Fireflies, Sync, and Revival

A number of years ago, I saw a video about the Hebrides Revival 1948-1952. As the story goes, the island people were at a spiritual stalemate. Nominal Christians, with little interest in the role their faith played in daily life, and cold and legalistic churchgoers together, made up the majority of the population. Believing only God could bring change, a few passionate Christians dedicated themselves to prayer. This eventually led to a spiritual awakening that enveloped the islands.
Among the more fervent of these prayer warriors were two elderly sisters, one of them nearly blind, praying for revival several times a week - often late into the night. They were gripped by the promise of Isa 44 "I will pour water on a thirsty land, and streams upon the try ground." Challenged by the faith of these Godly women, seven church leaders gathered in a nearby barn to pray. For months they pled with God, that he might kindle a greater appetite for his presence. It was 1949, in the middle of the year, as the elders continued their travail in the barn. They began to notice the lights in nearby crofts and farmhouses burning late into the night. Some never went out at all. The people's hunger for God had overtaken their desire for sleep. The elders realized their prayers had been answered. Around 4 O'clock in the morning a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the community police station. Many had traveled from neighboring villages drawn by an incomprehensible power. - Transformations II
The video is fascinating, you really should watch it, even if only for the first hand accounts of what the people experienced there.

It reminds me of a another story, about synchronous fireflies, that I read in Steven Strogatz's book Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life

For 300 years since travelers to Southeast Asia have told remarkable stories of fireflies that would flash in sync with one another. These stories were routinely dismissed, or explained away as a trick of the eyes. It wasn't until the 1960's when biologist John Buck and his wife witnessed the phenomenon on a trip they made to Thailand that the mystery began to unravel. Fireflies have something like an internal clock that allows them to keep rhythm. And each firefly's flashes are influenced by all of the the other fireflies. Here is a video of the phenomenon by National Geographic.

Maybe it was the imagery of the lights of the fireflies, and the lights of the farmhouses which triggered the comparison, but I also sensed a connection that was deeper than simple metaphor. The people in prayer were like those fireflies. Night after night the light of the barn, like a fireflies pulsing light, signaled to the community, a group of people was passionately seeking God. Soon these lights were joined by others, until eventually a critical mass was reached, and the majority of the population experienced revival.  Could this be a form of human social synchronization?  If so, what are the mechanisms: micro-expressions?  mirror-neurons?

I'm not claiming that revival isn't a Spiritual thing. Rather, I am making the claim that we are designed in such a way that certain biological or psychological factors respond to spiritual realities in the same way they respond to any other phenomenon.  The book of Hebrews tells us not to give up meeting together, but to encourage one another (10:25). Things like Faith and Enthusiasm can only be transmitted from one person to another, and you can't transmit what you don't have.

I'm currently a member of a small Baptist church, where the Pastor is a former professor of mine.  The church, admittedly, is struggling.  He and church elders have been talking about revitalization. They hired a consultant, formed a change committee, added a contemporary service, and changed the church's name, All of this has been done to signal that something new is happening. But I can't help but think - nothing new has happened though.

I know the leaders are aware that if the congregation doesn't get engaged - all of these cosmetic changes won't amount to anything. They've said so. But they've set about changing the things they have power over in the hopes that it will lower barriers. But the real key to renewal - the kindling of people's hearts is something that is beyond anyone's control. The only thing we can do is pray for it - and we have to catch fire ourselves before we can pray for anyone else to.

John tells us that the Gospel wasn't just something he and the disciples heard, it was something they had seen with their eyes, which they had looked at, and their hands had touched. The Gospel was a living person in full communion with the God the Father. That Gospel - en fleshed - is the Gospel they proclaimed. Jesus living through them.  

Below is a Ted Talk Steven Strogatz gave about Sync.  In it he lists 3 rules that are essential for Sync to occur.

  1. All individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors.
  2. All the individuals have a tendency to line up.
  3. All the individuals are attracted to each other. 
These are the rules that govern flocks of birds, swarms of insects, the pacemaker cells in your heart, and perhaps even the contagious spread of revival in a Christian community.  

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