Asbury Awakening

Feb 21, 2023 | by Brad Rowland

Asbury Awakening

Written by Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee

Photos by Sevasti Levenioti

Holy Spirit!

Promised presence fall on me.

Holy Spirit! Make me all I long to be.

Holy Spirit! Holy Spirit!

Give Your power to me,

O Holy Spirit.

– General John Gowans

Asbury University, with its sister institution Asbury Theological Seminary across the street, are the main features of tiny Wilmore, Kentucky, a town struggling to reach 7000 in population. Since its beginning, the small Christian university has had worldwide influence as alumni have scattered around the world and filled leadership roles in churches and business and education. Secure in its mission, it has been a place where thousands have not only received an education but experienced the Lord at pivotal times in their lives.

In 1970, the Lord favored Asbury with a special visitation that resulted in ripples of revival emanating across the country. The burgeoning churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America testify that God has continued to be actively engaged in His world. But the Western world has continued its spiritual slide, leaving many grieving over a collective sinfulness that showed no signs of abating. The faithful have prayed that God would send an awakening, beginning with a revival of His church so that it could be an effective witness and a useful tool in His work of redemption.

The Awakening Begins

“How many times and how long have I prayed for this generation to Rise Up and respond to the Almighty! Hear our prayers, hear their prayers O God. Release your Holy Spirit in these days! Amen!” — Commissioner Kelly Igleheart

“I feel like the revival is something that a lot of people have been praying over, but it's also something a lot of people have been doubting.” — Deb Shurtleff

On Wednesday, February 8, 2023, the students, faculty and staff of Asbury University filed into Hughes Auditorium for one of the three weekly mandatory chapel services. A guest speaker, Zach Meerkreebs, was there to share a message on the chosen theme of "Heart of Holiness." While some may have had their minds on the next class, others felt that God was using the moment.

"He was talking about sincere love and like what love actually is and how humans can never compare to the type of love that God has for everybody. And you could just start to feel like everybody was getting really into it, and then it was time to go." — Emma Bell

As people responded, it was time for the chapel to end so that students and faculty could get to their classes on time. It is not at all unusual for students to respond to a chapel and for some to stay behind while they met with the Lord. The university has always made allowance for that because they are committed to the spiritual formation of those in its influence. Normally, students leave, go on to their classes and resume campus life. But this time, things progressed differently.

"Then he said, in his words that, ‘He gave a halfhearted call to the altar.' I did not feel like it was half hearted at all when I was there. It felt very genuine and a lot of people went up. But it was just very Spirit-led for us to stay there and continue worshiping and praying." — Elijah Stouder

"I was leading worship…after Zach spoke, he invited us up (the Gospel Choir) to sing again. Then, three of us continued. We just kept singing songs about the goodness of God. It wasn't like an agreed time we were going to leave the stage but we one by one left. We went down to the seats and continued praying. I looked around and there were about twenty students. I looked around and noticed that everyone was in their solid time with God." — Lena Marlowe

Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, there was a shift. From a blessed time of response, there was a universal feeling among the handful that remained in the auditorium that they needed to linger, to continue to praise and seek God. No one said anything. No one signaled anything. It was understood, although if asked at the time, the ones there would be hard-pressed to tell you why they felt that way. It was just right to be there. 

Outside of the auditorium, others started to notice, and things started to happen.

"I'm below the auditorium in my next class, and the whole time you could hear people worshiping upstairs. It was just really cool because one of my friends in that class with me and who's in the gospel choir, came down about 30 minutes late to class. Our teacher was like, "What's going on? Why were you late?" And he said, "Yeah, I was singing that whole time. I don't know what's happening, but it's something really cool. I think everybody should go after class." You could still hear them praising and worshipping upstairs." — Emma Bell

"The first night I was sitting, and there weren't as many people there at that point. One of my friends turned around to me. He said, "Can I pray with you? I just feel like I'm being led to pray with you." He didn't ask me what I needed a prayer for, but everything that he said was just everything that was already going on in my life. I was like, ‘Wow. Look at God. Look at what He just did for me.'" — Amber Smith

Still student led, word began to spread through word of mouth, texts, and group chats. Something was happening at Hughes Auditorium, and it was something you couldn't afford to miss.

"In my one o'clock class, three students interrupted, and they said, ‘Guys if you don't have anything going on after this class, come to chapel, come to Hughes. Something truly amazing is happening. God is moving.' And so, a lot of people from that class went to chapel, and they stayed there. When I got there, I instantly felt something. I didn't exactly know what it was. I figured it was the Spirit, it was God." — Christian Harris 

"As the class time ended, students just came pouring into the room, like they had been hearing in text messages and things, and they'd been in their classes. Some of them were running, running to get there. The looks on their faces as they came into the space was just pure, holy expectation. They wanted to be there because something beautiful was happening. It was just lovely." — Dr. Nathan Miller

As word spread, Dr. Kevin Brown, president of Asbury University, sent out an email to all students and staff, to tell them that the chapel service had not yet ended because God was at work. Word spread quickly across the street to the seminary, and soon many of them also made their way over to join in this moment with God.

"Around 1:30, Dr. Brown sent out an email and said, ‘Worshiping is still happening in Hughes. All are welcome.' It's just been constant since. I went back and I started to worship out of curiosity honestly. Generally worship ends after chapel, after the last song, but knowing that it was still going on and it was just getting stronger, I wanted to go." — Ashlie Pelletier 

"I thought it was very exciting. It also felt very peaceful, which I think is interesting because a lot of people apparently have been sharing that they felt peace." — Jena Pelletier

Majors Paul and Alma Cain, directors of The Salvation Army Moulton Student Center, became aware and immediately joined in, offering their support with logistics, talking to and encouraging Salvationist students as they processed what God was not only doing across the university but in their individual lives as well. "We knew God was at work," said Major Paul Cain, "And we were both excited and ready to make ourselves available in whatever way we could as the Holy Spirit guided."

The Awakening Takes Hold

The meeting continued into the night, then into the wee hours of the morning, and was still going strong when morning dawned the next day. By then, word had spread to the churches and neighborhoods of Wilmore and on to Nicholasville, Danville and Lexington. Pastors and Christian brothers and sisters quietly stole in to join their hearts with those of the Asbury community. 

What was striking immediately was how understated it was. H.B. Charles Jr., pastor of a Baptist congregation from Florida noted in the Roys Report, "No high-profile leaders. No programmatic strategies. No multi-ethnic props. Just students crying out to God with devotion, humility, and repentance." 

Jon Burdette, writing in The Christian Post, notes, "…one person leading worship on a piano. No microphone, no words on a screen, no service rundown. Just Spirit-led worship that ranged from calm, quiet harmonies to eruptions of loud singing, clapping and testifying. 

"The best way I can describe it is that you felt a sense of tranquility all throughout your being that made it difficult to leave the room. No programs, but complete peace. There were no ‘rules,' but it was totally in order. There was lots of emotion, but no emotionalism."

"The ebb and flow of the revival gathering is a thing of beauty. No one is rushed, hurried or bothered by seemingly anything. People come and go as their schedules permit. Scripture is read, testimonies given, music played, worship songs sung, altar calls are spontaneous and people are being released from their chains! I am overwhelmed by God's goodness, but confident that He has so much more to give." — Major Alma Cain 

"I mean, there were like six or seven students playing guitar, and many students were there and it wasn't like special lights from, it wasn't like mics and all this stuff. It was so simple. And as soon as I got there, after five minutes, I started worshiping. I started feeling the presence of the Lord. And I started crying, I was crying for almost like an hour." — Sevasti Lavenioti 

"Right when I walked in, you felt something in the air. You felt something moving. You felt a presence and you just really felt comforted immediately. It was a weird feeling for me because I haven't really experienced much of that sensation when I just walk into a room, but it was just a sense of, ‘Oh, I'm home.' It was incredibly amazing to feel. — Lilli Bell 

"It's very interesting to see that this revival is happening. People who you normally see on their phones during chapel or like not even going to chapel are participating. It's very cool to see them come in for this revival because their attitude towards God has been renewed." — Deb Shurtleff

"You see people only looking at their Bibles reading Scripture and highlighting passages. You see people on the floor praying. I saw a girl painting the whole time and like her paintings were up there. You see people singing, you see people dancing everywhere." — Emma Bell

Overwhelming for Some

As wonderful as the meeting was in Hughes Auditorium, some found it difficult to be there. But leaders and students from the beginning were very clear that God, the Holy Spirit, was in no way restricted to working only within the confines of the chapel. After all, this was never planned, was not being scripted and no effort was being made to control how things unfolded. Sensitivity to the Spirit had been first and foremost since the awakening began.

"I was practicing late into Friday night, and I spent probably almost two hours, just playing out of our Salvation Army Tune Book, old hymns, or tunes that I knew. By myself, quiet, just playing those. That's where I had my experience and it was, ‘Okay, I don't have to be down in Hughes with thousands of people for God to meet me.' I was really impacted with just me and God and The Salvation Army Tune Book. This week has been really impactful for me, because it's given me a chance to say, "I'll take my time with Him and focus on this and get myself right." — Justin Bowman 

"(I don't) like big crowds. It's all this noise and I can get very overwhelmed. I'm still in the moment, I'm still worshiping, but I have to take a minute and collect everything that's happening. Every time that happens, I'd wonder, ‘Am I doing something wrong here? What's wrong with me?' So I had to have a long conversation with my dad. He said, ‘The way you worship compared to other people doesn't affect what type of a Christian you are. If you're worshiping, you're worshiping.' I took the time to really sit down and think about, and this has caused me to do that." — Richie Sayre

Wise Counsel from Doctor Kevin Brown

At the beginning of one of the scheduled chapels, Asbury University President, Doctor Kevin Brown, made some wise observations and shared his heartfelt counsel:

  • I want to recognize, especially to our students, staff, and faculty what a disruption this is. It's a good disruption, but it's a disruption. We're not an event venue, we're a university. I want to recognize that. I'm thankful for the students, the staff, and the faculty, to make space and be hospitable. 
  • I want to recognize that people, who have not been in this space and are looking at us, are right to be skeptical. Certainly, there is a history in Christianity, there are so many men and women who have been recipients of ill-formed, deformed, malformed expressions of our faith who have been hurt by that. God forgive us. 
  • I also want to recognize that we don't have a playbook for this. There is a leadership team, and we are trying to be as orderly as possible and at the same time take our hands off and let what the Lord wants to do occur. So we want to be as humble about that as possible. 
  • I want to recognize that spiritual growth and spiritual things happen in Hughes Auditorium, but they also happen in a classroom. They also happen outside of this space. And also, I want to recognize that cerebral things don't just happen in the classroom, but they can happen in this space. 
  • I want to recognize that there is nothing special about Asbury University, there's nothing special about its leadership, and there's nothing special about Wilmore, Kentucky. 
  • I want to recognize the radical acts of humility that have occurred in this space that are absolutely mind-boggling to me. I want to recognize the radical compassion that I've seen, for a student to cry out to all the other students and say, "I'm not seen." And then to hear other students say, "I see you." And, for thirty of them to gather around that student and for men and women that live in the Central Kentucky area, to come down and say, "I see you." God forgive us where we do not see each other. Radical compassion, radical confession, so vulnerable, so much meaningful risk but just raw confession and radical change and transformation.

Crowds Arrive

Fueled primarily by social media, news of the awakening spread far beyond the Central Kentucky area. Word quickly leapt international boundaries. Emails, text messages and phone calls were made and shared with family, friends and even strangers. Many felt a compelling need to be there, to partake of what was happening. The hunger to see God clearly at work made pilgrimage to Wilmore something that for many had to be done. Included in this number were students from more than twenty colleges and universities. 

As Dr. Brown noted, Asbury is not equipped for that, but efforts were made to accommodate the growing numbers. Two auditoriums across the street at the seminary were opened for live streaming and spillover crowds. Hughes Auditorium is restricted to seating for a little less than 2000 people but this was strained as every seat was taken, and people stood in the aisles and against the walls. The population of Wilmore was nearly doubled as an estimated 5000 packed the streets of the little town. Screens and speakers were set up so that the thousands waiting in line to get into Hughes Auditorium could worship and join their hearts as they waited to enter. 

But not all were there for the right reasons. People arrived with their own agendas, quite apart from being part of this awakening.

"Because a group of students took it upon themselves to meet these folk when they arrived and to remind them that this was God's work. It was not the students' agenda. It was not the faculty's agenda or any outsider's agenda. This was God's work. And if these folks were willing to come in and sit and listen and worship God and grow in that experience, they were completely welcome. "But if they were only there to push an agenda that did not match what God was doing in the midst of this, then they were going to be asked to kind of leave. And, to their credit, they left." The Roys Report — Professor James Hampton

"This woman stood up and said, ‘I don't know what this means, I don't know what God's telling me to do, but the word on my heart is ‘Durham,' like the way you spell Durham, North Carolina. I thought, ‘That's how you spell my last name. That's very interesting.' My friends said, "Go up and see like what she has to say." And I'm thinking, ‘Maybe it's for somebody else. But nobody else here has the last name of Durham.' I waited, nobody got up and I said, ‘Okay, Lord, what are you trying to say?' So, I went up, "Hey, my last name's Durham.' She was saying how God really put on her heart that she thinks I'm struggling about what my path is. I'd just been wondering if I chose the right major. And I said, ‘Yeah, it's been a struggle.' So, she gave me a Scripture—Psalm 77:1-6, I think. I went back and I read it and because it was a psalm, it was addressed to the choir director. And thought, ‘Oh, that's great.' As a music education major for choir directing, that really helps. I was struggling with that for months, ever since I picked my major. Is that really what God is calling me to do? That was one of the biggest things I've ever received from the Holy Spirit. It's a confirmation that I want to use music for His glory and teach others to use music for His glory. — Mary Beth Durham

"But there's also been people who try and use this for personal gain by posting on social media about how awesome it is and how much they love it when you really know that haven't been much a part of it. It's just kind of like, come on, what are we doing? Let's let God do this and not us.” — Richie Sayre

Sanctified Weariness

One of the fascinating aspects of the awakening has been that, while the focus has been on what was happening in Hughes Auditorium, life must go on. People have to eat, students have to go to classes, complete assignments, study for tests and nurture their relationships with others. Someone has to pick up the tissues left at the altar and empty the trash cans. Microphone cords have to be moved and people asked to honor the spaces reserved for the students. It can be very wearying. There is a spirit of joy but some weep with exhaustion even as they continue to serve. 

No one wants to hinder the Spirit or His work. So there has been a kind of dance between times of meaningful spiritual connection with giving attention to the mundane. But on reflection, one realizes that the Lord never intended there to be some wall of separation between the sacred and the secular. As Albert Orborn penned, "All my work is for the Master." Done in His name, the humdrum is holy.

"I am exhausted. It is a holy exhaustion that sleep doesn't always fix! I have reached out to people who hold me in prayer when things were overwhelming me. I get to work side by side with stellar people each day as we continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting and hungry world." — Major Alma Cain

What’s Next?

By the time this is in print, the meeting at Hughes Auditorium may have wound down. As I write, the question of "What's next?" is very much on the hearts and minds of the students and faculty.

“Right now, Jesus is with us and it ought to manifest itself and love for the poor, to good news for the poor, to good news for the lost. But Jesus tells us the poor you always have with you. It's here just for a time and whatever this is, it's not going to always be here. This gift is not going to stay like that, but His Spirit is going to go with us, and the work will be there to do. I trust and believe and hope that the minute that the way that the Spirit's work in these students' lives is just goes deep down into their bones. Our students need to process. The discipling that needs to take place now. They need together to process what they've experienced and realize how the fruit of the Spirit is going to be worked out in their lives as they go on into the everyday.” — Dr. Nathan Miller

"I was telling my dad about all this. He told me that when you feel the presence of the Lord, that's great. But you need to respond to that, and it's not just going to the altar and pray, but your life needs to change. And so I hope that after that the campus will be a different place. If all of us have God in the center of our lives and do what God wants for us as a goal, I feel our lives would be so much different. After what I experienced, I want to lean on God more and trust God more." — Sevasti Levenioti 

"As amazing as it is when I'm in the auditorium and we're all raising our voices together, I feel quite strongly the Lord putting on my heart that if we're using this word revival, which I believe that is what is happening, this is just an event. Revival really is like we're planting seeds. A lot of those seeds we won't see for a long time. I keep asking ‘How is my life going to look differently? How is the Holy Spirit going to be showing up in my life when we are not together in this big room?'" — Jena Pelletier 

"We're not neglected. We're not ignored. It might seem like things are quiet but they're not. He's working up in all of us and working in the shadows or in the light just to give us what we need to get through what's going on. He knows that there are going to be tough times ahead. He knows that this will ease us into it." — Lilli Bell

While the Asbury Awakening was happening, another tragic shooting that took the lives of several students occurred at Michigan State University. We mourn for these losses that clearly demonstrate that evil has been so terribly emboldened in our day. But then we have these moments when God reminds us, as Lilli Bell said, "We're not neglected. We're not ignored." 

The very best thing that can result from this awakening is that it marks the beginning of a new movement of God among us. First, to awaken His people to confess their sin and their laziness, and then to reconsecrate themselves to His work through them to a world that clearly must have Him to survive. While we yearn for the Lord to return to establish His righteous Kingdom on this earth, would His purposes also not be served by an awakening that swept thousands, millions into His waiting arms for their salvation? We cannot affect when Christ returns but we can plead for revival and obey when His direction is given. 

Thank you, Asbury University students, faculty and staff, for showing us what it looks like for an awakening to stir. Thank you for not being distracted by all that is wrong but setting your hearts on the Lord alone.

For more, click here to view testimonies from Asbury students.

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