The Great Awakening

Christopher Hitchens, Diana Butler Bass and the Third Great Awakening

Old Time Prayer Meeting image via Shutterstock
Old Time Prayer Meeting image via Shutterstock

Everyone who calls me to speak somewhere, it seems, wants me to address the issue of declining church membership, and particularly how to connect with younger adults. The problem is that sometimes the invitation is built on a false premise. It’s the hope of many churches that if they can find a way to connect with younger people in a relevant way, those young adults will join the church and save the institution for future generations.

And while this is possible in some situations, it’s really the wrong question to be asking.

The explicit question I get asked, time and again, is “How do we better serve younger people?” And if the question really ended there, we could have a pretty productive conversation. But there’s an implied subtext in most cases that we have to tease out, and often times, the church isn’t even willing to admit that this footnote is married to their question. So although the words above are what are spoken, here’s what they really want to know:

“How do we better serve younger people (so that they will come back to our institutions and save them)?”

The Roots of Justice Revival

When Charles Finney preached , people listened. Finney, considered one of America’s greatest evangelists of the 19th century and a leader of what later become known as the “Second Great Awakening,” drew enthusiastic crowds at his revival services.

A contemporary of Finney’s, Rev. Charles P. Bush, described the scene at one of his revivals: “The churches were not large enough to hold the multitudes that thronged to hear him. After the pews were all filled, the aisles and areas would be supplied with chairs and benches; persons would sit as close as possible all over the pulpit stairs; and still others, men and women, and children, would stand wherever standing-room could be found, throughout a long and exhausting service.”

Finney’s preaching had a lasting effect, not only on the personal lives of those who heard him but also on the broader society. In his memoirs, Finney himself described the impact of one his revivals: “This revival made a great change in the moral state and subsequent history of Rochester. The great majority of the leading men and women in the city were converted. ... From night to night I had been making appeals to the congregation, and calling forward those that were prepared to give their hearts to God; and large numbers were converted every evening.”

Finney, who believed strongly that salvation came through grace alone by faith, saw “works”—the way people act in the world, including, in his case, adamant opposition to the abomination of slavery—as evidence of faith. He wrote, “When I first went to New York, I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. ... in my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it, that a considerable excitement came to exist among the people.”

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Sojourners Magazine April 2008
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A Misnomer Becomes a Movement

Tuesday night, I spoke at the historic Park Street Church in Boston, where the second Great Awakening evangelist Charles Finney preached in 1831, calling people to faith in Jesus Christ and then to enlist in the anti-slavery campaign. William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first abolitionist speech here when he was only 23 years old. I was facing a packed church on a Tuesday night, full of 600 20-something evangelicals who want to be a generation of new abolitionists - focusing on the most [...]

My Prayer for Traveling Mercies

This post is drawn from a message I sent to our staff at Sojourners, thanking them for their hard work and support as I begin the exhausting pace of The Great Awakening book tour. I'd like to share it with you as well. I really need your prayers, and wanted to share with you the prayer that I will be saying everyday-likely again and again! It is from Charles de Foucauld. He was a French aristocrat who joined the French army in Algeria, then left it, lived there identifying with the [...]

Why I Wrote The Great Awakening

My book God’s Politics called on people to take back their faith, after it had been “hijacked” by the Religious Right. Millions of Christ­ians have done just that, and now the question is what are we going to do with our faith, now that we have it back? My new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, addresses that new question.

My friend E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post syndicated columnist, has read the new book and describes how it is different from the last one. “The Great Awakening is the perfect successor to God’s Politics,” Dionne says. “If the earlier book helped open our eyes to what had gone wrong, The Great Awakening ... provides an historical and theological foundation for a transformative public religion.”

When I am asked what has changed since God’s Politics, I reply, “Everything.” The subtitle of God’s Politics was “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” Well, the hard Right continues to get it wrong, but evangelicals are leaving the Religious Right in droves. Meanwhile the Left is starting to get the idea that politics should be about values and that religion has much to contribute to progressive politics.

Two things in particular have changed. First, we now see the “leveling of the praying field” as many Democrats are rediscovering their own reli­gious roots, with many coming out of the closet as people of faith. And their candidates are actively reaching out to the faith community. In recent years perceived as the “secular party,” hostile to religion and values, Democrats are becoming a much more faith-friendly party—that’s a real sea change.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Here We Go Again

I'm on a plane to Portland, Oregon, to begin the West Coast swing of The Great Awakening book tour that will also take us to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego-all back to back. The events are quite diverse and very interesting, from universities, churches, various civic forums, [...]