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Book excerpt: ‘Taken by Surprise’ delves into Asbury revival

It was an ordinary chapel service on Feb. 8, 2023, in Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University. But what happened next was anything but ordinary, taking almost everyone by surprise. While most left for class, some students remained. Several gospel choir members stayed on, singing softly as a few dozen students lingered in prayer. Throughout the day, something spiritually magnetic was underway as hundreds of students returned for unscheduled, unscripted worship.

Before the day was out, accounts of what was transpiring started drawing students from the University of Kentucky and other nearby campuses. By the weekend, small-town Wilmore was inundated by thousands of pilgrims hungry for God. Before long, thousands morphed into tens of thousands.

Through 16 days of round-the-clock, continuous worship, participants recalled an extraordinary sense of the nearness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was no performance with celebrities or polished musicians and no comfortable, spacious venue. Yet an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 pilgrims came from at least 40 states, 286 campuses, and 40 countries. This work explores a spontaneous revival whose impact through social media continues to reverberate around the world.

Below is an excerpt from the book “Taken By Surprise: The Asbury Revival Of 2023”:

“We closed the chapel at 11:00 this morning, and dozens of students stayed in the room, with a palpable, manifest presence of God. An hour later they are still there.” This is how Asbury University Chaplain Greg Haseloff recalls Wednesday, February 8, 2023. That chapel service was one of three held each week at this small Christian liberal arts institution in Wilmore, thirty minutes south of Lexington, Kentucky. President Kevin Brown has described the service that day in Hughes Auditorium as “ordinary” and “unremarkable.” That was even the opinion of the morning’s speaker, Zach Meerkreebs, Asbury’s volunteer assis tant soccer coach and Envision Leadership Coordinator for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. He had returned home late from a trip the night before and, by his own admission, had had scant time for sermon preparation. After chapel he texted his wife, “I laid a stinker. I’ll be home soon.” But as the altar filled with students afterward, he realized he would not be home soon.

READ: New film on Asbury revival

He had preached on Christlike love, noting the thirty commands to practice it found in just thirteen verses of Romans 12:9–21. In contrast, he also warned against “radically poor love” that places self above others. He told students, “Some of you guys have experienced that [false] love in the church. Maybe it’s not violent, maybe it’s not molestation, it’s not taken advantage of—but it feels like someone had pulled a fast one on you.” The message may not have been remark able, but it was solidly biblical, certainly heartfelt, and perhaps more convicting than even Pastor Meerkreebs realized, given what shortly followed in its wake. In the final analysis, when he needs to, the God of Scripture can speak to us, no matter the human vessel.

In unforgettable ways, his February 8 chapel message did come to fruition in the coming two weeks of spiritual renewal; it was embedded in soulful singing, in testimonies of deliver ance from sin and anxiety, and in earnest teaching and preaching. Central to Asbury’s spiritual renewal were themes Pastor Meerkreebs had stressed on February 8: Paul’s injunction not to be wise in one’s own eyes (radical humility) and the impossibility of fulfilling the thirty love commandments of Romans 12 by one’s own efforts. That pivotal morning students were asked how they could “become love.” The answer: one has to experience the love of God to become the love of God.

At 10:50 a.m. chapel ended, and most students left for class. But three members of Asbury’s largely African American gospel choir lingered to continue singing, along with Asbury staffer Benjamin Black, the group’s director and pianist, and several dozen students praying at or near the altar.6 Gospel choir member Lena Marlowe, a freshman from New Jersey, was on the platform for hours. She recalls, “We just kept singing.” It was “very gentle.” She was in Hughes that day and night from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.; Thursday, noon to 1:00 a.m.; and Friday and Saturday, “all day.” Another freshman and fellow member of the gospel choir, Dorcus Lara from Uganda, recalls:

Rev. Zach Meerkreebs preached a sermon about becoming love in action, which I resonated with a lot. When we went up to lead worship again, I just felt God asking me to stay in that moment. I opened up my heart to him and continued to worship sincerely. I remember staying there for an hour after chapel was supposed to end, but then I had to go to my work shift in the IT department.

Asbury senior Charity Johnson, who was also in the gospel choir that morning, noted: “A couple of us were asked to just sing during the altar call, and were singing one of our worship songs. And the worship just never stopped. … People just started coming to the altar and just repenting.”

When students were dismissed, gospel choir director Benjamin Black and worship leader Georges Dumaine, a Haitian American spouse of a seminary student, gave each other a hug just as student Claire Ferguson slipped in and replaced Benjamin Black at the piano, continuing to accompany gospel choir singers. As University Chapel Coordinator Madeline Black, Benjamin’s wife, recalled: “No one was really leading. It was quiet, gentle. I could not leave. I lost track of time.”

In the first hour after chapel at the front of Hughes Auditorium, a business major, struggling with both the loss of his parents and a sister in an auto accident the previous year, unburdened himself of sin and made a public confession to those assembled. According to student body president Alison Perfater and Prof. Rob Lim, at that point “the atmosphere changed.” Also on February 8, a student made a confession of mean-spiritedness toward many on campus. After also relating memories of abuse in the past, she said, “No one sees me.” At that point, a group of her classmates gathered around, embraced her, and prayed with her. Professor Lim remembered: “It was a very powerful moment.”

Junior Zeke Atha, among those who had remained, left after an hour to attend his next class on the ground floor of Hughes. Coming out an hour later, he heard singing: “I said, ‘Okay, that’s weird.’ I went back up, and it was surreal. The peace that was in the room was unexplainable.” Zeke and several other students then ran from class to class around campus excitedly declaring: “Revival is happening.” Others spread the word by texting friends and family.

On a busy day, President Brown had listened to a livestream of chapel from his office, and “the feed just died at 11:00 a.m.” Around noon his wife, Maria, texted: “You need to get over here.” As he made his way to Hughes he saw a student sprinting toward the building. He later remarked: “That is the image I hope for all students—running to Jesus.”

About 11:20 a.m. Zach Meerkreebs forwarded a photo of students still worshipping in Hughes to his longtime mentor, Dr. David Thomas, former senior pastor of Lexington’s Centenary United Methodist Church. When around 1:00 p.m. Meerkreebs followed up with a video of students worshipping in Hughes, Dr. Thomas tried to call Zach but could not get through. Sensing something was up, he cancelled his afternoon appointments and drove to Asbury. When Meerkreebs spotted his mentor in Hughes, he immediately went up to him and gave him a hug, shaking all over. The two friends would find themselves devoting many hours over the next sixteen days leading worship from the Hughes platform.

Dr. Sarah Baldwin, vice president of student life, remembers receiving a text at lunch in the cafeteria that Wednesday stating that some students were still praying in Hughes. Students occa sionally would linger in prayer after chapel, she knew, but this was different. Soon she found herself engulfed in supporting student generated worship that seemed to know no end.

One of Asbury Seminary Provost Gregg Okesson’s students texted him at 1:00 p.m. that “a revival has broken out in Hughes Auditorium.” About the same time Asbury Seminary President Timothy Tennent was standing in front of a window in his office, directly across Lexington Avenue from the university semicircle and Hughes, when he noticed a student running across the lawn and across the street into the seminary administration building. He excitedly told the president’s secretary that chapel never ended that morning.

That same afternoon, across the street at Asbury Seminary, Dr. Jonathan Powers was teaching a course on, of all subjects, worship, when he received a text that something unusual was underway in Hughes Auditorium. He ended up spending hours in Hughes that day and became part of the team that assisted in facilitating worship at the seminary during the revival. That day in class, Dr. Powers had pointed out that knowing about God is different from being with God. A student from his class who also made his way to Hughes that afternoon reminded Dr. Powers that what they were experiencing was just what they had been discussing in class.

In Hughes that afternoon Dr. Jonathan Powers ran into his mother, the university’s Provost Sherry Powers. The latter remem bered, “When you walked in it was like the presence of the Lord I had never experienced before.” She stayed that first night until 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. Those first two days the provost recalled: “A lot of meetings were put on hold,” replaced by many meetings shep herding the revival.

That February 8, Dr. Steve Seamands, a retired Asbury Seminary professor, also received a text—this one from his grandson, Andrew, an Asbury junior, telling his grandfather he should come to campus right away. In hindsight, Dr. Seamands, who had been blessed as a senior in the famed Asbury College spontaneous revival of 1970, believes, like Alison Perfater and Rob Lim, that several students opening up and being vulnerable before God and their fellow students was “pivotal.”

About 12:20 p.m. Zach Meerkreebs texted Professor Lim that he could not meet him for coffee that afternoon because of ongoing student worship in Hughes. Then students interrupted Lim’s 1:00 p.m. class with word of revival. A bit skeptical, he nevertheless dismissed class early, about 1:25, and headed for Hughes. Upon entering he remembered the worship as “gentle, powerful, strong. … You could hear students praying and crying.” Lim credits the fruit of the outpouring in part to students—and later pilgrims—who were willing to linger for God’s leading. In this respect, he and others have even referred to “a theology of lingering.”

That afternoon texts kept flying, and students began returning to Hughes in droves. Asbury University New Testament Professor Suzanne Nicholson recalls that first day:

I wasn’t in chapel when the revival started. I had been at the dentist’s office with my son. I first heard of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit when a student burst into my introductory New Testament class (located underneath the auditorium where worship is taking place) at 1:25 that afternoon and declared, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t know if y’all have heard what is happening upstairs—people are still worshipping, even though chapel finished three hours ago! The Holy Spirit is moving! Come join us!”

Around 4:30 p.m., with several hundred students now worshipping in Hughes, David Thomas spotted President Brown at the doors leading from the lobby into Hughes proper. Walking up to the president, he said that if there was no dismissal, “I think this could go through the night.”24 At this point Dr. Brown convened an ad hoc meeting of eight administrators and staff downstairs in a ground-floor hallway under the lobby. Present were David Thomas, Sarah Baldwin, Zach Meerkreebs, Madeline Black, Mark Whitworth, vice president for athletics and communications, Jennifer McChord, vice president for enrollment and marketing, and Jennie Banter, advancement staffer and director of the Christian Life Project. The decision was made to leave Hughes open for worship through the night of February 8–9. Dr. Baldwin proceeded to recruit staff to piece together two-hour shifts through the wee hours, while chapel coordinator Black scrambled to enlist student worship teams to relieve the university gospel choir, which had reassembled the afternoon of February 8 and ended up leading singing for eight to nine hours nonstop.

For this feat of spiritual and physical stamina, Dr. Baldwin sings the praises not only of the singers but of Haitian American Georges Dumaine, an “incredibly gifted worship leader,” and gospel choir director Benjamin Black. The spontaneity of student worship that first day impressed Dr. Baldwin, who recalled two students returning to Hughes with a cello and a violin to “praise God with their instruments.”

Steve Rehner, Asbury College graduate, former missionary to Colombia, and volunteer student worker, recalls that first day of revival:

Around 7:00 p.m. I received a text from a student at Asbury who is one of the worship team leaders on campus. She told me that chapel was still going on! I headed over to Hughes Auditorium to see what God was doing, and by then there were hundreds of students in the chapel, and the sense of the Lord’s presence was palpable. . . . Very little was being said from the stage, just the worship team leading and those in the auditorium enjoying the warmth, love, and soul rest we felt from the presence of the Lord. Because of this quietness before the Lord, and with the strong sense of the Holy Spirit moving amongst us, the altar was packed with individuals seeking to confess sin and draw closer to the Lord. I left at 11:00 p.m. that Wednesday night, but there were still hundreds of students worshipping and praising the Lord.

Dr. Nicholson vividly remembers her own personal soul searching those first hours of worship on February 8:

I confess that I struggled that first day because I had been carrying some personal burdens … and I was afraid that once God started working on my heart I would be undone, a weeping puddle on the floor of Hughes Auditorium. So that first day I went upstairs for just a few minutes to see what God was doing. It certainly appeared that God was moving. The praise was genuine, the prayers unforced. … When I went home that evening, I continued to feel a remarkable spirit of joy and peace. It was so refreshing! As the revival has continued, I often wake up in the middle of the night with the music and lyrics of praise flowing through my head—not my normal experience.

The heart of what transpired at Asbury February 8–23 was worship. Many present those days recall an extraordinary sense of being in communion with God, often immediately upon entering Hughes Auditorium or one of the overflow venues. Evangelist Jerry Coleman of the Wilmore-based Francis Asbury Society served as an altar counselor every day for two weeks. He shared that many worshippers told him upon entering Hughes or Estes Chapel or McKenna Chapel, “They immediately sense[d] God’s deep Spirit of peace and unity.” Eric Allen, Kentucky Baptist Convention missions team leader, was in Hughes with his wife, Sherry, Saturday night, February 11: “We had only been there a few minutes singing music when we were both moved emotion ally and in tears because the presence of God was so real in that place.” Bill Elliff, founding pastor of The Summit Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas, has written extensively on revival. In Hughes on February 10, he noted: “Within the first hour, I had moved from a spectator to a humble participant. … You don’t want to leave.”

Professor Tim Beougher of Louisville’s Southern Seminary and pastor of West Broadway Baptist Church has also written a great deal on revival, including Accounts of a Campus Revival: Wheaton College 1995. In Hughes on February 13, he said: “I experienced that same overwhelming sense of God’s presence each day/night during the 1995 Wheaton Revival.” Asbury Seminary Provost Gregg Okesson, also working at Wheaton in 1995, drew parallels between the two outpourings including an “insatiable hunger for Christ” and “acute spiritual sensitivity.” Asbury Seminary Professor Tom McCall recalled the same: “Anyone who has spent time in Hughes Auditorium over the past few days can testify that this promised Comforter is present and powerful. I cannot analyze—or even adequately describe—all that is happening, but there is no doubt in my mind that God is present and active.”

Katie Reynolds, who is a volunteer youth worker at Lexington’s Pax Christi Catholic Church, made the fifteen-mile trek to Wilmore three times with her four children, ages six to eighteen. She noted on February 10: “I took our kids after a basketball game on Friday night at 9:00 p.m. … Every seat [in Hughes] was full, and it was standing room only. You could feel the Holy Spirit in the building.” Her thirteen-year-old son, Dylan, said, “It was really powerful and so cool to see everyone praising [God].” His six-year-old sister, Lucy, said the singing made her feel as if “Jesus was right next to me.”

The next day, February 11, Larry Brown, chair of the univer sity board of trustees, was on the last row of the balcony looking down across the expanse of worshippers and the crowded altar.

He shared that he had never seen so many people at once so dearly intent on a time with God. That was his “best moment,” just watching what the Lord was doing. After “a season at Hughes Auditorium,” Asbury Seminary Old Testament Professor Lawson Stone likened the sensation to the relief after a long hike of finding “a lovely, cool stream” where he “just peeled off my shoes and socks and let my hot, sore feet soak in the water.”37 A week into the nonstop worship, Asbury Seminary President Timothy Tennent shared:

There comes a point when the people of God become tired of casual prayers and move to that point of despera tion which opens us up in fresh ways to God’s surprising work. That is what I have experienced most over the past week in my own life. . . . I have been in Hughes Auditorium or Estes, or both, every day and night, and it is like stepping into a flowing spiritual river. You sense the presence and power of God working in people’s lives. Since last Wednesday when the outpouring began, I have reflected many times on Jesus’ statement about the Spirit when he said, “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” [John 3:8 NLT].

This excerpt is published with permission from Seedbed. “Taken By Surprise: The Asbury Revival Of 2023” is available for order here.

Mark R. Elliott, who holds a doctorate in modern European and Russian history, has taught at Asbury University in Kentucky, Wheaton College in Illinois; Samford University in Alabama and Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina. In addition to teaching, Elliott held administrative posts for 19 years as director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College and as director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books and editor emeritus of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, which he edited for 25 years.

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