Author: Rudy-Froese, Allan
Date published: March 8, 2010
Tent meetings in the last century were spectacles from beginning to end. Emerging from slick new trucks and buses were kindly Christian foreigners who would pitch a big white tent, build a stage, make a sawdust floor and set out hundreds of folding chairs. Within a day, a lonely piece of farmland had turned into holy ground with an almost carnival atmosphere. Who could resist?
The novelties of the tent meetings included an intriguing setting for worship, gathering with brothers and sisters from other churches (a lot of dating happened in these tents), singing good gospel tunes led by fervent and attractive young people, and preaching that was both dramatic and evangelical.
The climax of the service was never the music or the preaching, but the altar call of the preacher, which led to the subsequent walk up the sawdust trail. The tent meeting's atmosphere, hymns and preaching had a single evangelical goal: the winning of souls. The sermon was not just about salvation, it was a salvation event in itself.
For all its spectacle, novelty and soulwinning, the tent meeting has always been controversial. The tent revival meeting is, by its very nature, a critique of the churches within earshot. A week of special worship services with opportunities for salvation or recommitment assumed that the local churches were not doing these very things.
George R. Brunk II (1911-2002) was keenly aware of the controversial nature of his tent meetings. Similar to revival preachers like George Whitefield (1714-70), Brunk had to walk a fine line between partnering with local churches and, at the same time, calling people out from some of the stagnating aspects of those same local churches. In style and substance, Brunk was brilliant at appealing to conservative Mennonite beliefs, while at the same time prophetically critiquing those beliefs with an evangelical theology more at home in the American South.
It was easy for the local preacher to be both intrigued and threatened by the preaching at the tent meeting. Tent preachers were more spirited and dramatic, holding the congregation's attention with various well-honed techniques. Whitefield, for instance, developed the art of dramatically rousing the emotions of the congregation. Others had the ability to call the Spirit down on the tent dwellers, so that the congregation would erupt in the speaking of tongues, songs of praise and shrieking. Some tent preachers were mere hucksters- fly-by-night thieves who developed the art of securing an abundant offering.
Brunk's style was conservative in the context of other more charismatic and bizarre tent evangelists. Yet his acting out of biblical characters, his body language and flexible voice, and his direct talk on the "elephants in the Mennonite room" were different enough from the local preacher for the tent dwellers to sit up and take in the experience.
Some in the Mennonite fold remain critical and cynical of tent meetings of the 1950s to the 70s for various reasons. Others are positive and even nostalgic about those meetings, because for many it was, as they say, "the hour I first believed."
Beyond cynicism and nostalgia, what stands out in the preaching of the tent meetings is that the sermon is clear on what it is doing, not just what it is about. Verbs, not nouns, best describe tentmeeting worship. The sermon and the hymns are not just about salvation but, in the context of the Holy Spirit, designed to offer an event of salvation.
It is common for us to ask our preacher, what is the sermon about this week? This is an important question. But an equally important question is, what is the sermon doing? Think verbs. For example, is a given sermon striving to call, invite to new life, inform, console, judge, encourage, inspire or build up?
A given sermon will be better focused if it is doing just one thing in connection with what it is about. In other words, a sermon that is about salvation should also be an event or happening of salvation. In a sermon about vocation, we should not just hear information about how God calls in a general sense; we, the listeners, should be able to hear God's call in our own lives in the happening of the sermon.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is active and alive, and is as much here right now as it was in Bible times. The gospel properly preached is not only about the good news, but "does" the good news to us. We may not walk the sawdust trail after the happening of a sermon, but we will walk away, by the grace of God, in newness of life.
Allan Rudy-Froese is doing a Ph.D. in the art and theology of preaching (homiletics) at the Toronto School of Theology. E-mail him firstname.lastname@example.org.