Essay: River Songs: Lakeland, Bentley, and the confessions of a failed Revivalist

So, there has been some talk, some questions, about events going on in Lakeland, Florida at the moment. A guy who goes by the name of Todd Bentley has been running ‘revival’ meetings which have been attracting some attention, including coverage on GodTV, YouTube and (I think) CNN.


Some people are calling this ‘an outpouring of the Spirit’, or ‘Revival’, other using words like ‘deception’, ‘hype’ or even ‘heresy’. There have been claims of miracles and people being raised from the dead. There has been concern about abuse. Plenty of people, bloggers, church leaders and more have written on this, including several of the voices I often link to. I’m sure you’ll find out all about it if you google either Bentley’s name or ‘Lakeland Revival’.  Seek and ye shall find, as someone once said…


I’m not going to add to the linkage, other than to pass on one link, and some thoughts of my own on the wider subject. Billy Kennedy has put a great essay together over on 24-7 Prayer’s site. It is balanced and thoughtful, and good for believers who are looking at this from a less-than-convinced mindset. Go take a look.




In recent years I’ve done a lot of reading on the internet, and my understanding of the wide variety of Christian ‘tribes’ has grown considerably. One of the things I’ve learnt is that the word ‘revival’ means some very different things to the different traditions. To the Southern Baptists (among others), it conjures up images of evangelistic crusades, big meetings in big tents with many requests to ‘come up to the front and give your life to JE-sus’.


To the Charismatic traditions, the word Revival is something very different: it evokes images of all-night prayer meetings and the spontaneous outpourings of the Holy Spirit. For many Charismatics and Pentecostals Revival is the Holy Grail, it is what is sought after, prayed for, and prophesied about. Revival in this tradition is God turning up and bringing in His Kingdom in power; it is the ultimate demonstration of Faithfulness, the final vindication.


Revivals of this kind are talked about and travelled to, they persist in memory long after the fire has died. People still talk often of Toronto and Pensacola; some have even tried to maintain that kind of meeting and expression over the intervening years. Some of us still talk about the Welsh Revival of the beginning of the 20th Century, the after affects of which can still be seen, the remnants of the extra chapels that were built now lying empty, unused by a population that has turned its back on the Way.


So, when people question whether Lakeland is a genuine Revival, it really does depend what you mean. Is it a big meeting, asking people to commit to Christ? Well, it seems so, on the surface at least. Is it a genuine outpouring of God’s Spirit, bringing people back to the Kingdom of God? Well, that is a different question entirely.



I’m just about old enough to remember the edges of the ‘Toronto Blessing’, the last major expression of ‘Revival’ (in the Charismatic sense) to hit the Western Church. I was just barely thinking of beginning my teens back in the early 90’s, and didn’t get out to the big meetings that swept this little ‘ol land, but I do remember the services at our church and feeling surprisingly comfortable with people ‘receiving from God’ and being ‘slain in the Spirit’. In a very gentle, typically Anglican sort of way, our church saw quite a bit of what characterised that ‘blessing’, although I have to say I remember little in terms of controversy.


But controversy there was, with many Christians, let alone the secular media, being shocked and appalled by stories of people falling over, making weird noises, and a general lack of control and decorum, which is quite unusual in most churches. There were questions and denunciations, and some quite appalling things said about the folk in Toronto especially. But the big meetings attracted crowds in their thousands nonetheless, and many people came to Christ, or back to Christ, or so it seemed.


It was exciting to be a Christian back then, because it seemed so tangible that God was real, and true, and involved in our lives. Many approached that ‘Revival’ as they are approaching this one, with enthusiasm and innocence. People get hungry for something that is outside of themselves; that is beyond the humdrum nature of our pitiful existence, and here was something that seemed to shower purpose and meaning to life, and was fun to boot!


Yet when the manifestations slowed to a gradual stop, when the nature of our nations didn’t change as a result of these meetings, people grew disillusioned. Some, as Billy says in his essay, even lost faith because things didn’t pan out as they expected. After a while falling over and growling like a lion gets tired, and even the most aesthetic among us begins to wonder if this is what its all about. People did come to Christ, or back to Christ, in these meetings, but not in the waves that we hoped. Too often it was all about us asking God to ‘bless me! And bless me again!’


River Songs

Some of my favourite worship music is from that time; the songs I got so enthusiastic about in my youth. In fact, many of them are from just after it – songs that were written as the waves of the Spirit were seeming to begin to move on, leaving us behind. Delirious’ ‘Find me in the River’ and ‘Did you feel the mountains tremble?’, or Paul Oakley’s ‘Kiss the River’, which even now reduces me to tears…


These, and many more, were ‘River Songs’, songs that remembered what it was like to have that wave of love and emotion role over you, a wave that you could only begin to explain as God, because no other explanation seemed to work. They are songs of longing, because they have a powerful recognition that we weren’t changed by our experiences or, at least, not enough.


Over the last 15 years or so, our music may have changed, but these songs still provoke emotion and memory, among those who understand their somewhat cryptic meaning. And, although in practice our services may no longer be dominated by ‘waiting on the Spirit’, many of us still hold on a longing for the powerful expressions of God from all those years ago.



Until relatively recently I have been what you might term a ‘Revivalist’. By that I mean someone who seeks after Revival of the Welsh/Highland/possibly Toronto variety, not someone who conducts meetings in big tents. I have been enthusiastic about tales of the work of the Holy Spirit – healings, manifestations, spontaneous conversions etc etc. I have wished, hoped, prayed and longed for something more than I have experienced in even the craziest Charismatic meetings over the years. For something that culd genuinely be seen as a Move of God.


I still believe that God is a God of miracles, and a God who wants to be in relationship with His children, but I find the grandstanding and superfluousness of many Charismatic meetings tiresome. They can verge on emotional manipulation, and like many others I have found the results don’t match up to the promises…


I like Barney Skrentny’s description of Charismatic Revivalism as a search for spiritual shortcuts. Seeing the Kingdom of God come in our communities is hard work, so we pray and ask God to come in power – to bring the change that we can’t. ‘Wouldn’t knowing and loving our communities be so much easier if they all just came to Christ spontaneously?!’


Maybe I am becoming cynical in my old age, but in all honesty I find it harder to accept stories like those coming out of Lakeland. Why are the people in the big tent getting healed, when people dear to me are still sick after much prayer? Why are the Americans being blessed, while people in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Tibet, China, Congo and so many other places are suffering?



I’m not saying that this can’t be real because of that suffering. I’m not saying that these miracles are not real because others are still sick. I’ve prayed for sick people and I’ve wrestled with these arguments before – even as a ‘Revivalist’ I was not one who apportioned blame… But I like many others around the world are reserving judgement on Mr Bentley and the goings on in his tent. We are waiting to see some fruit.


I will wait to see. The grandstanding and the requests for money haven’t one many fans, but if God is working in the midst of this, then that is good. But even if the events in Lakeland translate into something more worldwide, I for one will look for more than a ‘blessing’ this time round. A blessing is good – its good to know God loves you, to understand He is real (if that is what it is). But surely it is time that we were changed, that our churches were less introverted; that we genuinely wanted people to be saved – and didn’t mind getting involved to see that happen.


In Wales in the 1900’s, in the Highland Revival, thousands of ordinary, unbelieving people repented and came to Christ – the hundreds of now-abandoned nonconformist chapels in Wales are testament to that. There, Revival lasted long enough to change the physical and demographic landscape, even the songs they sing at Rugby matches.


That would be Revival I could believe in.

6 thoughts on “Essay: River Songs: Lakeland, Bentley, and the confessions of a failed Revivalist

  1. I can go for both…

    it IS funny how God does things in different times for different purposes. I’ve had friends who had been to a few (pencicola, toronto) and after going to lakeland they noticed the stark difference.

    not wrong difference…

    just difference

  2. Funny thing was, we never heard about it until visiting the UK for 11 days recently. There we heard about it three times independently from different folks. And I wouldn’t say that I’m someone who ignores the news, or who doesn’t pay attention to Christian TV over here (our cable company gives us TBN and occasional others, but not God TV, which I think was only launched here relatively recently). Weird, huh?

    Agree with Billy’s thoughts (as you might expect!) but also would add other bits from Matthew 7 when you ask “is this of God or is it a bunch of hype?”: Matt 7 v20 and 21 – by their fruits you shall know them. Went to Toronto and saw a load of fruit there (Galations 5 fruit, I mean), 8 years after the revival started. Pensacola, less so, probably down to a lack of discipleship of the hundreds of thousands who came through the doors. Welsh revival, Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, Welsey’s preaching… still see the fruit today, although a lot of it has moved from ‘fruit’ to ‘movement’ to ‘old-looking church building of denomination with unusual name’. Physical healing, in the Bible, is listed as a gift rather than a fruit, which seems a little weird but there you are. Still, if it brings people to salvation that’s fantastic. If it allows them to develop and disciple as Christians, and lead others to Christ in turn, that’s revival.

    Reading Mark’s gospel right now. All this made me think of two things: firstly, all Jesus did during his earthly ministry was heal people and preach the kingdom, usually in that order. Which kind of fits with what I understand about Lakeland, albeit with more travelling involved. Secondly, there’s that bit about “whoever is not against us is for us” when the disciples moaned about some unaffiliated guy doing something (preaching? healing? can’t remember off top of head) in Jesus’ name.

    No plans to visit Lakeland though, but hey if God’s in it that’s great. God’s in a lot of things (heard of the Cowboy Church movement in Texas? To me, that’s almost more interesting than Lakeland), pretty much wherever people say ‘yes’ to Him and put their self/pride aside, and long may that continue.

  3. Forgot to add: Andy, I’m with you very much on the ‘revival must not be used as a spiritual shortcut’ – this is about something that should last a lifetime and beyond, not something to shout and hype about. I was freaked out enough by what I saw in Argentina to not be ‘jaded’ about hype revivals I think (a major prayer I and some friends had been praying for 18 months was answered the day after we prayed it in Argentina, and multiple others in our group reported identical results – spiritual warfare at a terrotorial/geographic level maybe??). But still it can’t be a shortcut when there’s a lifetime of ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’ along with a lifetime of mission work such as ‘discipling the nations’ and ‘bringing good news to the poor’.

    I gotta stop spouting and get back to work.

  4. David says:

    In your essay you say “I’m just about old enough to remember the edges of the ‘Toronto Blessing’, the last major expression of ‘Revival’ (in the Charismatic sense) to hit the Western Church” – which seems to be written in past tense – yet that ‘last major expression of Revival’ is still on-going – at least it was when I visited the church in March of this year.

    Granted the building is not as packed out as it was and certainly not on a nightly basis but that is as much to do with the leadership there having aligned the services, the outreach and activities of the church with where they believe God is leading them in 2008 and beyond.

    The ‘revival’ was never about 5000 people each night descending on a church building in Toronto, it was about God moving on people’s hearts to get themselves equipped for what God would have them do. Of those 5000 each night, or I believe in total the 6m+ recorded visits in the 14 years since 1994, very many of those people have gone home with a renewed faith, have stepped out into new mission fields. into new callings and indeed, rather than wane, this revival has and is going out to the nations. There are expressions of this revival on every continent and pretty much every country on Earth.

    There are folk who are embracing what is happening in Lakeland, whose lives [I speak as one such] were transformed by everything that Toronto was and has become. I welcome your thoughts which as others have said are well presented but as my college professors once taught me, if you are going to quote a thing, then quote it well or not at all. I don’t mean that as a correction just as an appeal to be current in your writings.

  5. *David

    Thank you for your thoughts. I believe there is a distinction to be made between the ‘revival’ (or ‘outpouring’ or ‘blessing’ or whatever) that started in Toronto and then swept the world, and the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship itself. I too have been to the church there, and seen that something like what was continues to this day. But that, I think, is different to what spread through the world in the 90’s.

    Regardless of whether the people at TACF have ‘kept a fire burning’, the fire that spread did not last, and that was the point I was trying to make.

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