Hypergraffiti

Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Old Fashioned Tent Meeting

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My church is gearing up to have a series of evangelistic meetings and I am, as usual, both involved and ambivalent.

For the 85% of people who read my blog and don’t share my church background, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what a Seventh-day Adventist series of evangelistic meetings is like. Jason and I were talking about it with my cousin Jennifer and her husband David the other day and David said, “Are they like revival meetings?” And I said yes, but thought, Only sort of. Our evangelistic meetings were born in the era of old-fashioned American tent revival meetings and they still share lots of the characteristics of those meetings — the music, the energetic preaching, the altar calls, the shameless playing on emotions. There was a time when meetings like these were a staple of religious life and now they are largely relegated to the more obscure corners of evangelicalism, but that is the heritage behind this type of “series” or “effort” or “crusade.”


Content-wise, though, SDA evangelistic meetings go far beyond the standard Billy-Graham type confess-your-sins-and-accept-Jesus message, because the goal is not just to lead people to Jesus but also to introduce them to the doctrines of the Adventist church, which are far more logical than emotional. So along with a soft piano background of “Just As I Am” playing behind the altar call, you also get some rather detailed exposition about the meaning of the Greek word pneuma as it relates to the state of the dead, and how Constantine mandated Sunday as the day of worship — not at all standard tent-meeting fare.

It’s an odd mixture and it’s not quite like anything else in the religious world, but it’s very familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in a traditional Adventist church. I can look back through my childhood and recall the different series of meetings, held every few years with a visiting evangelist, like milestones along my journey to adulthood. Each one brought a small influx of new converts — as a child, my biggest concern was whether they had kids my age; as a teenager that shifted to boys my age. Some stayed and became a vital part of our congregation; more slipped out the back door within a few months, when the mountaintop excitement of the crusade ended and Real Life, or sober second thought, took over.

My attitude toward this kind of evangelism has gone through many changes over the years. There have been crusades in my church that I virtually ignored because I considered that whole model of “soul-winning” hopelessly outdated. There have been crusades into which I have thrown my efforts wholeheartedly. Sometimes, in the shifty sands of midlife, I question not just the methods we use to attract people to church but even the validity of the whole get-people-in-pews project.

Often, I sit on the fence. I observe the whole thing with a faintly embarrassed cringe, recognizing that the illustrations of beasts of Revelation and all the other evangelistic paraphernalia (regularly updated, but still outdated) would be the very last thing to attract me into a church if I were a “seeker.” Yet I notice that every crusade brings to my church at least a handful of people who stay, people I like and am happy to worship with, people who seem to have been spiritually transformed by the whole experience — so I think, Well, clearly this type of evangelism does have a target audience, and if it’s hitting some of those targets, who am I to stand back and shake my head?

Evangelistic crusades are very much a hallmark of traditional or “conservative” Adventism, and I am probably the most liberal Adventist in my congregation. Yet in this particular crusade the most outspokenly conservative members of the congregation are boycotting and refusing to become involved (don’t ask me why; I don’t know) while the person who is our pastor’s right-hand woman, doing most of the organizational work of the crusade, is probably the next-most-liberal person in the church apart from me. As for me, instead of staying out in left field ignoring or criticizing the whole thing, I am pitching in with Jason and organizing the children’s program that accompanies the crusade. It’s not because all my questions have been answered and I have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of public evangelism. But I do have my reasons.

A very wise man whom I know only as Oscar the Grouch (not the one from Sesame Street — this is a poster on an internet board whom I know only by username) gave me some good advice one time about how to function in church when you hold opinions that are outside the mainstream. I cut out his tips and pasted them in the back of my Bible, and often I have to flip to the back and look at them on Sabbath mornings. One of his tips was “Where you are able, remain actively committed to what the church is doing (no-one likes someone who stands in the corner griping but never lifts a finger to help.)”

Oscar’s words of wisdom now shape my attitude towards “the crusade.” This is not “my kind of evangelism” (though saying that prompts the separate, and rather challenging, question of exactly what is my kind of evangelism). But it is something my church is doing, and there is a need to be filled — child care for those who bring kids to the meetings — that I am qualified to fill. So I am serving at my post of duty despite my doubts, playing the double roles of hardworking participant and skeptical observer, wondering as I so often do whether that makes me a hypocrite or just a faithful skeptic doing the best she can.

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12 thoughts on “Old Fashioned Tent Meeting

  1. The first question I got for delurk day this week was about the denomination of my church, and it was with some degree of cognitive dissonance that I said “Baptist” – because that both is and is not who I am. But I figured out at the tail end of my Anglican years that I’ll always disagree with some things in any church, and I’m somehow more comfortable being the most liberal rather than the most conservative.

    That sounds like a handy list of tips!

  2. Hi Trudy,

    Thanks very much for your post about evangelism. I read it as my husband and I prepare for our prayer shift (1-3 am) at our church. We, too, are starting an evangelistic campaign. As I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks, I’ve wished that we were emphasizing more than just the prophecies of the Bible, more than the 28 fundamentals. However, I guess we have to start somewhere. Tonight our assignment is to pray for the students from the Amazing Facts Center for Evangelism who have been helping us get ready for the series. To that list I am adding myself so that I will have a supportive, generous spirit. We’ll pray for the campaign at your church also.

  3. Any chance I could get a copy of those tips from Oscar the Grouch? They sound like something I should paste in my Bible as well!

  4. What a great post. It is nice to see that you are considered enough to struggle with it and ask questions. But helping out sounds like a good thing to do, even if you have issues. Contribution is important, even while you’re questioning. And I’m loving the idea of those tips from OTG.

  5. OK, by popular demand — the list of “tips” in the back of my Bible, as originally posted by “Oscar the Grouch” on Ship of Fools sometime in 2005:

    “All I can suggest is a simple creed:
    -Be honest with yourself.
    -Be honest with others — don’t pretend to agree to avoid upsetting the status quo.
    -Be loving — those who clearly love are often able to say things that otherwise would not be heard.
    -Be patient.
    -Accept that others will think differently and that they have a right to do so, even if you disagree with them.
    -Where you are able, remain actively committed to what the church is doing (no-one likes someone who stands in the corner griping but never lifts a finger to help).
    -Never let disagreements become personal.
    -Try to express your unrest in positive terms — suggesting new things the church could be doing, rather than simply criticising the present situation.”

  6. your mention of tent meetings sparked a few memories in me. back in the 80’s a church group use to come to the community (cape ray) with a large tent and have prayer meetings. i remember the sounds of the preacher and the singing echoing through the community some evenings. parents here no matter what faith let their children attend and some became quite involved in it. i doubt if we’ll see it again but for a while those sights and the sounds of hymns made a lot of us smile.

  7. For some reason, I think this is something that I needed to read. Thank you.

  8. At my recent church “crusade”, “campaign” held for five weeks with four (4) speakers, I noticed that the longer the “crusade”, the better the attendance became, and the more “conservative” the topic, the greater the interest. The evangelist comes through blazing a trail like a whipped-up tycoon. The pastor puts it all back together again, returns to the congregation to normalcy, and that normalcy includes new members, until the evangelist comes through again, and hearts are troubled and some wag heads, until the pastor brings the cycle into motion once more.

    Pastor
    Gethsemane Brockton/Boston SDA church

  9. The first 2 points of the Simple Creed are the onesthat make me step out of the typical Amazing Facts Crusade.

  10. Trudy,
    I followed a link to this blog and really enjoyed hearing someone echo thoughts I’ve had about evangelistic meetings–both positive and negative.

    I always thought your Man from Lancer Avenue was one of the best and most creative books published by the Review and Herald. It deserves to be re-published and re-released.

  11. Really enjoyed this blog. Last year we ran 2 campaigns, lasting 3 weeks. It was very traditional, and I was very sceptical. The outcome was 50 baptism’s, which was some 10 times greater than my expectation. So I ate humble pie.

    Now, the number of people still in that church (no longer my church – a long story) from that campaign is no more than 5. Despite small groups, and an intense focus in incorporating the new members, very few have remained. So I have to raise the question again, is the traditional approach still appropriate?

  12. Hi, Trudy! Sorry this isn’t a comment on your comments–
    What a way to find an old friend! I was looking at AToday and saw your site listed there and went in. Great to see your children in the wedding photos. Good looking kids! I’m still teaching and our school is online now–live classes for distance learners. Have you heard about it? If we offer a class you don’t have, your students can take it with out teachers! Meryl is in her 7th year of teaching and Bruce is in Montreal. Where are you teaching now?
    When you have time–drop a line!

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