Revivals raise their tents in Southern cities

Relying on simplicity and informality, preachers set up tents next to parks and skyscrapers.

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L.A. Lindsey has set up a tent on a vacant grassy lot in the urban shadows of downtown Little Rock. But he's not a carnival barker or street vendor hawking watercolor landscapes or homemade jam.

The Rev. Lindsey is a preacher, and the big white tent is his house of worship. An enduring feature of rural Southern towns, tent revivals are now cropping up next to city parks and skyscrapers. Revivals have been held in Newark, N.J., and Queens, N.Y. And throughout the Bible Belt - from North Carolina to Texas - preachers like Lindsey are bringing old-fashioned amen religion to the inner city.

In an age in which charismatic televangelists fill corporate stadiums with high-tech worship, Lindsey and others consider their urban revivals a way to get back to Bible basics in the fresh night air. And at a time when organized religion is seeing more and more vacant pews, these preachers are relying on simplicity and informality to reach one soul at a time.

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"Folks want something real and simple," says Lindsey. "It's not about keeping up with the Joneses, but rather, getting the word inside you."

Raymond White, a retired Baptist minister in Tennessee, echoes those words. Mr. White, who is the consultant/coordinator of the Tennessee Baptist Convention's tent ministry, says people will walk inside a tent who would never darken the front door of a church.

In addition to attracting those intimidated by the stained-glass formality of traditional edifices, tent revivals offer communities a less-expensive way to meet. In Tennessee, churches can rent for $200 from the Baptist convention either a small or large tent for a revival or crusade.

Certainly, tent revivals are not new in the South. Such religious experiences began as camp meetings during the Protestant evangelical movement in the of the late 1700s and early 1800s known as the Second Great Awakening.

The camp meetings were originally held in what was then the frontier region of Kentucky. Pioneers packed their families and supplies into wagons and traveled to the gatherings, where they pitched tents and stayed for several days.

Presbyterians originally organized the tent revivals as extended outdoor "communion seasons" in Scotland. Early gatherings were spirited, as those gathered expressed their religious convictions with electric emotion. Today, that unleashed spirit continues.

"Tent revivals carry on today as a means of re-creating, in an informal setting, that original spirit of revivalism from the frontier days," says John Wigger, a religious scholar at the University of Missouri.

On a recent Wednesday night, Lindsey greets people with a hearty handshake as they straggle in from the street to sit under the big white tent. Some wear their Sunday finest, others don shabby secondhand clothes. It doesn't matter to Mr. Lindsey, who has a sign outside the tent proclaiming, "Come as you are."

Inside, the Rev. Belinda Helms is delivering a fiery sermon to a transfixed crowd - complete with speaking in tongues and the laying on of hands.

Most revivalists agree that if one person finds faith during a service, a tent revival has performed its job. But the Big Top religious experience has its critics.

Unlike Ms. Helms, many of the preachers inside the typical traveling tent revival aren't associated with a denomination or stable church.

And the over-the-top showmanship, say critics, mimics that of the televangelists that revival preachers decry.

"TV evangelists have the same kind of antics," says Glenn Jonas, chairman of Campbell University's department of religion and philosophy this summer. "There's no need to go out and sit with mosquitoes and all the heat and hot air when you can sit and watch the same thing on television."

Mr. Jonas adds that most tent-revival preachers tend to be very uneducated in the Gospel.

Lindsey, who disagrees that spirituality is directly proportional to the number of years spent in college, says the broader mission of revivals is to help people recharge their spiritual batteries - even if temporarily. That doesn't take a college-educated minister, he says.

"This is for people who feel like if they go to church, people will talk about them," says Lindsey. "So many people are on drugs and alcohol and not saved these days; this is for those people."

Indeed, one North Carolina tent preacher, Larry Holmes, is a former drug addict who found religion at a pop-up revival several years ago.

Today, he carts Bibles and his white camper across the state to try to help others.

"Jesus said to get out where the sinners are," Lindsey says. "Early Christians had no buildings. They had tents."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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