Magazine article The Christian Century

Revival without Tents

Magazine article The Christian Century

Revival without Tents

Article excerpt

I CAN STILL SMELL the wet canvas and sawdust of my father's revivals. Like many old-school country preachers, he believed that any self-respecting revival was held in a tent. The fact that he'd been sent by his denomination from Texas to serve as a "home missionary" in Long Island, New York, didn't dissuade him.

Every year he rented an old circus tent and set it up in the parking lot of the church he had planted. My brother and I would string naked light bulbs between the tent poles, push the cheap electronic organ onto a plywood stage elevated by cinder blocks, and set up wooden folding chairs that would pinch your butt if you weren't careful. I have no idea how Dad found sawdust on Long Island.

The choir was composed of women wearing zippered housedresses and the few husbands who were compelled to join them. One of the highlights of the evenings was the Eastern Valley Boys Quartet. The boys wore green blazers and had too many teeth. The really big guy sang tenor, and the small one had an amazing bass voice. We knew little about the guest preachers--where they went to seminary or even if they'd gone to seminary. Unlike the stereotype of revivals, however, the sermons were not about hellfire and damnation. Mostly they were a call to receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

What I remember most about those hot nights was the altar call. Just before the choir began singing, "I Surrender All," my father would stand at the front and say, "Jesus was dying to love you. All you need to do to accept this love is to step out of your seat, come down the aisle, and give your life over to the forgiving love of Jesus. It doesn't matter what you have done, whether it was very bad or very good, you can't get to God without surrendering all of it to Jesus."

The people who filled that tent were blue collar, if they were lucky enough to have collars. Many were out of work; some were addicted to things that had pretty much destroyed their lives. But there it was--a simple invitation to step out of your seat, step away from whatever separated you from God, and come home to the Savior.

Since those days I've collected too many academic degrees and a theology that no longer fits in my dad's revival tents. If I don't get to sing a Kyrie in a worship service, I feel cheated. And I have grave doubts about the long-term benefit of altar calls. In the words of Karl Barth, discipleship is not about a momentary act but a movement of conversion back to God. …

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