Reviewed by Jeff K. Walters
In the face of increasing secularism and bad news, as well as the decline of churches and baptisms, evangelical leaders, especially in the United States, are calling for intense prayer for revival and spiritual awakening. Believers long for what Robert E. Coleman describes in the foreword to Firefall 2.0 as, “… seasons when this [revival undercurrent] breaks forth in mighty power, affecting multitudes of people, and occasionally changing the courses of nations” (iii). In this updated and revised version of their 2002 work of (almost) the same name, Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid seek to provide a resource that “might serve as a beacon to expand our understanding of spiritual awakening, enlighten us on God’s movements in history, and inspire us to ‘wrestle with God’ until the spiritual tidal waves of awakening move with heaven’s force throughout the earth” (vi).
McDow taught evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years. His student and co-author, Alvin L. Reid, is professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The authors begin by defining the book’s key term: revival. Following a brief survey of previous definitions and biblical terms, most of which define revival in terms of the awakening of God’s people, McDow and Reid identify their own understanding: “Revival,” they argue, “is God’s invasion into the lives of one or more of His people in order to awaken them spiritually for Kingdom ministry” (8). The remainder of the first chapter provides a detailed and well-argued survey of types, characteristics, and impact of revivals, as well as a description of the influence of leadership on awakenings (a term they consider synonymous with revival). This introductory chapter is an excellent primer on both the biblical and historical foundations of revivals.
The bulk of Firefall 2.0 is a historical survey of revival movements from the Exodus through modern times. McDow writes the first section, covering the biblical historical material up through the Protestant Reformation. He identifies instances of revival and awakening throughout the Old Testament, especially through the Judges and prophets. In the New Testament, McDow especially notes the ministries of John the Baptist and, of course, Paul. Especially helpful is his extended discussion of Jesus’ teachings on holiness, prayer, faith, and repentance as foundational for a theology of revival movements. He identifies the advent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a revival.
McDow’s survey of the early church period is interesting in that he identifies the evangelistic expansion of the church as examples of revival. He discusses the ministry of Irenaeus at Lyons and the influence of persecution on revival in the church but also Patrick and the evangelization of Ireland. As he approaches the Reformation, McDow identifies some lesser-known preachers whose ministry was characterized by spiritual awakening, including a protracted analysis of Savonarola. Finally, the author describes the Reformation under Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists as preparing the way for later revival more than an awakening itself.
Reid picks up the second major partition of the book just after the Reformation and brings the reader to the modern area. He introduces the section with an overview of several characteristics of modern revivals, including the centrality of the gospel, the influence of young people, and the impact of innovation and social justice. Reid finds of the roots of modern revival in the Pietists and the Puritans where, perhaps, one also finds the division of modern views characterized later by Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney. The author presents a detailed and helpful study of the movements led by Wesley and Whitefield along with a full chapter each dealing with the Great Awakenings and their global influence.
Reid follows waves of revival up through the contemporary period, ending with movements such as Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God and the Promise Keepers. As does McDow in the first section, each of Reid’s chapters provides an outline of historical events, an analysis of characteristics unique to each era, and application for the reader. Throughout the entire book, the authors are careful to note ongoing seeds of revival such as prayer, struggle, and the centrality of the Scriptures.
Overall, McDow and Reid have provided an important resource that not only paints a historical picture but also lays a theological and practical foundation for students, pastors, and church leaders longing for revival. By reminding readers of the foundational truth that revival comes only from a sovereign God, they help us to be reminded that there is little that we can do to “cause” revival. At the same time, their identification of ongoing means through which God’s people influence revival serves as a convicting reminder that we must not sit idly by and wait for something to happen. Their balanced approach is helpful and, in some ways, refreshing.
The only significant weakness in the book is one of definition. While I appreciate the authors’ desire to give an exhaustive picture of revival across the ages, they seem to go beyond their own professed definition of revival. Early in the book, McDow and Reid contend that while spiritual awakening and revival might be synonymous, they must be distinguished from evangelistic campaigns (5). Their own definition is more broad than those given by other scholars (and listed in the first chapter) who contend that revival takes place among God’s people – a bringing back of life to the weak. The authors’ examples include not only revivals among Israel or among Christians; they take in Jonah’s preaching to dark Nineveh and Patrick’s mission to the pagan Irish. I question whether this is a helpful expansion of the definition.
Throughout history, movements of God among His people have impacted families, immediate communities, and unreached nations. The principles that McDow and Reid glean from centuries of history and dozens of movements provide an inspiring yet convicting picture for the twenty-first century church.
Jeff K. Walters, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Christian Missions and Urban Ministry and Chair, Department of Evangelism and Missions, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville KY.
Buy the books
Firefall 2.0: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals