As we close out 2023, we find ourselves reflecting on a variety of stories that captured the attention of readers throughout the year.
With help from Google Analytics, we found that readers of The Baptist Paper often gravitate toward stories about Southern Baptist politics, conflict, tragedy and the latest controversies. But even with plenty of denominational news to report in 2023, those articles are not what actually drew the most readers. The most popular stories were about revival and worship — specifically a small private Christian university’s two-week long worship service attracting thousands of visitors from far and wide. A story on the popular “Jesus Revolution” — film and another article on the debate over different music styles in church services also were among the most-read stories of the year.
The ‘outpouring’ at Asbury University
The two-week worship service that drew a national spotlight began humbly Feb. 8 on the campus of Asbury University, in Wilmore, Kentucky. A group of students decided to continue praying, singing and worshipping after a regular chapel service in Hughes Auditorium. As news spread around the campus, more students joined them and the worship kept going into the night and on into the next day. Within days, reports said more than 50,000 visitors flocked to the campus to experience it for themselves.
While many described it as revival, students were calling it an “outpouring” of what God was doing in people’s lives. Our most-read story of the year followed one visitor’s experience in Hughes Auditorium. Rob Jackson, director of church health for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, shared that he had “witnessed many so-called ‘revivals’ that appeared out of control. Asbury is not like that. There is freedom to kneel, pray and cry out to God, but at the same time, everything is done in an orderly manner. Worship through music, sharing Scripture, confession of sin and prayer were the norm when I was present.”
Months after the service concluded, students and staff reflected back on the outpouring with The Baptist Paper and shared how it has impacted their lives. Alison Perfater, who was student body president, noted how the time of worship “brought this new peace and unity on campus.” Others echoed her sentiment. This fall, the campus would go on to experience an enrollment boost of 300 more students with an enrollment of around 1,640 students.
‘Jesus Revolution’ movie
As news of Asbury University’s “outpouring” was spreading around the world, the movie “Jesus Revolution” released in theaters Feb. 24. The film, with a modest budget of $15 million, would go on to reportedly make more than $50 million in box office receipts. The Baptist Paper readers checked out Michael Foust’s review of the film, where he referred to it as both “inspirational” and “believable.” The movie focuses on what he described as the “hippie-led revival that graced the cover of Time magazine.”
The story specifically spotlights three men who played significant roles in leading the movement: California pastor Chuck Smith (played by Kelsey Grammer), hippie evangelist Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) and Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), who would go on to be a well-known evangelist and pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, based in Riverside, California. Producer Andrew Erwin told The Baptist Paper, “Every person in the country needs to see this film. These were kids asking the right questions. They were seeking the right thing — they wanted the truth. They wanted meaning. They wanted love.”
Foust noted the movie “reminds today’s church that evangelism is often uncomfortable but will — with patience and time — bear fruit. Methods may change; the gospel does not.” In the wake of the movie’s success, Erwin’s brother Jon, who wrote and directed “Jesus Revolution,” recently announced the launch of a new movie studio, The Wonder Project, that will make family-focused films.
Another one of The Baptist Paper’s top stories of the year involved an article on the debate over different musical styles used during church worship services.
The article, “Inside the latest ‘worship war’: Can a song be ‘tainted’?,” specifically looked at the latest list of the top 10 most favorite songs used in today’s churches. Scott Shepherd, worship & music specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, wrote a series of articles on church worship — one of which landed among our top stories.
“This [debate] has nothing to do with musical style, what instruments we use or even lyrical content,” Shepherd wrote. “Instead, some are debating the suitability of worship music based on a song’s origins. Who wrote the song? Which denomination published it? What artist sings it?”
Shepherd’s article specifically considers the question, “Can a worship song be disqualified because of its source, even if the song is biblically accurate? Does a flawed source make a ‘good song’ bad? Lately the questions are even more direct: ‘Should we sing songs from Bethel and Hillsong? What about Elevation and Jesus Culture?’” Shepherd goes on to explore how these questions have sparked a lot of debate in churches — and social media has only “added fuel to the fire.”
Ultimately, Shepherd concludes, church leaders must determine what is tolerable in their context and try to avoid music that could create a distraction and hinder worship.
But, he noted, “If churches only sing songs written by perfect Christians with flawless theology and impeccable ethics, we’d have no songs left to sing.”