A Christian university’s weekly chapel service in Wilmore, Kentucky, has turned into an impromptu nonstop prayer meeting over the past week, drawing visitors from across the country, attracting millions of views on social media and fueling talk of a nationwide religious revival.
The Feb. 8 morning worship at Asbury University included a sermon by the Rev. Zach Meerkreebs, a campus minister, on “Becoming Love in Action.” After the message, students gathered to pray.
As of Thursday, they hadn’t stopped.
Videos of tearful worshippers singing hymns and offering personal testimonies have gone viral on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, racking up millions of views and inspiring carloads of visitors to descend on Wilmore, population 6,000, to share in what some are calling a movement — and the spiritual explosion hasn’t stopped at the city line.
Schools including Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee; Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio; Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, are among campuses reporting extended prayer-and-worship sessions attributed to interest in the Asbury event.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in a long time in the United States,” said Hal Poe, a professor of religion at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. But, he says, the tiny Kentucky school at the heart of the event has a unique history when it comes to American revivals.
Asbury University was the catalyst for a similar wave of campus-based religious fervor in February 1970, when another extended prayer meeting in Wilmore captured the attention of Christian students and faculty nationwide.
Since the round-the-clock worship service began last week, participants have lined up for a chance to join the worshippers inside the school’s 1,500-seat Hughes Memorial Auditorium.
Two other locations in the city have been opened as overflow locations to accommodate a steady stream of visitors, Mark Whitworth, the school’s vice president of communications, said in a telephone interview.
“We’re getting ready to open up again today,” he said Thursday. “There’s a line outside, and plans for worship, around the noontime hour, and ministry from 2 to 5. Then there will be some worship as part of that as well. And then at 5, we’ll do more worship and then do more ministry beginning at 7:30 this evening.”
Mr. Whitworth confirmed what many of the students from other parts of the country have told reporters covering the event in recent days. “It has absolutely been social media that is the mechanism that people found out about this,” he told NBC News.
Reaction on campus has been enthusiastic but wary.
Anna Lowe, managing editor of the school’s Collegian newspaper, wrote on Wednesday that “God is using this revival in incredible ways. There is reconciliation, confession and soulful worship. But I pray we do not turn this revival into a prolonged event for its own sake and forget that genuine revival is initiated and sustained by the living God.”
The student body of 1,639 has swelled with “tens of thousands” of visitors to the prayer-and-worship gatherings, Mr. Whitworth said, most of whom “stay for a day or two, or an afternoon or an evening, that kind of thing.”
He said, “This is well beyond the student body. And it has probably been since [last] Thursday. … We’ve had students from over two dozen schools come [here] physically and participate in the worship. The other thing is that we see adults and families, we see all ages, all ethnicities and nationalities.
A wide spectrum of people have come from the United States and “literally across the world,” Mr. Whitworth said.
One of those visitors is the Rev. Robby Gallaty, senior pastor at Long Hollow Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.
He visited Asbury this week and said the unassuming setting of the auditorium — there are no projection screens, no plethora of instruments, “no expansive sound system,” didn’t detract from the impact.
“None of that mattered to anyone,” Mr. Gallaty said. “Because they weren’t there for that. I sense this genuine hunger by the people, that they were there for God and they wanted more of God.”
Mr. Gallaty said denominational labels didn’t seem to matter.
“No one cared about what they did or what church they pastor or what book they wrote or what blog they posted,” he said. “We were simply there and Jesus really was, it seemed, the centerpiece of the worship. I think what God’s doing is he’s drawing people who have a hunger for God.”
William M. Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University, said the revival is helping fill a spiritual void among members of Generation Z.
“These young people are feeling in their life this spiritual vacuum, somewhat of an emptiness in the society they’re in and a real need for hope,” Mr. Wilson said. “The mental health crisis in this generation is significant. The uncertainty of the times, the feeling of lostness, in a world of 8 billion people, who are they, in the midst of it, the desire for purpose. I think all of these are driving a generation to look beyond themselves for the answer.”
Evangelist Matt Brown of Think Eternity Ministries said he was impressed by the organic spread of the revival.
“I don’t know how long it will go,” Mr. Brown said. “But … I would hope that this is just the beginning.”
Janice Shaw Crouse, an Asbury graduate who later served on the school’s board of trustees, called the revival an answer to prayers for Christians concerned about the country.
“I think it’s very encouraging to see the revival going on because so many of us have been concerned about the way our nation is headed,” said Ms. Crouse, who was a longtime contributor to The Washington Times.
“We’ve said sometimes far too lightly that what we need is a spiritual revival, to change the culture, to change the things that are so coarse about our culture. I see this revival as something that’s answering those prayers.”
Some raised a cautionary note about the revival.
Ken Berding, a professor of New Testament at Biola University in Los Angeles, lauded the effort and said students on his campus are praying for their peers at Asbury. But he cautioned against “an emotional outburst” that doesn’t leave a lasting impact.
“The way Jesus would put it is you would know that you know them by their fruits,” Mr. Berding said. He said revivals that produce an emphasis on Christian doctrine and are rooted in the Bible are ones yielding “good fruit.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the Rev. Robby Gallaty’s surname.