STEVE CRAIN: Tent Revivals Big Part of Summertime
Summertime is tent revival time -- well, it was in the 1950s when no one I knew, nor the church or public elementary school I attended, enjoyed air conditioning.
Here's a definition for "revival": "A restoration to use, acceptance or vigor after a period of obscurity or quiescence; a time of reawakened interest in religion; a meeting for the purpose of reawakening religious faith, often characterized by impassioned preaching and public testimony."
Every believer needs revival once in a while. Of course, as one preacher said, "You can't revive a dead man." He meant that a dead-in-trespasses-and-sins person has to first "come alive in Christ," or attempts to revive him will be as futile as, to use an old expression, beating a dead horse.
I trace my conversion-to-Christ experience to my sixth year of life and a Sunday night service in a rural South Carolina Pentecostal church where my family worshipped. That conversion "took," but I've often needed reviving since I reached that place in my life where two spiritual roads diverged.
My childhood church held in-house revivals about twice a year, but the first tent revival I, as a preschooler, recall attending took place in an "outdoor cathedral" pitched on a vacant lot in an industrial area located along White Horse Road in Greenville, S.C.
Oral Roberts brought his tent to Greenville, a city sometimes called "the buckle on the Bible Belt."
My grandmother, "Ma" Crain, liked Roberts, who reportedly stuttered as a child but became a great oral communicator. Ma, Pa, I and other family members attended one of his Greenville evening "healing services."
Roberts preached passionately, and people lined up for prayer. A few people lay on stretchers and waited for coveted moments when the man of God would "lay hands on them and pray the prayer of faith." We sat far back, and I didn't see any healings happen, but some folk spoke into a microphone and testified about being made whole.
My family, from farming and mill-working stock, blended with working-class folk longing to see the power of God displayed on White Horse Road. When thinking about that meeting, I often recall these words of Jesus: " And the poor have the gospel preached unto them."
I was about seven years old when someone raised a large tent near the home of Ed Few, our church song leader. When my father drove our black 1951 Chevrolet onto the field where that big-top stood, I felt we drew closer to God. Maybe leaving asphalt and driving onto good earth symbolized leaving Egypt and heading for The Promised Land.
Ancient Israelites, those who took 40 years to reach God-promised land due to doubt and disobedience, built a movable, wilderness tabernacle for the Lord. The Bible records God as saying, "Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). Someone said, "'Redemption' concerns God's desire to dwell among his people."
A man pulled a snow-cone booth -- one such as seen at a county fair -- onto the tent site near Few's house. I wanted a cherry-flavored ice-filled cone, but Dad wouldn't buy. Maybe he thought that vendor spoiled the pure-and-undefiled quality that meeting under a tent fostered. I figured a fellow might worship better if he wasn't all dried out.
Some folk are touchy about mentioning money and religion in the same sentence, but religion can't totally disassociate itself from finance. There are church light bills, and the parson and his family have to eat. Someone said, "The gospel, like water, is free, but you have to pay to have it piped to you."
Revival tents have mostly disappeared from the South, which regional writer Susan Ketchin called a "Christ-haunted landscape." Today's evangelists often rent stadiums and civic centers. These are up-town times.
I've seen only a few small revival tents in recent years. Near noon on a not-long-ago summer day, I rounded a curve in North Georgia and saw a small tent. A portable out-front sign conveyed this message: "No, the circus isn't coming --Jesus is!"
I wanted to stop, wait for nightfall and attend a service under that little big-top. I wanted to hear unpolished singing and preaching blare from a faulty sound system, wanted to shuffle my shoes in sawdust and see a preacher perspire.
But I drove on in my air-conditioned car and thought about wilderness tabernacles and cherry-flavored snow cones.
Steve Crain may be reached at email@example.com.
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