There's something about reading accounts of churches enjoying unusual fruit in evangelism and discipleship that makes us to long for the same in ours. Accounts like the 18th-century Great Awakening in New England stir us with hope that a spiritually dry and hostile region can suddenly fill with low-hanging fruit.
Speaking several times recently at the Multiply Conference in Australia, Don Carson gives an account of the French Canadian Revival during the 1970s. It's a moving account of the Lord's work among struggling churches and faithful missionaries and pastors. Here's the gist: before 1972, French Canada, which had about 6 million people in the region, had about 35 evangelical churches. None of these churches had more than 50 people in attendance. Most churches had 30 to 40 on good weeks. But between 1972 to 1980, through door-to-door evangelism, campus Bible studies, and the like, ministers began to harvest large amounts of spiritual fruit all at once. During this eight-year span, the number of churches exploded from 35 to more than 500! Carson then offers lessons we can learn from the both the “lean years” and also the “high growth years.” For pastors and ministers longing for gospel renewal in their churches and cities, and for those experiencing revival right now, these are encouraging and helpful lessons.
Lessons from the 'Lean Years'
- You must begin to view opposition and persecution as a privilege. All those who live righteously will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). Apostles rejoiced at being counted worthy to suffer. Enemies treated Jesus this way, so why do you think you'd escape (John 15:20)? You must view suffering and persecution this way, or you will descend into self-pity.
- Pursue evangelism no matter how difficult. Keep thinking of creative ways to share the gospel. At one point Carson says, “At the end of the day, although church planting is more than evangelism, it's never less. Evangelize or die.”
- Work on the biblical texts that talk about endurance, perseverance, steadfastness, and the like.
- Develop confidence in the doctrine of election. “Why don't you go someplace in the world where you'd see more fruit?” Carson asked his father after years of seemingly fruitless service in French Canada. His father turned to him and said, “I stay because I believe God has many people in this place” and turned and walked out of the room. Carson remarks, “I don't think you can really serve faithfully and well and enduringly unless you do believe in the doctrine of election. At the end of the day you are called to be faithful, but when you see conversions, you recognize that it's the work of God. If you believe God has many people in this place, your job is to preach until they're found.”
- Recognize the strange mix of God's supernatural work. Don't look at movements that have great fruit and try to simply copy everything they do.
Lessons from the 'High Growth Years'
- If you start getting rapid growth think especially hard about patterns of training and education. Don't think that education and training slows the Spirit's work.
- Do everything in your power to keep the press out. Downplay things. One of the things that preserved French Canada was the language barrier. People from other parts of the world didn't come flying in to “catch the blessing.” Don't talk so much about the growth. Instead, talk about the gospel; talk about Jesus; talk about Bible study.
- Do what you can to funnel all the God-given, Spirit-powered energy to Bible study and understanding the gospel, and teaching people to teach the Bible. If you don't funnel the energy there, it will be funneled somewhere else.
- Start carefully, prayerfully, and humbly to institutionalize. Revivals almost never start with a plan. But any movement that never institutionalizes will fizzle and disappear within a decade or so. Institutions sometimes steer movements into dead legalism, but without institutions, you don't preserve much. Cautious institutionalizing can pass along and preserve what is faithful to Scripture and the gospel.
Carson also talked at length in Australia about prayer and had a Q&A afterward that revealed other insightful lessons. Be encouraged to pray hard and ask God to do more than we could ever plan or imagine. Other talks D.A. Carson gave from the Multiply Conference include:
- When the Bible Is Silent
- When the Bible Is Silent Q&A
- Lessons from French Canadian Revivals
- Lessons from the French Canadian Revival Q&A
- The Implications of Complementarianism
- The Implications of Complementarianism Q&A
- Our Exalted Identity in a Holy Church
- Teach Us to Pray
- Our Exalted Relationship with Each Other