In Illinois, Wheaton College students lined up until 6 a.m. to publicly confess their sins. Drugs, alcohol and pornography were symbolically dumped in garbage bags as young men and women spoke of the difference between their public and private lives as Christians.
At Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., students who normally fidgeted through the 40-minute morning chapel service sat spellbound for nearly six hours as classmate after classmate felt impelled to make public confessions. That night, the service ran from 9 p.m. until 1:30 a.m.
In a rejection of the Generation X label characterizing them as cynics who blame the sins of baby boomers for their own perceived apathy, students at evangelical college campuses across the nation are embracing a revival calling them to repentance.
“The call that’s going out is a call to return to the Lord,” said Chris Robeson, 21, a senior at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas. “People are hurting, and we really don’t know one another. What I’ve been seeing at amazing levels in places that I’ve been is people have been set free.”
The origin of the national revival is traced back to a Jan. 22 service at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood in which Robeson unexpectedly got up at the end of a service and confessed his sins of complacency and apathy.
An older woman joined him at the altar and, in the following weeks, many members of the congregation - which includes a number of Howard Payne students - came forward with their own confessions in services that lasted up to 3 1/2 hours.
Then, at a revival at the college, a number of students rose to give public confessions. From there, students at Howard Payne and the Rev. John Avant, the pastor at Coggin Avenue Church, visited other campuses telling of their experiences.
The revival has now spread to at least 30 campuses, according to Avant.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, except in history,” he said. “We haven’t seen a student revival since the Jesus movement days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
During the revival at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, a white student who confessed to the sin of racism was immediately embraced by two black students, as others at the service applauded and wept, Avant said. One of the black students is now his prayer partner.
At Eastern Nazarene College, junior Amy Zimmerman said after the chapel service of public confessions that she went out and mended a friendship she never thought would be mended. Although the dispute was over “big, serious stuff,” the two friends kept telling each other they were sorry.
“It was unbelievable,” she said.
After the revival began at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., a student came to church historian John Woodbridge’s office and confessed he had cheated on an exam.
“I have never seen anything quite like it in 25 years of teaching here,” Woodbridge said of the revival.
Even some school officials who were initially skeptical say they have been impressed by the sincerity of the movement. They say students are not trying to outdo one another with sensational confessions and that few youths are exhibiting the emotional cries and movements of some earlier revivals in U.S. history.
“The reason that I felt that it was genuine and it was Christian and it was biblical was the depth and breadth of what the students were sharing,” said the Rev. Stephen Kellough, Wheaton chaplain. “It was clearly a genuine expression of sorrow.”
But some school officials say it is premature to call the movement a significant revival.
“Quite frankly, on our campus, by and large it’s business as usual,” said the Rev. Don Auvenshine, dean of the School of Christian Studies at Howard Payne.
And historian Mark Noll of Wheaton said it is too early to gauge the significance of the movement in relation to other revivals in American religious history.
“I would say that the thing to do is to call back in 40 years,” he said.