‘It just felt like holy ground.’ Asbury University revival draws hundreds

Bryce Towle and Nate Lucas

A crescendo caused crowd members in the chapel to hold their arms and heads to the sky. A baby held by their mother reached their arm out, too, as if they were mimicking others. 

As the song that was playing ended, its chorus hung in the air and was met by applause after it dissipated. Someone overtaken by the moment openly wept.

“I cried all day, every day,” Riley McChord, a freshman communications major at Asbury University, said. 

This was the scene at Asbury University, a private Christian university in Wilmore, Kentucky, where students had participated in a nonstop worship service since Feb. 8, which attendees called a “revival.”

A revival holds different connotations for different churches. 

According to Asbury’s website, it means a spontaneous worship that involves prayer and praise lasting multiple days. 

Asbury has now been the site of nine revivals. Their largest revival before this year occurred in 1970, and their most recent occurred in 2006.

This year’s revival has received international attention.

Visitors include groups from other states and even other countries such as Indonesia, Canada and Brazil. Asbury University President Kevin Brown told NBC News about two-thirds of the attendants are from out of town.

The revival had grown so large that it had spread to four other buildings on Asbury and its neighboring seminary’s campus where the ongoing service was simulcasted from Hughes Auditorium. 

On Thursday, Feb. 16, the Asbury revival experienced its first day of a scheduled opening and closure from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Before this, Hughes Auditorium remained open 24 hours. Some students slept on mattresses and continued worship quietly during early morning hours.

The line for the revival on Thursday night stretched to the gate that marks the start of campus. Someone at the end of the line was overheard mentioning how long it took them to get in a few days prior, and they estimated that it would take them two hours that night.

Outside, volunteers made sure that those waiting in line were fed while others watched the door of Hughes Auditorium and ensured that the building kept its capacity at about 1,200 people.

Inside the building was a service that flowed and evolved with its participants. People came and left, ushers helped open seats and music rose and fell.

At the front of the auditorium, those under 25 could enter through a door and sit in reserved seats at the front. They were also invited to sit on the stage, where a pianist, a percussionist, a guitarist and vocalists led worship with Christian songs and hymns.

The rest of the room was filled with people who had flocked to the quiet town of Wilmore to infuse it with the sound of their worship. The crowd at the revival on Feb. 16 held a white majority but included people of different races and backgrounds, their clothing adorned with Brazilian flags and Bible verses.

McChord was extremely moved by the revival and said that she had prayed for it the whole morning before it happened. She slept in Hughes Auditorium from the revival’s first night, Wednesday, Feb. 8, to Sunday, Feb. 12.

“It just felt like holy ground, just being at the foot of the cross and just being with your father, and just being saturated … in his presence,” McChord said of sleeping in the auditorium.

McChord left the original service to go to a class she had a presentation in.

She said that the next thing she knew, someone had opened the classroom door, interrupting class to announce, “God is doing something really cool upstairs,” and she proceeded to leave the classroom as students followed.

After that, McChord said that a number of students skipped their classes to join the worship.

That worship would grow into the revival in the days following. 

McChord said to have seen a number of healings and miracles happening during the revival, including a man’s neck tumor disappearing.

Asbury encouraged attendants in Hughes Auditorium not to use social media, use flash photography, live stream or record for too long out of respect for others and what God is doing.

“God can do his own PR work,” McChord said.

However, Asbury still understood the importance of social media in amplifying the message they were preaching.

“It definitely spread the fact that it’s happening through social media, but I’m really encouraged by Asbury making a statement,” Alison Perfader, Asbury student body president, said. “I think we’re all trying to respect everyone’s privacy in there, which is important.”

Historically, revivals are a culmination of outside cultural movements. Many have been dominated by a singular preacher leading the movement, reinventing the way their congregation thinks about their faith. 

However, at Asbury, there was no clear leader.

“I think (the revival) was sparked by division in general and a need in a thirst for God and community in general,” Perfader said. “I think technology has a huge part in that and coming off of that as distraction. I also think that the division of COVID and the political unrest of 2020 was huge in our generation specifically.” 

With the advent of media and outside visitors, Asbury has been the subject of plenty of attention.

“Everyone’s been so nice, it scares me,” Perfader said Thursday, Feb. 16. “Today there was a lady handing out food that she had bought from her house, little sandwiches wrapped in cellophane.”

For Perfader, the revival was about forgiveness and the rekindling of relationships with others.

“For years (I) have struggled with anger,” Perfader said. “Super, super bad. And I had a list of people I hated a week ago … And I had no interest in fixing that about myself either … I have worshiped and sang with people I really didn’t like a week ago and I’ve, they’re my friends.”

Perfader said experiences like hers “can happen in your kitchen,” and “you can be freed from anything anywhere,” attributing the revival to a relief of drama in her life, paraphrasing a hymn saying “the things of earth will grow strangely dim” feeling as there is “a refocusing of priority for each other.”

Even with the spectacle occurring on campus, Asbury still asked for the academic responsibility of its students. 

“A lot of people skipped (classes) the first couple of days,” Perfader said. “What’s really happening is we’re going to class for 15 minutes and then just coming back.”

As students remained in attendance at the revival, some took their studies into the chapel, doing homework and working on projects while listening to what was going on around them. 

“There are still classes, midterms are happening, students have to be students,” Jennifer McChord, Asbury vice president of enrollment and marketing, said. “And we are a university. And we are here to educate our students. So we have to be sure we’re taking care of our students.”

In a statement published on Feb. 21, Brown announced that Thursday, Feb. 23, would mark the revival’s end at Asbury University and the Asbury Theological Seminary.

Brown clarified that, while the revival itself may come to an end, its mission will not.

“I have been asked if Asbury is ‘stopping’ this outpouring of God’s Spirit and the stirring of human hearts,” Brown said in the statement. “I have responded by pointing out that we cannot stop something we did not start. This was never planned.”