This week, thousands of evangelical Christians will gather near the Washington Monument for what organizers hope will be a historic religious revival the likes of which America hasn’t seen in decades. As a modern-day one, “Together” has heavy social media branding, major music from hip-hop to folktronica to hard rock, and popular evangelists who know to keep their messages TED-talk short.
But what is the purpose of an evangelical revival in 2016?
The high-profile, celebrity-studded nature of the event Saturday called “Together” is prompting conversations about what, if anything, today’s evangelicals agree should be revived. This group of Americans that makes up 25 percent of the U.S. population is divided about everything from gay rights and the existence of hell to whether the criminal justice system treats blacks and whites equally.
Will the thousands who congregate on the grassy Mall be content with listening to electronica and sharing their belief in Jesus?
Together is the brainchild of Nick Hall, a 34-year-old evangelist who has been organizing worship rally-concerts since he was in college. In the three years it took to put the event together, he has juggled controversies including the involvement of Pope Francis (too ecumenical for some) the push among some for a clear statement of faith and the question of whether the target audience is Christians who need inspiration or non-believers who need Jesus.
Hall said his goal is just to hold a huge, love-Jesus rally — something that has been mostly absent from American public life since the days of Billy Graham’s famed crusades.
“Everything now is protests: ‘I’m against this,’ or ‘I hate that.’ We really believe there is a longing to come together. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can come together around the hope of Jesus,” he said. “There are moments when God’s people come together, and God does something that can heal, change, define generations.”
Although Together organizers’ dream is for a million people to show up, their Park Service permit is for 100,000. If even that many people participate it would still be one of the larger public Christian outreach events of recent decades in the United States.
The big, milestone events in modern evangelical history include Campus Crusade for Christ’s Explo ’72 in Dallas, the men’s Promise Keepers gathering in 1997 and of course evangelical icon Graham’s public revivals, which ran for decades starting in the 1940s and defined the public face of American Christianity in the 20th century.
But today many Americans — including evangelicals — are ambivalent about public religious witness. They don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. They aren’t sure if there is one truth, or agree on what it is or the best way to talk about it. Outreach has shifted, a good slice of it to the busy spiritual space called the Internet.
“The return isn’t good,” Dale Sutherland, a pastor at the McLean, Va., megachurch McLean Bible, said of revivals. “Among Christians, we feel like people respond more to personal evangelism than big crusades …. [Big revivals] are all international. They don’t work here.”
That said, Sutherland supports Together. On Sunday night, his church hosted one of the week’s run-up events, an evangelism training session by popular speaker Greg Stier aimed at youths.
“I think it’s wonderful. I’d [evangelize] any way you can. Talk on the radio, talk to friends, whatever,” he said.
The concept of a huge revival looms large in the minds of evangelicals, even if they aren’t entirely comfortable with the concept and even if aspects of it are contestable. Some evangelicals say the idea isn’t biblical, that one can pray for revival but can’t plan it, that only God can decide when. Yet many hold up two massive phases of revivals in the 1700s and 1800s called “Great Awakenings.”
Kirkland An, a student and school paper editor at the evangelical flagship Wheaton College, said the goal of revival is often part of the conversation on campus. Wheaton and other Christian colleges made national news in 1995 when hordes of students lined up to emotionally confess their sins — a powerful scene rare in mainstream religious life by that time. Americans, including evangelicals, had become turned off by sensational old-fashioned images of tented “revivals” with people appearing to lose control.
“At Wheaton they always talk about it, how we need ‘revival,’ ” said An, who is going to Together.
An said he was going in part for some of the musicians — the biggest names in contemporary Christian music, including rappers Lecrae and Trip Lee — as well as big-name preachers including Francis Chan and Ravi Zacharias.
The vast majority of people appear to be coming for the July 16 event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and includes many quick preachings mixed in with music.
A much smaller turnout was expected for the week of advance events, which include a few training sessions on how to share one’s faith, a conference with Argentine evangelist Luis Palau on the future of evangelism, and a dinner for women on “leadership and humility.” For the run-up week, Together has partnered with two dozen local groups to create volunteer gigs working with prisoners, the elderly, people with disabilities and others on relevant issues.
Together is marketed as a huge day of Christian unity, a time when “we will lay down what divides us — politics, race, social issues, theological differences — to come together and lift up Jesus who unites us,” a news release said.
Although the lineup is entirely evangelical — except for a greeting from Pope Francis via Hall — some prominent evangelical leaders said the racial and gender diversity of the people who will be on stage is groundbreaking. Around half will be non-white and perhaps a third will be female.
Men on the schedule to appear include Lecrae, one of the most widely known evangelical entertainers in America, gospel musician Kirk Franklin and Dallas pastor Tony Evans, all African American. Also on the lineup are mega-preachers Chan (whose parents were from China) and Zacharias, who is of Indian descent.
Among the women appearing are Australian evangelist Christine Caine, women’s leadership minister Jennie Allen, campus pastor Laurel Bunker and spoken word poet Amena Brown. Bunker and Brown are African American.
Many parts of evangelical America do not accept women as preachers. To give women equal billing with huge figures such as Chan or Mark Batterson of Capitol Hill is a shift.
“At this event women have as much of a role as men do, and that’s a big deal,” said Matthew Paul Turner, a progressive writer on Christian faith and culture. “Churches are slow to change, but they are changing. Ten years from now there will be an openly gay speaker on a stage like this one. I believe that.”
Some experts are nonplussed. Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary and an authority on evangelical megachurches, said it’s common for revivals to overhype themselves beforehand. And Thumma said the “unity” appears to mean a mix of evangelicals who are more racially and ethnically diverse, but in his view like-minded, coming from white mainstream communities rather than those that are majority black or majority Latino.
“The people they have coming are kind of the contemporary Christian evangelical spokespersons,” Thumma said. “And they’re all sort of from the same cultural perspective. It’s pretty middle-class. It’s pretty suburban.”
But these criticisms may feel like nitpicky details to evangelicals who just want to come to a huge public event in a prominent spot where they can celebrate their faith. Conservative Christians feel increasingly sidelined in a culture that in many ways is rapidly secularizing and liberalizing.
“This is a rally. And evangelicals will go to a rally because they feel the need to be rallied,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton.
Stetzer said Together is not like Graham’s crusades, which heavily emphasized the non-Christians who would be drawn to the events. The July 16 events looks to appeal to Christians who need to be “reenergized and refocused,” he said.
Some argued against a more prominent role for Pope Francis, and Hall acknowledged that efforts to attract participants from all of Christianity weren’t entirely successful. However, he said, there is plenty to do just among his own huge tribe.
“The reality is there is a lot of division, a lot of deep-seated generational things … we’re calling for a family gathering, and our family is a big one. Every family has an awkward uncle you’re not super-psyched to hang out with. For those coming, there will be a lot of awkward uncles coming, too.”