I’ve just come from a camp-meeting, a tent revival of sorts, of a whole different type.
Growing up in the southeast US, I remember seeing red and white tents up in late summer and early fall, usually by groves of trees. You could hear the music and preaching from miles around. That type of tent revival had visiting preachers coming into town while people went to hear them in the evenings.
As a child, I did not experience camp meetings or tent revivals in the traditional sense. However, every fall, my family would all pack up the car, drive off miles from home, and gather with other Christians from the Adventist style denomination we were a part of and for around a week to meet new faces, sing and hear songs of worship, and hear preaching. Like the song above, the preaching tended to be about the future and how to be ready for a bright future which as Adventists we believed was coming right around the corner, when Jesus returns.
These gatherings would always be an enormously important time in the life of my family. We would meet and make new friends each year, seeing people we only saw that time of year from years ago. For me my faith was strengthened at just such events. Also we would combine the event with family activities — touring sites local to the worship gathering, doing activities like biking, fishing, miniature golf, as a family and with our friends we only saw at “the festival”.
During my childhood, this “festival” all happened not under a tent or at a campsite but at conference and convention centers in places like St Petersburg, FL, and Jekyll Island, GA, so when we went to this event that our church tradition called “the festival”, I did not realize I was taking part in in the peculiar southern tradition of camp-meeting or tent revival.
If I’d paid more attention to my daddy’s stories, I would have known differently. Each time we would drive to this festival of worship, without fail daddy would tell us of the first time he went for this week long festival of worship and how he and a friend camped out in a tent off the beach of Jekyll Island, not having the money to rent a hotel room. He would tell of how massive tents were pitched up that blew when hurricane force winds came through, and at times leaked through the tent roof when it was pummeled by early fall rains blown off the Georgia coast. It was there, under the leaky tents, that the worship and preaching would happen. He told one story that was gripping to me as a little child about one service when while the preacher’s sermon hit its climax, as he preached about his hope of a wonderful world coming at Christ’s return, light bulbs exploded from the force of wind and rain. Under that tent, in rain and thunder, daddy’s faith was born. And even though the preaching, in regular Adventist style, focused on the world they believed was coming “soon and very soon”, the commitment borne in his heart changed daddy’s life forever. There under that rainy windblown tent daddy determined both to follow Christ and to do so in a tradition that shaped the life he lived from then on and the life his family to come would live, including mine.
It was at one of those gatherings, years later, now not at a tent but the Myrtle Beach convention center, that I went out after worship one fall with a preacher and spoke words confessing my own faith in God, and was baptized in the waters of the Atlantic ocean.
Daddy’s faith and my own were shaped by a tradition of worship really borne out of the southern tradition of summer and fall tent revivals.
What I experienced growing up was a part of an earlier tradition, one my grandparents and great grandparents would have known as rural Baptists in the south: the camp meeting. In a camp meeting people would travel for miles to hear a group of talented preachers from various denominations preach and to join in worship. This summer to fall camp meeting season usually came near the end of harvest time, and families would literally pitch tents to camp out during this season, bringing their whole families and many friends. In the inner circle of the camp there would be powerful preaching and music, while on the outside a carnival type atmosphere would go on. Many a friendship was begun and a romance borne out of relationships that started at the camp meeting. It was a time not just of worship but of making new friends, of fun for the family. At it denominational walls fell down and people were changed by their experience of God.
It is out of the camp meeting and tent revival tradition that the altar call, a hall mark of evangelical Christian life, first emerged. Much of its meaning is pictured well in the following song — a call to change your life now, so you can be ready for the life to come.
Yet the camp meeting and the altar call also were used to change your life here and now, and your world. In some of his books, the Reverend Jim Wallis tells how in the 19th Century revivalist movement the call to come down to the altar was not just to make a decision for eternity by deciding for Christ, but often joined with the call to make a decision to not just wait for a new world either at Christ’s coming or your entrance to heaven. Often as you came to the altar you were called on to make a commitment to stand for a social issue, such as abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, children and worker’s rights, or temperance.
You don’t see the red and white tent much by the groves of trees anymore in the south. So often the sermons and services are in comfortable buildings, cut off from the cycles of nature.
But this past weekend my wife Katharine and I were blessed to join an unlikely revival of the camp meeting tradition, on the shores of the French Broad River, by joining the Wild Goose Festival.
The Wild Goose Festival is in its fourth year and is a gathering of progressive Christians from all denominations and walks of life. It is amazing to see people from all over the country, in fact from varied parts of the world, gathering for worship under tents in the rain.
This is our second year attending, and our first at their new campsite now in Appalachia itself, the home of the historic tent revivals, just past Asheville NC in Hot Springs, NC.
For me attending this event is like a return to my roots of a tent revival. It was inspiring to sing songs of worship like the one below, on the first night of the gathering, with so many others, admitting both the value of faith and the need for our faith to be one of inclusion and love not hatred and bigotry.
Unlike the messages of my childhood, preaching and teach-ins were not about sometime far away in the bye and bye when Jesus may return, but here and now. The speakers took seriously Isaiah’s promise of a day coming when swords will be beaten into plowshares, waste places into gardens. Yet instead of preaching “lets wait in hope for God to come and do it for us”, speakers practiced the words of Philippians 2 to work out our deliverance with fear and trembling here and now, knowing God is already at work within us to bring it about. The call is to help transform this world into a place of acceptance, love, peace-making where walls that separate us are torn down.
The call was to live a faith with justice. Teachers connected the systemic injustices we face in the south which make true Johnny Cash’s anthem not all God’s children are free, with the red letters of Jesus, calling us all to be that change we wish to see in the world. Focus was on the practical ways we can be Christ in the world.
Also there was a recognition that this sort of work to heal our world begins within. I was blessed, as a tired and weary minister having spent hours working with the broken, to sit in talks on healing inner wounds through spirituality by wonderful counselors, pastors, and teachers. Two truly moving talks were given by women who were victims of abuse at the hands of men that were made worse by churches who did not understand their role in being voices of healing and advocacy. They both shared their journey to inner healing and guidance on how others can engage in that same journey.
Most moving to me, perhaps, was seeing two things you never would have seen at the tent revival-inspired gatherings of my youth: First, people talking about how the way of Jesus can help us come to understand people of other faiths as partners in our journey. I am more convinced every day that the way the church’s language of exclusivism has been used has done great harm by teaching people to disrespect and fear other faiths and cultures. Many speakers shared how to live in harmony with and even learn from women and men a part of other faith traditions. This is so much more reflective of the Christ in the Gospel of John who told the woman at the well it was neither this mountain nor that, neither this religion nor that, which God cared about but rather if we worship in spirit and in truth, than the fear-based preaching against other faiths I grew up hearing.
Second, was the beautiful picture of families of all kinds. I met many families with same-gender couples in them, who were treated with the same respect as my wife and I. I met families that were mult-racial and multi-faith who were each treated as they truly are — beautiful, with deep insights and lessons to teach us all.
I want to thank the people organizing this event, for reviving this beautiful tradition of camp-meeting, and re-tooling it into a gathering of grace, hope, and liberation. I want to recommend if you are able to join Wild Goose this coming year, to come on out and experience a camp-meeting of another type, one aimed at radical welcome and justice.
To close I want to share a video clip of the sort of dream of a transformed world at the heart of the Wild Goose Festival.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,