The Holy Spirit and the Christ-Centered College
Thinking about education after the Asbury Revival
A month ago yesterday, a regularly scheduled chapel service ended at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Some students decided to stay after worship for impromptu prayer… and didn’t leave. For the better part of two weeks, students and employees — and then thousands of visitors — filled Hughes Auditorium and other university spaces for hours upon hours of worship, prayer, Bible reading, and personal testimonies. Though reminiscent of earlier revivals at Asbury, a Wesleyan-Holiness institution, this event took advantage of social media to spread worldwide, and perhaps inspired similar awakenings on other college campuses.
I’m using words like “revival” and “awakening” quite loosely, and interchangeably, since I’m not a scholar of such religious phenomena — and those who are have tended to reserve judgment. But as I followed the events at Asbury from afar, two themes stood out to me, as someone who works in and studies Christian higher education.
First, what was happening — whatever it was — was regularly described as an activity of the Holy Spirit.
“The Holy Spirit was tangible in the room,” one Asbury student told a local reporter. That was a recurring theme from all but the most skeptical observers. It was “definitely of God, definitely of the Holy Spirit,” said a Catholic priest who visited Wilmore last month. Asbury Seminary professor Tom McCall confirmed for Christianity Today readers that “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.”
Asbury’s own official page for the event and its aftermath calls what happened an “outpouring” — a reference to Peter’s quoting of the prophet Joel at Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
Christians elsewhere made similar claims as they reported revival spreading to institutions like Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Attending the Asbury-like worship in the chapel of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, Church of God theologian Dale Coulter reported how his “meditation turned to conversation as the Spirit began to speak some things (just for me).”
But second, whatever the Holy Spirit was doing at Asbury and other colleges, it was often suspected of being in tension with — or even disruptive of — the work of higher education.
Are students still going to class? I must have seen or heard dozens of versions of that question as Christian college faculty and alumni on social media heard news of the revival. After all, the famous 1970 revival on the same campus led to a week without classes. (“It was just too exciting to miss anything,” recalled one alum.)
It wasn’t hard to hear the concern underlying that question: What if revival becomes yet another excuse to deemphasize academics? Or as The Babylon Bee put it:
But as far as I know, classes and assignments went on as scheduled. And when Asbury president Kevin Brown announced an official end to the revival, he cited his desire “to be mindful of my mandate as a fiduciary of Asbury’s resources and student-centric mission… to recognize and steward this beautiful, historic moment of spiritual renewal while quickly moving toward a more sustainable campus experience for our students that fosters predictability, well-being, and continuity.”
All of which made me ask again a question that occurs to me every few years:
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of Christian higher education?
Our institutions typically call themselves “Christ-centered,” and one of the best books I’ve read on the Christian “life of the mind” is entirely focused on Christology. Christian scholars in disciplines from the sciences to the arts like to explain their work by connection to the Father’s work as Creator.
But what about the third person of the Trinity?
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