Can These Bones Live?

Printed from:

NewBostonPost publishes a frequent column on religion, often by local religious leaders, on Friday. This week’s article is below.


The Lord asked the Prophet Ezekiel, Son of Man, can these bones live? (Ezekiel 37:3).  It is a good question to consider again.

According to Gallup, from the late 1960s till about 2005, religious service participation remained relatively stable at 41-44 percent of the American population. Since 2005 participation has been declining, from 44 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in January 2023, which includes a further decrease since Covid.  Only 20 percent of young people ages 18-29 are participating in online or in-person services at least one time per month as of summer 2022.

 These trends are worrisome because it suggests a serious spiritual disconnect, especially with young people. Our spiritual decline precipitates moral decay and a fraying of the social fabric.   Though reasons for these shifts are multifactorial, one key is the decline of the church itself. How easy it is for Christians to lose the heart of the gospel. The Christian community can easily calcify and harden.

This is not new for the Bay State.  Living in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1729, Jonathan Edwards wrote about the “very degenerate” state of souls so that the churches of the Commonwealth were “full of dry bones.”  Congregants were respectable, beliefs orthodox, worship orderly, but hearts were stone.  Churches emptied.  The young people lost interest in faith.  They spent their nights in what they called “frolicks.” Walking the town and woods, drinking, being foolish and lewd. Long before the churches become heterodox, they spiritually collapse within.

Richard Lovelace, the late professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, identified a cyclical pattern in the spiritual life of churches. They launch with great energy. Then churches struggle to pass along faith to the next generation. First comes formal religion. Then eventual decay into spiritual death. 

Sometimes revival circumvents this pattern. Lovelace defines revival as “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which restores the people of God to normal spiritual life after a period of corporate decline.”

Revival is alone the work of God’s Spirit, who blows wherever it wishes (John 3:8).  Only God’s Spirit brings revival. Yet we can prepare and long for it.  In Lovelace’s important book first written in 1979, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, his research identified several factors that precipitated prior major revivals in America.  His insights remain important.

The foundation for spiritual revival is a gospel focus.  This centers on Jesus’s work of salvation through the cross.  The message of the cross is that our sin is far worse than most of us will admit.  Yet God’s grace is more wonderfully transformative than what we are able to imagine.  Salvation comes by faith, not good deeds.  Christians who bask in the love and forgiveness of God, are not self-righteous or anxiously striving, but are motivated to act and speak by the love and mercy of God.

With the gospel as center, Lovelace describes several secondary conditions associated with prior American revivals.


An Outward Mission.  Christians must concentrate on spiritual and social problems faced by those outside the church.  Outsiders are central to Christian mission.  When the church falls for the temptation for self-preservation or a focus on its own membership, mission drift has set in.  The church has been given the gospel, not merely for itself, but as a gift to be given to others.

Intense Prayer.  Another condition is deeply dependent prayer.  All of the major spiritual revivals have flowed from a wave of great corporate prayer.  Little prayer is a sign that Christians are depending on will-power, not the Spirit.  “If [the church] were to intercede daily simply for the most obvious spiritual concerns visible in their homes, their workplaces, their local churches and denominations, their nations, and the world and the total mission of the body of Christ within it, the transformation which would result would be incalculable,” Lovelace writes. Unless the church re-emphasizes the centrality of prayer, we will lose young people, and with them, the soul of America.

Deep community.  A third condition is an integrated community of people. Individualism and isolation both degrade community, and undermine the hidden currents of revival. Revival takes place when churches cultivate close-knit bonds of love.  People spend time doing life together.  Communities celebrate.  Rather than feigning piety, Christians become openly transparent about temptations and their own moral failures.  The community becomes characterized by grace, and digs in to help the broken.

The gospel and culture.  A final condition is that as churches decline, there becomes increasing confusion between the essence of the gospel message and cultural adaptations. Among progressives, the church overly absorbs cultural assumptions, which are incompatible with basic Christianity.  Others vehemently protect certain Christian traditions that were themselves merely cultural adaptations from prior generations.  On both ends of the spectrum, liberal Christianity and conservative fundamentalism contract from inadequate gospel communication.  The progressive emphasis destroys gospel witness.  Its conservative opposite, Lovelace says, “freezes the form of the church and produces a sanctified out-of-dateness which the world can easily learn to ignore.” 


By contrast, in times of spiritual revival Christians discover new ways to communicate the gospel to hardened hearts. Destructive cultural idols are exposed.  The gospel causes amazement in how the living God loves with incredible grace.  Though the gospel is unalterable, the manner in how Christians live it out and explain it must adapt to each generation.

Through a mission-centered focus, carried by intense prayer, within deeply integrated relationships, the church rediscovers the gospel’s love and power.  Christians re-experience its wonder.  As the church revives, it discovers new energy to explain the good news.

It has happened before, and can happen again.

The hearts of those in Northampton were stone cold.  Then in the winter of 1735, six people were suddenly converted by the Spirit.  A young woman who led the frolicks experienced such spiritual change, many other young people took notice.  Within six months, half the town experienced dramatic spiritual change “brought home to Christ.”  The cross of Jesus was seen afresh in all of its grace and power.

Then the Awakening spread.  Jonathan Edwards, a contemporary, described a dramatic wave of the Spirit spreading across towns and villages in western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut after the revival in Northampton.  First South Hadley, then Suffield … Sunderland … Deerfield … Hatfield … West Springfield … Long Meadow … 

Then into Enfield, Connecticut, where the pastor said, “More had been done in one week, than in seven years before”!

Then Springfield … Hadley … Coventry … Stratford … Newhaven … Guildford … Mansfield … Tolland … Hebron … Bolton … Preston … Groton … and Woodbury.

But this was only a beginning. This First Great Awakening went throughout Massachusetts Bay Colony.  It filled all 13 colonies, changing an entire generation, even the future of America.

Can these dry bones live?  

Only the Lord can answer.  Our role is to align our lives and words with the gospel. In doing so we will then together say, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:4).


The Reverend Dr. Michael Balboni is Associate Minister at Park Street Church, Boston.  To listen to the sermon related to this article, click this link.


New to NewBostonPost?  How many news outlets in Massachusetts do you consider religion-friendly?  Well, you’ve found one.  Now dip your toe in the water for two bucks — $2 for two months.  And join the real revolution.