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When God Comes To Church

People Will Pray

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | March 4, 2007

Selected highlights from this sermon

The Christian landscape in the United States has been dramatically shaped by the presence of God. God came through the preaching of Jonathan Edward in the First Great Awakening. The revivals were many when Charles Finney spoke during the Second Great Awakening. D.L. Moody was changed by the Third Great Awakening.  

We can’t simply order another national revival and force the hand of God, but we can pray, rejoice, serve, and worship as we wait.

et’s pray together. “Father, we thank you so much for what you have done in the past. In your sovereign purpose and in your will we pray that you will do it again. Enliven our hearts and give us faith to believe that you can and even that you will, in Jesus name, amen.”

When God comes to church many wonderful things happen. I know that God is always in church, but there are times when God does something very special on a wide scale and many people are affected. When this happens we sometimes call it a spiritual awakening or we call it a revival. It happened in the church in Thessalonica, which we have been studying. You can see the impact of a small church on a whole community and on their part of the world.

It has also happened in America. God has done some unusual things in the United States. Today’s message is a little unusual because I am not going to give an exposition of scripture, though at the end we will turn to 1 Thessalonians chapter five and we will talk about what to do while we are waiting for an awakening.

Today I am going to tell you the story of America’s Great Awakening first of all so that our faith might be quickened in our hearts and we might say, “If God did it then, why can’t he do it now?” The second reason to tell this story is so that we might pray more effectively toward that end.

Usually God sends rain to water the earth. Yet there are times when God sends a downpour, or a cloudburst, and there are cloudbursts in history of the mercies of God. I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised if you haven’t heard this story today. I am going to begin by telling you that there were three great awakenings in American history and I am going to give you a thumbnail sketch of all three.

First of all, we have the Great Awakening of 1740 to 1743. It is known as the First Great Awakening. In Northampton, Massachusetts, Solomon Stoddard is preaching to his congregation and he tells them that God sometimes does unusual things to build faith. He dies and his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, who was an associate pastor, takes over and he becomes the great revivalist.

Jonathan Edwards is known for his sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a very scriptural sermon but not well thought of today. Someone said that when Edwards preached he was so vivid and solemn and the impression was so strong that, “When Edwards closed his discourse it seemed that right then the Judge would descend and the final separation would take place.” They expected God to come as soon as the sermon was finished.

Edwards became friends with a man by the name of George Whitefield, an Englishman, who preached all over the eastern part of the United States to large crowds. This is the 1700’s, so there was no PA system. He was able to preach to large crowds in the Boston Common and Benjamin Franklin would attend to see how far Whitefield’s voice could really carry. He preached in New York and Massachusetts and many other places and huge crowds would come and repentance was everywhere.

In fact, the conviction of sin was so strong that it is said that when boats came from England the soldiers were convicted of their sin because of what they had heard even before they reached the shore. As a result of this great awakening it is believed that perhaps 50,000 people were converted, taverns were closed, families were reconciled and the whole culture of North Hampton and other places were transformed. This was an unusual work of God.

The Second Great Awakening was from 1790 to 1860. It has two different aspects. I don’t know if there is anyone listening who is from Kentucky, but I have always wondered where Cane Ridge is in Kentucky. That is where the camping ministry began. They would hold camp meetings and people would come to hear the preaching. Ten to fifteen thousand covered wagons came to the meetings and circuit riders went all throughout Kentucky and the surrounding area. One historian said, “God confounded infidelity and brought untold numbers to the faith.” What a story!

Then you get to the west and Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, gives a lecture at Yale University where he was President on why the Bible is the word of God. Seventy-five out of the two hundred and twenty-five students at Yale are converted and they go home for spring break and they don’t go to Daytona. They go home to their churches and tell about the wonderful things that God is doing and the marvelous conversions they are experiencing and revivals begin to break out. That is where you have the beginning of the modern missionary movement.

The great revivalist during this period was Charles Finney, who preached in the East. Rochester, New York would stop everything during the noon hour in order to pray. Finney was the great revivalist and his theology at points we don’t agree with, but he was mightily used by God. One interesting fact is that he founded Oberlin College. It is a very liberal school theologically and embarrassed by its history connected to Finney.

There is a building at Oberlin College called the Finney Chapel. It was locked when I visited and I couldn’t get in so I just knelt outside the Chapel along the street. I didn’t care that other people were walking by. They could think whatever they wanted, but if somebody actually called the Cops, that would be something else. I said to myself, “Somebody walking past this Chapel needs to give thanks to God for the ministry of Finney who is now having evil things said about him at this school.” So I knelt to thank God for Finney. I even went and visited his grave which is also in the area.

It is estimated that during this period of time God was working so mightily through so many different people and in so many different ways that perhaps a million people came to saving faith.

Now we get to the Third Great Awakening, and that is our focus today. It was from 1857-1859 and in those two years God worked mightily. It began in New York City and I want to read you the story of how it began and then we are going to talk about Chicago.

It is summertime in 1857 and a man by the name of Jeremiah Calvin Lanphiers is walking the streets of New York and saying, “What can I do here in the business district?” He gives out a tract inviting people to pray. On it is written, “How often shall I pray? As often as the language of prayer is on my heart, as often as I see my need of help, as often as I feel the power of temptation, as often as I am made aware of my spiritual declension or feel the agitation of a worldly spirit. In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity, and fellowship with men for fellowship with God.” He invited men to pray.

On September 23, 1857, the doors open at the meeting hall and he prays alone for a half hour. A half hour later at 12:30 six others show up and they have a prayer meeting. In addition, there were other prayer meetings that began before that time and continued as a result of that meeting.

A little later on in October of 1857 the Stock Market crashed and people felt a great need to seek God. Within six months a total of 10,000 men were gathering daily for prayer in many places throughout New York City. The churches were packed and the prayer meetings had to move to theaters. With some sarcasm the New York Herald on March sixth said, “Satan is busy all morning on Wall Street among the brokers and in the afternoon and evening the churches are filled with saints who gambled in the morning.”

You say, “Well what happened?” The media began to pick up the story like the one about Philadelphia. Has anyone ever heard of James Hull? I’m not sure if it is still there, but on February 1 at a prayer meeting 3,000 souls gather together one weekday during the busiest hour to bow before God in prayer for the revival of his work.

What about Boston? One report says, “To see a thousand men leaving their shops and counting rooms at the noonday hour and flock with one purpose to the place where prayer is made and to see the tone and tearful interest pervading these assemblies is a new thing in this city.”

What about the city of Chicago? I need to tell you that fifteen years ago I walked across the street to the Chicago Historical Society and spent a couple of afternoons looking at old microfilms of the newspapers from the city of Chicago and what they had to say about the revival. I wrote a little book on the topic and I will read from it today but I can’t tell you the title because it is out of print and I don’t want anyone saying they need a copy. I hope that someday I will enlarge the book and have it reprinted.

A quote from the Chicago Daily Press says, “Writing from a news point, the prominent topic of conversation in Chicago in our streets, in our places of business, and in our homes is the subject of the religious awakening now in progress in this community and it is all absorbing. It is on the lips of Christians and unbelievers. There are no scoffers and few who sneer publicly and openly about what is transpiring and without excitement and without noise it cannot be called fanaticism.”

The remarkable thing about this revival was that it did not have a great leader. There was no Finny, no Edwards and no Whitefield. It was known as the business men’s revival because even though the prayer time was led by a pastor generally speaking anyone could lead the meeting. It had no great names attached to it and therefore there was very little criticism.

Let’s now look at the newspaper articles to see what I discovered across the street at the Historical Society. The Chicago Tribune on March 25, 1858 talks about the noon prayer meeting at Metropolitan Hall. I have to pause here. I wanted to go to Metropolitan Hall to see where these prayer meetings were held day after day at noon and I discovered it no longer exists today. It is across the street from the Thompson Center and there is a different building there now. But five or six of us actually went there anyway because we wanted to be approximately where the Metropolitan Hall once stood.

The article goes on to say, “It was the largest and most interesting that has yet been held. The body of the house, the gallery, was filled considerably before noon. At the time for beginning the exercises the platform, the stairways, the isles and the entry were all occupied by persons standing up. During the whole hour the stairs leading down to the streets were filled with people arriving or retiring, unable to gain entrance for a noon prayer meeting that took place every single workday.” In fact, and I’m sorry I didn’t get the quote, but when I was reading the material I discovered that one newspaper said that if women didn’t wear skirts with hoops then more people could get in to the prayer meetings.

John Wentworth, the mayor of Chicago at the time, stood near the rear of the hall and listened with great attention and later said, “The affects of the present religious movement are to be felt in every phase of society.” Someone else said, “It was the perfect union of all Evangelical churches.” The Chicago Daily Journal of March 20, 1858 reported, “The revival was universal and not limited to a single city or even state, but spread like fire in every direction. Such an outpouring of religion has not been seen since before the days of Edwards.” That happened here in the city of Chicago.

In May of 1859 the prayer meetings disbanded and went into the churches. The estimate is that 1,800 people were meeting for prayer at noon and 5,000 were meeting in the evening at various churches. Now let’s do the math and remember our chronology. In 1856 D.L. Moody came to the city of Chicago. That is two years before the awakening. One of his biographers said, “It was this awakening that thrust D.L. Moody into his revival ministry.” D.L. Moody rented pews in the Plymouth Church but they kicked him out because they said the boys he was bringing in were too rowdy. He then started his own church.

He said to his mother during the awakening, “There is a great revival of religion in this city. I go to meeting every night and oh how I enjoy it! It seems as if God himself is present. Oh mother, pray for us and pray that this will go on until every knee is bowed.” And so it is that D.L. Moody received his thrust into ministry through this prayer revival that took place here in the city of Chicago.

I need to comment that because D.L. Moody was asked to no longer come to the Plymouth Church he began a Sunday school in a beer hall. Abraham Lincoln stopped by as President Elect, that’s how well known Moody was for his children’s ministry, and the President Elect didn’t want to speak. He did however speak briefly to the children and then went to Washington to become the President. D.L. Moody then began a church called the Illinois Street Church.

Our current address is the fourth location of the Moody Church since 1864 when it was founded. The first one was on Illinois Street, which burned in the great Chicago fire of 1871 when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow hit the lantern and the fire began. By the way, a few years ago I was actually where the barn supposedly was and I discovered it is right next to a fire station. I don’t think they want that to happen again. The second location is a Tabernacle at Ontario and Wells, which no longer exists, and that was used almost as a clearing house to help all the people as a result of the fire.

The third location was where the Moody Bible Institute is today. We have pictures of the building. It was a large church that held about 1,500 people. It had to be torn down when LaSalle Street was widened, which also affected our current building, but that is another story. Then there is the story of coming one mile north of Moody Bible Institute and that is why we are here today. All of this was a result of the Great Awakening when God was doing unusual things in the city of Chicago and when people were crying up to God and multitudes were converted.

You say, “How big was the impact of this revival?” It was huge! A secular historian called it, “The event of the century.” The impact of the revival was spread all over to places like California, Oregon, Denver, and many other cities. Hundreds of thousands of people were converted during the period of about two or three years. God sometimes uses visible people, which he did in the first two Great Awakenings, but this awakening was a movement of the Holy Spirit of God.

The historian J. Edward Ore wrote, “The influence of the awakening was felt everywhere in the nation. It first captured the great cities, but it also spread through every town and village and country and hamlet. It swamped schools and colleges. It affected classes without respect to condition. There was no fanaticism. There was a remarkable unanimity of approval among religious and secular observers alike, with scarcely a critical voice heard anywhere. It seemed to many that the fruits of Pentecost had been repeated.”

What are some of the characteristics when God comes to town? What are the distinguishing marks? First of all, there is a strong awareness of the presence of God. Like D.L. Moody wrote to his mother, “It seems as if God himself were present.” My prayer often for the Moody Church is that when people come into this sanctuary, that they may have an awareness of God. I want you to leave today saying, “Surely God is in that place.”

The second characteristic is a deep conviction of sin. There were people during these awakenings that could scarcely function or do their business because the conviction over issues in their life that they had not dealt with was so heavy. You say, “The awakenings must have been a very sad time.” No, it was a very happy time. Once they were able to understand their sin and the marvels of God’s grace and confess what God brought to their attention and to straighten out their relationships between members in their family or at their jobs and they asked forgiveness, once all that began to happen there was joy because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Revivals unite and they also divide. They unite true believers and they divide us from the world. You say, “Can we insist on a revival?” No, I don’t think we can insist on a revival and it is not as if God has to give us one. I always say, “Let’s set the sails in such a way that we can catch the breeze of what God wants to do.” What if God wanted to do this again in Chicago? It might look very differently than it did in the past. But isn’t God, God? Can’t we trust him to do it again?

What do we do when we are waiting for revival? Well, we have to be faithful. But look at what it says in 1 Thessalonians chapter five, verse twelve: “Respect those who labor among you.” Verse thirteen says to, “Regard them highly in love.” You think of the words in this passage - respect, love, admonish, patience. Verse fourteen says, “See that no one repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The healing of personal relationships is always necessary.

Also, all of these revivals were preceded by prayer. Jonathan Edwards was the one who started the concerts of prayer. We think that concerts of prayer are something new today, but in fact Edwards started them. Then it says, “Rejoice always,” and there you have the joy.” Next it says, “Pray without ceasing.” If you’ve taken the commitment to pray on a special hour every week in addition to your regular devotion time, seek God on behalf of your family, your church and this nation. Who knows but that God may forgive our sins and come in great power and show up and begin to attend church.

The end of the passage says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit,” and we certainly grieve the Spirit because of sin. God may want to do something unusual. “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything.” Don’t be gullible just because somebody says they have the gift of prophecy and then give some kind of prophetic statement. No, we need to test everything, and this is not being done today. There are those who claim prophecy but they are not testing everything.

Next it says, “Abstain from every kind of evil.” Now there is something we can do as we wait for revival to come. Chapter five ends with a lovely prayer which says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole sprit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

I conclude today by saying that God is not intimidated by the city of Chicago. He is not intimidated because of our many evils and he is not intimidated because of racism or corruption. If God wills it and if we are available to it God could show up and begin to change everything.

Let’s bow together for prayer. “Father we thank you today that we have been able to recount at least in some form what you did. Thank you Father God for your blessing upon this city, that at one time Metropolitan Hall could not contain all the people that came to noon prayer meetings and thank you Father for the statistics which show that churches here in Chicago increased greatly in membership across the whole Evangelical spectrum. We pray Father, and we are not sure we are ready, but we pray sincerely that you would do it again. In this congregation and in others, choose those to whom you give a burden for an awakening and may they seek you. May we all seek you and pray and say, “God, let us seek your face that we might be available for a mighty work of your blessed Spirit.” For those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, we pray that they may do that knowing that you are available and you will not turn them away if they come. We pray all this in the name of Jesus, amen.”

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