin and a small number of other aboriginal people had deep spiritual concern for their people. They gathered for prayer. On the night in question, he was sitting outside his home with his wife and his wife's sister. All night they continued in prayer. Then, at 4.30 a.m., it happened – they had a vivid experience of the presence and power of God. It was like Peter, James and John on Mount Hermon – a mist seemed to envelop them. It was nowhere else, just where they were. The Holy Spirit was poured out. People began gathering there each night to hear God's Word and to pray. Numbers grew dramatically – 50, 150, 300...
Notice that revival began as people prayed. We may well ask – why hasn't it happened in our congregations? Sometimes we suggest that it just isn't God's time. I wonder! Are we suggesting that God doesn't mean us to live in the awareness of His presence and power? that we aren't meant to be cleansed and available for His service? that we shouldn't be a healed and healing fellowship? that He doesn't mean the Gospel to be shared with such effectiveness and power that tens, hundreds and thousands of people are converted?
I believe that the barriers to revival lie with us, not God! I believe that revival will come as we are open in persevering, prevailing prayer to God.
In Acts 4.23ff, we read about the prayer meeting which followed the threats to Peter and John before the Sanhedrin. The reaction of the believers was immediate – there was no thought of pulling back from the Lord's mission. Instead, earnest prayer to the Lord!
"Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One'. Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
They knew that what they had to do could only be done in the power of the Lord. They prayed with that expectation. "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly."
In Hebrews 11.6 we are taught that "anyone who comes to (God) must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." There is a God and we come as His believing people.
In John 14.12-14 Jesus emphasises that prayer should be asking in His name. "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." The condition of course is "in my name" – as my people, as those living under my Lordship, seeking to know and do my will.
People on Fire
The Uniting Church at Narooma is not large, but made striking by a large War Memorial tower. If you have been to or through Narooma, you will have seen it, at the top end of the town.
I had been invited to bring my camera and the minister would open the door to the tower and to the best vantage-point in town. Yes, it was worth it! What struck me, however, was the sign at the foot of the steps – "Persons climbing this tower are advised that they do so at their own risk". It was a good solid structure! The sign no doubt had something to do with public risk insurance!
My mind ran to the words of the sign – what if churches put a sign at their front door, "Persons entering this building are advised that they do so at their own risk"? Well, it couldn't be quite in those terms! And yet – shouldn't there be some expectation that people's lives will be changed because they meet with God?
The New Testament book of Acts holds fascination for the Bible student. No one questions that it was written by Luke, physician, companion of Paul in the "we" sections, author of the third gospel. Since he wasn't an apostle, why would it be so universally claimed that he wrote it if he hadn't?
The fascinating question is: Why did he write Luke/Acts? One interesting suggestion is that Theophilus was the counsel for Paul's defence and that Luke/Acts was written as his brief to give him accurate information about the Way and Paul's involvement in it. This gives a useful explanation of its abrupt ending.
That may well be so, but we must note that Luke sees Acts as a continuation of the ministry of Jesus through the apostles by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the explanation for the ending, that ministry is still going on, it has not ended!
Acts opens with the apostles waiting. They had a commission but knew well they couldn't fulfil it – it was quite beyond them!
Let's see their situation. Jesus had died – that was total shock. Now they knew He was alive – that was great joy! But He had left them – his physical presence was gone, yet His commission weighed heavy upon them.
Listen – "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt. 28.18-20). Frightening! As Luke records it in his first volume – "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24.47-49).
Something had to happen! Yes, they believed all right – He is risen, "my Lord and my God", He had to suffer and enter into His glory.... True! True! But He had set before them a very daunting task. They had no organisation, no funds, no special expertise – and, let's face it, the people had just recently put Jesus Himself to death!
They waited. Jesus had promised the Counsellor (Helper), the Spirit of truth to lead them into all truth and to remind them of the His teachings. "But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you" (John 14.17). And – "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you: and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts l.8).
Then it happened! "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (Acts 2.1-4).
Acts records a people on fire with the reality and power of God. Nothing could stop them!
Contrast with that picture the modern Church. We believe but don't expect! God is over there and with our managerial, educational and psychological expertise we're working on it! We need to live within the realisation of God's presence and power! It is probing to ask – how much of our Church programme can continue without the work of the Holy Spirit? Apart from the Holy Spirit, they knew they couldn't – but we'd give it a try!
Note in both Matt. 28 and Luke 24 that they were told they couldn't do it alone – without the presence of their Lord and the power of the Spirit. And people believed the message, people were saved, the number of believers increased dramatically and the geographical spread of the good news is notable. A people on fire!
Have you ever noticed the defensive way we look at the Church? For instance, we read that Jesus said of the Church that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16.18) and think of a fortress where we can be safe in a world of unbelief. The early Church advanced against the "gates of hell"! We think of the privilege of being part of the "body of Christ" (Eph. 1.22,23), but don't consider enough what the body is meant to be doing (4.1-16).
The Church has to live and tell the gospel. It can do neither without the indwelling Holy Spirit. The charismatic fellowships have a great deal to teach the Church of today, and our state FFRs include quite a number of members who are charismatic in experience. Yet, while "rejoicing with those who rejoice", acknowledging the reality of God's work of grace within the lives of individuals, NFFR remains convinced both from Scripture and from history (past and present) that such experiences are not the essence of revival, though they may indeed accompany it.
A Covenant of Prayer
It was my privilege to be speaker at the Queen's Birthday Weekend Conference of the Victorian FFR in June 1984. At the concluding meeting of that Conference, I submitted a Covenant of Prayer. Many of those at that Conference signed their names in an act of commitment to that Covenant.
God has spoken. We have His Word in the Scriptures. We confess that too often we have allowed differences concerning the Scriptures to make them a battle-ground in the Church instead of a launching-pad for faithful obedience to His mission in the world.
God has spoken – spoken in His Son, Jesus Christ. We confess that too often we have contended for His Deity and for His redemptive work, but been slow to acknowledge Him as Lord.
God has spoken – spoken in power through His Spirit poured out at the first Christian Pentecost. God has never withdrawn that gift from the Church and never failed to give Him to all who truly believe, but we confess that we have limited Him, frustrated Him, disappointed Him.
We seek revival, acknowledging our need to be a people of faith, a people on fire, a people at prayer, a people on mission! We desire revival in the Uniting Church in our State – a revival embracing every aspect of the life of the Church – a deeper spirituality, a keener awareness of the reality and power of God through the Holy Spirit, a total submission to the Word of God and commitment to His will.
To this end, we covenant
(a) to seek to understand God's purposes for us and for the Church by diligent and prayerful study of the Scriptures;
(b) to submit ourselves to the Lord for His cleansing and renewing within us and for His enlivening and healing Holy Spirit;
(c) to seek to know and to exercise the gifts the Spirit has given us for building up His Body, the Church;
(d) to pray regularly for revival in the Church – for its ministers, elders and people, for Presbytery officers, for the Moderator and the staff of the various Synod departments, for the Theological Hall Staff and all in training for the ministry, for the President and Secretary of Assembly and all Assembly officers;
(e) to seek, in the power of the Spirit, to be Christ's witnesses to those presently outside the life of the Church and to pray for and expect the conversion of at least one person or family this year;
(f) to prayerfully support and encourage others who join with us in the covenant of prayer. We make this covenant, humbly trusting in God and seeking His glory. We call on our Christian brothers and sisters who are of like mind to join us in this covenant. May the hand of the Lord be upon us all!2
I believe this to be a significant call. It was prepared specifically as a call to members of the Uniting Church in Australia and therefore has specific reference to that Church and its structures and officers. Readers can easily relate it to their own denomination.
In conclusion, while each of us feels a particular prayer-burden for the denominational Church within which the Lord has called us, we need to remember that the Lord of the Church doesn't see us within these divisions. I am sure that revival will mean something between those in each locality who are the Lord's people. I do not mean an organisational ecumenism which has too often meant a submersion of differences and a subversion of the truth of the Gospel. Yet there is a oneness of faith in Him, of love for one another and of mission in the world "that the world may know" (Jn 17.23). That will be one of the results of the faithful concerted prayer of the Lord's people.
Published in Interchange 40 [AFES Graduates Fellowship, Sydney, 1986].
1 J.D. Douglas (ed.) Let the Earth Hear His Voice [Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975] p.362
2 Peter J. Blackburn, Reviving the Church: Counting the Cost [Brisbane: 1984] pp.32-33.