Revivalism is a method of evangelism relying on what is usually a series of evangelistic meetings called revivals. Revivalism is concerned with the necessity of conversion—a personal decision to follow Christ. Evangelists leading revivals characteristically end every sermon with a strong, emotional appeal for a decision. Revivalism calls people out of a cultural Christianity into a living faith.
Revivalism has as its basis the fact that sinners need to be saved, and the preaching of the Word of God is necessary for sinners to know the gospel that saves them (Romans 10:14). Biblical pleas for God to revive His people give revivalism its name: “Revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:18–19; see also Psalm 85:6; 119:25; and Isaiah 57:15).
In the more Calvinistic-leaning churches of the American Colonies, the emphasis was upon God who saves the sinner. While it was recognized that the sinner must exercise faith, preachers emphasized God as the One who takes the initiative and calls the sinner to Himself. The Holy Spirit convicted people of their need as they listened to the truth of the gospel proclaimed from the pulpit and enabled people to believe. Many people who grew up in the church grew into faith without having a definitive “conversion experience.” The First Great Awakening, which followed the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, was still firmly within this Calvinist tradition.
Later revivalist preachers often went where there was no established church (like the American frontier) or where the churches seemed to have grown cold. Revivalists emphasized that each person must make a decision for Christ. They challenged those who had simply accepted the faith of their ancestors without making it truly their own, as well as those who had never embraced any faith at all. They wanted to “revive” the people to a living, functioning Christianity. They preached the judgment of God against sin and pleaded with the sinner to repent and trust Christ. “Altar calls” were often accompanied by great displays of emotion and prolonged pleadings. When people began to respond en masse, the revival was seen to be successful. The Second Great Awakening under Charles Finney followed this pattern and was much more Arminian in approach. The emphasis was less upon the God who called the sinner to faith and more upon the need to convince the sinner to repent and believe. Later revivals placed more and more emphasis upon music to set the tone and help prepare people to make the decision for Christ. (Even today, some churches continue to have extensive altar calls, while others rarely have an altar call or extend the invitation in some other way such as “if you are interested in knowing more about what it means to be a Christian, drop by the reception area for a cup of coffee and the pastor will be happy to speak with you.” Often this difference in approach can be traced back to the theology of the church and whether the emphasis is upon God who calls the sinner or upon the sinner who must be convinced to respond.)
Revivalism continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the preaching of D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham, who held “revival meetings” with much the same emphasis. Today, in popular thinking, the word evangelicalism has come to encompass many of the values that revivalism embraced in earlier centuries. Whether Calvinistic or Arminian, evangelicalism still stresses personal conversion and a resultant change—not only an inward, spiritual quickening, but also an external change in behavior visible to the watching world.
Today, revivalism as an evangelistic method is on the wane; large “revival meetings” that fill stadiums are not as common in the United States. Many churches still have a week of “revival meetings” annually. Church members are encouraged to invite unsaved friends and family to meetings where Christians will be challenged to a deeper walk with Christ and the unsaved will be challenged to accept Christ.