The irony isn’t lost on me—I’m using the imagery of “catching sleep” to describe spiritual awakening. But I’m going for it nevertheless.
When I read the New Testament, it seems folks were either experiencing revival or longing for it. You have stories of mass conversion or prayers for God to do more than we could imagine. Longings for revival and spiritual awakening in the history of the church have produced all kinds of practices and manipulations to get the experiential fruit. But the New Testament doesn’t give us a guide for producing renewal. It doesn’t give us steps or principles. Maybe most frustratingly, it gives commands to Christians like, “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), as if I’m supposed to go to my local Christian bookstore and get some. Instead, it just gives us stories and prayers. And so we pray and dream, hoping our churches can become part of the stories.
But even though our churches are only able to be the object of revival rather than its producer, I don’t think our waiting is as passive as it seems. In James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom [review], he has a little excursion on “catching sleep” while interacting with the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty:
I cannot choose to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. “I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breath slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there.” I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. “I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of a sleeper. . . . There is a moment when sleep “comes” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be. Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.
Smith uses the analogy of sleep to help us think about rhythms of discipleship, but what if the dynamic of sleep is the same for spiritual awakening in our churches? Is there a “posture of reception” or a “kind of active welcome”?
If we go back to that frustrating command in Ephesians 5:18, we see what may be a church putting themselves in a posture of reception. When describing what it means to “be filled with the Spirit,” Paul explains it’s “by addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:19–21). In other words, be filled with the Spirit by acting as those who have been filled with the Spirit.
Posture of Welcome
This isn’t manipulating the Spirit. You can’t produce spiritual experiences through material forms. But I do think Paul gives us a posture of welcome to imitate. Debauchery (Eph. 5:18) quenches the Spirit, while a thankful heart, joyful singing, and mutual submission (Eph. 5:19–21) puts a church in a kind of active welcome for spiritual awakening.
This means we pastors generally spend our time on what seems like unhurried and inefficient tasks—we pray and listen. We’re slow to act and quick to pay attention. When I’m quick to act and plan without listening, I’m acting as if the Spirit needs me to bring awakening to my church. But when I listen and pray and pay attention, the pleasure is heightened and the fruit is sweeter when he does choose to use me because I’ve put myself in a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.
I can say this, not because I’ve experienced revival in my church, but because of the little revivals I’ve seen in the hearts of the people I’ve been counseling or praying for at any given time. And those experiences make my heart ache for more.
Posturing Our Churches
When I read accounts in the New Testament and church history of spiritual awakening, they seem surprising and unexpected. Maybe you could say they happen at such a “speed” that can only be attributed to a time of reflection after heightened seasons of awakening has passed.
But the work of posturing our churches for the welcome and reception of the Spirit’s work of renewal is the slow work of listening, praying, laboring for thankfulness, gathering to sing, and bearing one another’s burdens. As the the Lord wills, he brings fruit. And, occasionally, he intensifies the fruit to surprising levels of joy and rapture. I wait and pray for him to do it again.