The Tabernacle and the Auditorium: What the Asbury Outpouring Shows Us About Worship
How lovely is your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes even faints
For the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.Psalm 84:1-2, NKJV
For the past few months, the Asbury Outpouring (or the Asbury Revival, as it is more commonly called) has been the center of discussion in Christian and mainstream media. (As a note of clarification, many have used the term Asbury Revival in reference to what happened during the sixteen-day extended time of worship and prayer at Asbury University. The internal language in the Asbury community, however, has been Outpouring. I have opted to use the internal language in this blog post.)
It has captured the attention of the world as people have attempted to make sense of what happened during those sixteen days of prayer and worship in Hughes Auditorium. Being the Assistant Professor of Worship Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, (which is located directly across the street from the university), I had a first-hand view of the Outpouring. Not only did it take place right outside my door, but I was privileged to attend many of the services and assist as a volunteer in various capacities. Additionally, over the past few months I have had numerous opportunities to talk with colleagues, students, and friends about the Outpouring and ruminate on our experiences. There is much to tell – more than I can convey in a blog post and many facets of it that need further reflection; however, one noteworthy and distinct feature of the Outpouring that continually is recognized in conversations with those who attended is the pure and constant worship that defined it.
Seeking God’s presence
The Asbury Outpouring began in a simple and modest way, with only a handful of students lingering in prayer after the dismissal of a weekly chapel service. Those who were at the service say there was nothing particularly different about that morning. Even Zach Meerkreebs, the chapel speaker, felt as if he “totally whiffed” his message. Following the service, he texted his wife, “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”
Zach’s sermon that morning examined Romans 12. He spoke on the difference between the experience of God’s love and the radically poor love the world offers. More than hearing what he had to say, however, Zach wanted Romans 12 to be a doorway to help the students to experience the presence of God in their lives and to know His love.
In a conversation I had with Zach later in the week, he told me that he actually never got the chance to finish his message. Time ran out before he got to his final point. As students began rustling in their seats and grabbing their backpacks in preparation to go to class, Zach prayed a quick prayer, “God, You are going to have to land this plane right now.” Zach then offered the students a final challenge: “Find time today to rest in God’s presence and experience His love.” All but around eighteen students left the auditorium. Those who remained stayed with a longing to linger in Hughes and seek God’s presence.
Over the next hour, numerous students who had left the chapel felt an urge to go back to Hughes Auditorium. Many said they had a nagging sense of the Spirit telling them to go. Others received texts from friends telling them that something significant was happening in Hughes, so they should come back to the chapel. The president of the university, Dr. Kevin Brown, even remarked how he saw one student literally running toward Hughes that afternoon with eagerness and expectancy. Within an hour, the number in Hughes grew from eighteen to a hundred students. The group continued to linger in song and prayer. By late afternoon, the number grew to a few hundred. By early evening Hughes Auditorium was almost full. Students, professors, staff, and administration from both the university and the seminary, as well as members of the broader Wilmore community had come together for prayer and worship simply to dwell together in the presence of God. The spirit in the room was sweet and humble as scriptures were read, prayers and testimonies were offered, and everyone sang songs of adoration to God together. There was a general sense that God present with His people, so His people wanted to be present with Him.
Over the next two days, Hughes continued to fill until every seat was filled and people were standing in the aisles and along the walls as well as in the foyers and hallways surrounding the chapel. As more and more people came to Asbury, word began to spread through social media about the Outpouring. When the first weekend rolled around, lines developed outside of the chapel, causing the university and seminary to open multiple overflow spaces on their campuses. By the start of the following week, people from all over the United States had come to wait in line up to nine hours simply to spend a few moments in Hughes. By the next weekend, the world had arrived in Wilmore with a hunger to be in the presence of God.
Being attentive to God’s presence
As I have reflected on all I saw and experienced the Outpouring, I have been drawn again and again to the words of Psalm 84. In particular, the first two lines of the psalm keep coming to the forefront of my mind. What strikes me about the psalm is its focus on presence. The opening lines convey a palpable hunger for God, a desire to be with God, and an expectation to encounter God in his tabernacle. Undeniably, the psalmist is set on being in the place of God’s presence, even if it means being with Him only for a short time and in a seemingly insignificant way.
The psalmist in Psalm 84 embodies for me the same spirit that I believe undergirded the Asbury Outpouring. Similar to how the psalmist looked upon the tabernacle, Hughes Auditorium was looked upon as a place of encounter. From the beginning of the Outpouring to its end, there was a singular focus – God. Hearts and minds were fixated on God—His character, His activity, and His love. People showed up with an expectation to meet with God and a hunger to be with God. People were eager to step into Hughes Auditorium, even if only for a moment, just to be in the presence of God and to experience His manifest work of love.
A principle of worship we often emphasize at IWS is that worship is a meeting with God and not a meeting about God. While we remember and celebrate God’s mighty acts of salvation in worship, we also acknowledge that in worship the Triune God is present and active, welcoming us, speaking to us, listening to our prayers, healing us, forgiving us, and reconciling all things unto Himself. We regularly gather together in a particular place and at a particular time for worship as the church because worship centers our attention upon God, helping us to see and remember who He is and what He does. Put simply, worship orients us to God.
Being assured of God’s presence
Of course, God’s presence was not isolated to Hughes Auditorium during the Outpouring just like He was not limited to the tabernacle in the Old Testament. The opening lines of another psalm (Psalm 139) remind us that God’s presence is always with us. As I see it, what set apart Hughes Auditorium during the Outpouring is that people were more attuned to and expectant of His presence. Much like the tabernacle, there was confidence that God was there and an assurance that He wanted to meet with his people. In this way, the Outpouring was not meant to be an exception to our regular rhythms of worship, but rather more of a wake-up call for what our worship should always be—a meeting with God as He reveals Himself to us and we respond with delight in Him. It is as if the Outpouring was a magnifying glass to show us who God always is and what He always does when we are in His presence. I believe this is why we saw ripple effects of the Outpouring all over the world. The expectancy of God’s presence in worship arose, as did people’s eagerness to be in the place where His glory dwells; thus, people came together wherever they were to meet with God.
Yes, worship is a meeting with God, but sometimes we need to be awakened to His abiding presence. Extraordinary outpourings of God’s Spirit are helpful for orienting us to our God who is always present and active in worship, regardless of how large or small our gatherings may be. We come to worship giving our attention to Him just as He gives His attention to us. We acknowledge Him and we celebrate His goodness, His love, and the wondrous acts of salvation He has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us. So, wherever it is that we gather for worship, may the Spirit use the Asbury Outpouring as a reminder and stoke our hearts to seek the face of God and to delight in His beautiful presence.
This article was written for The Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies Blog by Jonathan A. Powers, IWS Alumnus, Chi Cohort, 2013.