Woodstock For Christians Revival Draws Thousands To Kentucky Town

‘Woodstock’ for Christians: Revival Draws Thousands to Kentucky Town

WILMORE, Ky. — Jennifer Palmer told her boss on Thursday morning that she had to leave work, and drove 11 hours straight from Jacksonville, Fla., to get here.

Jayden Peech, a high school student from a few hours away in Kentucky, came with his mother after listening to a speaker at their church. Valor Christian College in Ohio canceled classes, and almost the entire student body drove down in a bus, with no plans for where they would spend the night.

For two weeks, tens of thousands of people have made a pilgrimage to a tiny Christian college, about 30 minutes south of Lexington, for what some scholars and worshipers describe as the nation’s first major spiritual revival of the 21st century.

Drawn by posts on TikTok and Instagram, plus old-fashioned word of mouth, Christians from across the country poured through a chapel on the campus of Asbury University to pray and sing until the wee hours of the morning, lining up hours before the doors opened and leaving only when volunteers closed the chapel at 1 a.m. to clean it for the next day.

They were hoping “to experience the presence” of God, Brittany Faubel, a Valor student, said.

The unplanned event has strained the campus and kept the little chapel filled at all hours, prompting administrators to wind down the spectacle and disruption. Beginning Friday, the school said, there will be no more public events. Students said they were ready to return to their normal campus rhythms.

Nascent revivals are now breaking out at other college campuses, including at Lee University in Tennessee and Cedarville University in Ohio, though it remains to be seen if they will sustain the same fervor seen in Asbury.

The revival at Asbury began on Feb. 8, when a few dozen students lingered after an ordinary morning chapel service to continue singing and praying together. Word about the spontaneous gathering spread on campus, and by evening, students were dragging mattresses into the chapel to spend the night. Within days, their enthusiasm had exploded into a national event.

The university estimates that the revival has drawn more than 50,000 people to Wilmore, a sleepy town of 6,000 people where the grocery store hosts a weekly Bible study and police cars read “In God We Trust.” Asbury was founded in 1890, and its roots are in the Methodist and Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, which has a historical emphasis on transformative movements of the Holy Spirit.

Asbury, with its campus set in rural Kentucky, has a mostly white student body. But the revival itself attracted a slightly more diverse crowd.

Large Number Of People Standing On A Grassy Campus.
Overflow crowds gather around a screen broadcasting worship services inside Hughes Chapel.
The revival began after a small group of students stayed late after an ordinary service to pray.
Two women pray at the chapel. Many people say they had intense personal experiences during the revival.

“It’s like Woodstock,” said Nick Hall, 40, an evangelist from Minnesota who arrived last week to witness the kind of spiritual outpouring that he and others have long prayed for. “This thing that’s happening there is so organic and raw, not flashy, not cool — it’s the anti-cool.”

By any definition, a revival is characterized by spontaneous long-lasting episodes of collective worship: extemporaneous prayer, stirring music and rousing preaching. The concept has a history stretching back to at least the First Great Awakening in 18th-century New England, when crowds of newly fervent Protestants gathered to hear vivid extemporaneous sermons by pastors like Jonathan Edwards.

In the lively tent revivals of the 20th-century South, Pentecostals prayed in tongues and said they experienced divine healing. And the notion remains potent for Christians from many traditions and Protestant denominations.

In recent years, the idea of revival has become a touchstone for some conservatives, including religious leaders who have advanced false accounts of election fraud and vaccine skepticism, and have claimed America is on the brink of a political and cultural revival.

For many other Christians, however, revival is primarily a spiritual phenomenon. Some at Asbury said they preferred the term “outpouring,” as in an almost tangible effusion of the Holy Spirit.

“Sixteen-plus-hour days feel like five minutes,” said Eli Baker, an Asbury undergraduate who was talking intensely with his friend Brenden Krebs at a packed coffee shop on Day 10 of the revival. They both described having intense personal experiences that they attributed to the Holy Spirit’s presence.

By last weekend in Wilmore, almost every parking lot in town was full, and traffic was backed up far along the road coming from Lexington. The university had scrambled to set up banks of portable toilets, a large screen on the lawn to simulcast what was happening onstage in the chapel and heat lamps, when the temperature dropped and snow began to flurry. The line to get into the chapel on Saturday afternoon was a half-mile long.

A Salvation Army truck arrived to hand out coffee and pizza; another truck offered free pancakes to people leaving and arriving in the middle of the night.

“Never could I have imagined what we are experiencing now,” said Kevin Brown, who has been the university’s president since 2019, and spent several very late nights in the chapel. “There’s a deep hunger born of this trenchant dissatisfaction and disillusionment with what has been handed to the younger generation, and I think they’re just raising their gaze to higher things.

The campus setting has helped define the revival for many observers as one driven by Generation Z and speaking to their needs.

The Asbury revival is “marked by overwhelming peace for a generation marked by anxiety,” said Madison Pierce, a student at the unaffiliated Asbury Theological Seminary across the street who volunteered to pray with visitors and help with logistics.

“It’s marked by joy for a generation marked by suicidal ideation,” Mr. Pierce said. “It’s marked by humility for a generation traumatized by the abuse of religious power.”

The school set up a separate fast-tracked entrance line for visitors 25 and younger, blocked off the front section of seating for them and invited them to rest after the service in a quiet room with jigsaw puzzles and snacks. Many young people spent the night there, or crashed in dorm rooms with student hosts.

A line of people waiting to enter the chapel. The school said around 50,000 people from around the country had descended on the chapel in the last two weeks.

Signs in the chapel asked visitors not to livestream the services or to record long videos, to “respect this space.”

Generation Z might not seem the likeliest incubator of spiritual revival. Generally defined as those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it is the least religious generation in American memory. Fully one-third of Gen Z identifies as religiously unaffiliated, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s American National Family Life Survey, compared to 25 percent of Generation X and 18 percent of baby boomers.

But this cohort has also experienced extraordinary stress and loneliness.

Alison Perfater, the Asbury student body president, pointed to the “division and the political unrest of 2020” and the Covid-19 pandemic. “We were due for a breaking point, but instead of it being a horrible breaking point, it was peaceful and sweet,” she said.

Many drawn to Asbury in recent weeks describe an extraordinary sense of peace in the room. Attendees of all ages recall bursting into tears upon entering the building.

“It doesn’t feel like America in 2023 in here,” said Margaret Feinberg, who traveled from Park City, Utah, to attend. “It just melts away.” She was standing against the wall on Friday afternoon and watching quietly as the crowd sang contemporary worship songs like Bethel Music’s “Goodness of God” and older hymns like “It Is Well With My Soul.” The lyrics were not projected on any screens, as they are in most contemporary churches; the crowd knew them by heart, and if they didn’t, they learned as they went along.

Ms. Feinberg was at a revival in the 1990s in Canada and spent a year in her 20s at the Brownsville revival in the late 1990s in Pensacola, Fla. Asbury itself was the scene of a smaller revival in 1970.

“We’ve been beat up by life — we all have been over the last few years,” Ms. Feinberg said. “Everyone is looking for healing.”

Healing is a consistent theme in the modern history of revivals.

But if 20th-century revivals focused on healing physical pains and disabilities, accounts of healing at Asbury are overwhelmingly about mental health, trauma and disillusionment.

“You have a generation identifying that these are the problems of our generation that are intractable,” said Erica Ramirez, the director of research at Auburn Seminary, who has written often about revivals and charismatic theology. “So many of their friends are not well.”

Ms. Ramirez was struck by an account that circulated online about a young woman sharing from the stage that she had attempted suicide just weeks before, but ending her testimony by jumping for joy. Ms. Ramirez compared the moment to the archetypal 20th-century revival scene where a person who could not previously walk throws down their crutches in triumph.

Elijah Drake, a student at the seminary, stopped by the first afternoon when he heard that a group had gathered there. He stayed until 2 a.m. and returned the next day.

The Salvation Army passed out food and drinks from the back of a truck. The small town of Wilmore has been overwhelmed by visitors.
The revival was driven by Generation Z but attracted a range of people, including families.Jesse Barber for The New York Times
Students were provided access to the chapel before the general public was allowed to enter each afternoon.

“It’s been a very sacred space,” he said. Mr. Drake is gay, and said he had reconciled at the revival with a fellow seminarian he had once clashed with over politics he described as “right-wing homophobia.”

Mr. Drake, who is pursuing ordination in the Free Methodist denomination, said the first days of the revival were a period of healing and unity.

In the days that followed, Mr. Drake joined other students, faculty and staff in serving as ad-hoc support staff for the event. One evening, he served as an usher in one of the overflow chapels that opened to receive worshipers who didn’t fit in the main venue. He kept thinking the energy would peter out — maybe the Super Bowl would be a distraction? — but instead it just kept growing.

Over time, influencers and celebrity pastors began to stream into town, posting photos and clips and selfies online. Rich Wilkerson Jr., the Florida pastor who married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, was there; so was Kari Jobe, a popular Christian singer.

The self-described prophets and online spiritual leaders who supported former President Donald Trump also began posting about the revival, sometimes from afar. By this week, activist and author Lance Wallnau was suggesting in a television appearance that perhaps Mr. Trump had supernaturally summoned the revival himself.

But organizers attempted to keep politics out of the spotlight. None of the big names promoting the revival were invited to take the stage, where a group of student musicians and college chaplains led a distinctly low-fi service, with little of the aesthetic slickness of the contemporary American megachurch.

For some students, the weeks of attention and disruption eventually became wearying; one undergraduate described finding adults sleeping on a bench outside one of her classrooms.

But for a while, at least, the students had been at the center of something special.

Carissa Fender, 25, described feeling an unusual calmness when she had entered the chapel last week with her husband and 15-month-old daughter, a comfort after a stressful cross-country move to Cleveland, Tenn.

“I was just overwhelmed with our own personal stuff, and it was like a peace came over me,” Ms. Fender said. “I can cry and give him everything, and this is a safe space.”

Tens of thousands of Christians came to Wilmore, Ky., a small town of 6,000, to take part in the revival.

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