Taken by Surprise: Interview with Mark Elliott on the Asbury Revival

Taken by Surprise: Interview with Mark Elliott on the Asbury Revival

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Seedbed is pleased to announce the release of Taken by Surprise: The Asbury Revival of 2023 by Mark R. Elliott. A church historian who has held several academic posts over his career and has specialized in East-West relationships in the church, Elliott was a participant in the 1970 Asbury Revival as a graduate student in Lexington, Kentucky, as well a witness to and servant of the 2023 Asbury Revival during its last days. Get a copy of his historical account from our store here.

What happened at Asbury University in February 2023?

The Asbury Outpouring of February 2023 had all the traditional hallmarks of a genuine spiritual revival: prayers (before and during), preaching, teaching, repentance, confession, reconciliation, a deeper walk in faith through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and, for some, a witness to new life in Christ.

The spontaneous, Holy Spirit and student-generated season of renewal that enveloped Asbury University and Asbury Seminary was characterized by a widely felt sense of the presence of the divine; simple praise choruses that were sometimes exuberant, sometimes contemplative; a sense of time standing still; an absence of celebrities; low-key, low-tech worship; and an abundance of prayers of repentance, confession, and forgiveness.

What is your connection to the city of Wilmore and the Asbury institutions?

As for Wilmore, my grandmother moved the family to the village in the 1920s so that her children could attend Asbury College, with my aunt and mother graduating in 1930 and 1932 respectively. I also am a longtime friend and supporter of Wilmore’s Mayor Harold Rainwater, whom I first met when we enrolled as freshmen at Asbury College in 1965. I recently published a booklet, Pieces of History; The Origins of the Street Names of Wilmore, Kentucky.
As for my personal ties to Asbury University, my wife and I are both graduates, and we have many family members who have graduated from Asbury as far back as 1930 and as recently as 1996. My own direct service to Asbury has included twelve years on the faculty, seven years on the alumni board, including one year as president, and ten years on the board of trustees, including one year as chair of the academic affairs committee. My wife and I have helped inaugurate and fund four student scholarships and one endowed lectureship. My ties to Asbury Theological Seminary have included teaching a course on Russian church history and missions, periodic guest lectures for the ATS school of missions seminars, and recruiting archival collections dealing with Eurasian church life and missions.
In addition to the insider connections, I think it is important to note that I have had the benefit of various outsider experiences that have helped give perspective to my insider ties. I taught at other Christian colleges and universities longer than I taught at Asbury College. I engaged in research, writing, editing, and ministry in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for decades, working with believers of many different denominations and with Eastern Orthodox believer. These experiences have helped to give me a wider, global perspective on what helps—and what hinders—revival and renewal.

What is a revival and how do you distinguish it from other spiritual phenomena such as renewal, awakening, or outpouring?

One definition of revival is scheduled, periodic religious services for the purpose of conversion of the lost and the rededication of those who have grown nominal in their faith. A second definition of revival is an unplanned, spontaneous manifestation of penitents realizing their need for God that is characterized by confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

Theologians parse nuances differentiating revival, renewal, awakening, outpouring, and revitalization. At heart they all refer to getting right with God through Christ and in response living a life of faith and service. Laity typically use these terms interchangeably.

Are there any features of what happened at Asbury that made it unique among revivals?

The most unique aspect of the Asbury Revival of February 2023 was its almost instantaneous spread by means of social media.

The top five “Asbury Revival” YouTube videos, even though not authorized by the university, had a February viewership of 6.34 million; the TikTok hashtag #asburyrevival, again not generated by the university, mushroomed from 10 million views on February 9 to 240.8 million by April 6; and Asbury University’s Facebook page reach for February 8–23 was 15,600,644.

The deep spiritual hunger that motivated 50,000 to 70,000 pilgrims to make their way to Asbury for spiritual refreshing was another hallmark of the outpouring. Professor Suzanne Nicholson wrote, “The thousands of visitors to campus have only demonstrated how much spiritual thirst exists right now. These people are desperate for relief, life, and hope, and they are willing to wait in line for hours to enter the place where the veil between heaven and earth is remarkably thin right now.” For Dr. David Thomas, “It was not hunger; it was starvation.” And those who sought the Lord were rewarded. Dr. Thomas—and others—noted that many entering Hughes Auditorium after hours in line did not take seats but made their way directly to the altar. 

Have any revivals or renewals occurred in other places in the U.S. or across the globe that were born from participants or encouragement from the Asbury Revival?

With the spiritual renewal of pilgrims participating from 40 states, 40 countries, and 279 colleges and universities,  there is bound to be an outgrowth from the Asbury Revival. Only future years will tell the full extent of the impact, but early instances of its spread include the campuses of Cedarville University (OH), Northern Kentucky University (KY), Samford University (AL), and Baylor University (TX). Even before the end of the spring semester of 2023, many Asbury students were sharing their experiences of renewal in churches across the U.S.

Why is this younger generation especially poised for revival? What are its particular struggles?

Many youth today, including youth at Christian colleges and universities, are having to deal with some combination of addictions, family turmoil, not measuring up to the perfect bodies and affluence of advertisements, loneliness, feelings of worthlessness and depression, suicidal thoughts, a decline in civil discourse (especially in politics), and too much time devoted to social media and its increasingly confrontational and vicious repartee.

Summarizing the rise in adolescent angst, New York Times writer Ruth Graham notes Gen Zers have “been battered by everything from political polarization to COVID-19 shutdowns to a near epidemic of depression.” All of these destructive trends have been compounded by pandemic-enforced online learning and isolation. She further reported that accounts of healing were “overwhelmingly about mental health, trauma, and disillusionment.”

Dr. Sarah Baldwin shared that those shepherding worship came to recognize four afflictions that were weighing students down and from which many found release: addictions, anxieties, “church hurt,” and what she called “the spirit of death” (self-harm and thoughts of suicide).

What word would you share with critics or skeptics of events like this?

In writing Taken by Surprise, I originally did not intend to address criticisms, preferring to let descriptions of the winsome character of worship and spiritual renewal speak for themselves. But negative assessments—often by individuals who were not in attendance—ended up generating an appendix titled, “A Critique of the Critics.” In answer to the question if what was happening at Asbury was really genuine, the stress is upon marks of authenticity, many of which run counter to society’s expectations of Gen Z youth and an increasingly irreligious age. As examples:

The night of February 12, the Super Bowl could not compete with worship on the campus of Asbury University and Asbury Seminary across the street. One student told LEX18 News: “Like I’m a big Eagles fan, and I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl.”

One worshipper, and not of the Asbury tribe, told a Washington Post reporter onsite, “You can’t tell a bunch of college students that we’re going to pray together all night and share our secrets. You can’t plan that or engineer that.”

In March–May 2023 Asbury University’s counseling service experienced an eight-fold drop in student appointments compared to the previous spring; and Asbury’s student body president offered her own no-nonsense critique: “I know this campus very well. It’s small, and I know exactly which students on this campus hate each other. Those are the people I have seen praying together, singing together, hugging, crying. . . . It’s been totally life-changing.”

By all accounts, because of the revival that surprised Asbury in February 2023, many will never be the same—and for the better.

What topics do you cover in your account of revival?

  • The backstory including past Asbury revivals, past U.S. and global revivals, Gen Z anxieties, and concerted prayers for revival
  • The outbreak of spontaneous revival on February 8
  • Worship including music, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, testimonials, preaching, and teaching
  • Leadership and logistics including shepherding the unexpected, insuring campus safety, and protecting the revival from attention seekers and politics
  • Volunteers providing their time, their donations, and their prayer efforts (altar counselors, consecration of worship teams, and daily intercessory prayers)
  • Media coverage (print and social media)
  • Wilmore, Kentucky: Blessed but Overwhelmed
  • Spreading Near and Far: “Come, Tarry, Go”
  • A Critique of the Critics

If readers of your work took its message to heart, what would happen in the life of God’s people?

There would be renewed stress on humility, generosity, hospitality, and selflessness. Themes of the outpouring were radical humility, radical generosity, and radical hospitality. Nothing could better illustrate the point than a cabinet member and two faculty cleaning restrooms in the basement of Hughes Auditorium. Dr. Sarah Baldwin related, “Most of the people coming have no idea that they’re usher navigating a wheelchair through the rain has a PhD, and their prayer minister is a retired seminary professor. It was radical humility and radical hospitality.”

In keeping with the gospel admonitions, “Come, Tarry, Go,” in the stained glass window of the Wilmore United Methodist Church, the point of any spiritual revitalization is not to put a light under a bushel, but, as Jesus taught, to let the light shine (see Matt. 5:15–16). As Asbury University President Kevin Brown put it, “The trajectory of renewal meetings is always outward.”

In unknowing anticipation of the revival to come, he spoke in chapel on February 3 on “The Difficulty of Being True to Yourself.” In his message he gave students a penetrating critique of the sad shallowness of a life given over to self-absorption. As an alternative, he proposed the hope and joy, whatever the circumstances, of a life given over to Christ instead. If this were to happen in the hearts and lives of God’s people, I know heaven would celebrate and a watching world would take notice.

Mark R. Elliott (PhD in modern European and Russian history) has taught at Asbury University (KY); Wheaton College (IL); Samford University (AL); and Southern Wesleyan University (SC). In addition to teaching, Elliott held administrative posts for nineteen years as director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies (Wheaton College) and as director of the Global Center (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University). He is the author of numerous books and editor emeritus of the East-West Church and Ministry Report (, which he edited for twenty-five years.

This book is perfect for:

  • Personal study for those interested in spiritual awakenings, revivals, renewal
  • Those working with emerging adults and younger generations
  • Church historians interested in the Asbury Revival
  • Pastors praying for awakening in their communities
  • Groups hoping to read and learn from inspiring accounts of awakening

Learn more about Taken by Surprise from our store here.


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