“My first revival …”

Worship Pavilion
at Mineral Springs Methodist Camp Ground

My first revival was in the summer of 1985. I was fresh out of seminary and the pastor of my first congregation. In regards to Christian life, American society was in a different place in my early years of ministry. School systems and youth sports leagues kept Wednesday evenings free for church activities, and on Sundays retail stores were closed. Even revivals, a decidedly religious event, were boosted by the high school football coach and shop owners on Main Street. Today, we would be hard pressed to find a town that still understands its connection to the church in this way.

This first revival that I attended took place in Mineral Springs, North Carolina, which at the time was a rural area of the piedmont. The “Camp Ground,” as it was known, was a large field surrounded by thick woods. At the center of the field was a brush arbor that looked similar to a park pavilion, but with a floor covered in wood chips and a stage that made for an altar. Wooden benches lined the seating area, like pews in a sanctuary but more worn and weathered.

Along the perimeter of the field were archaic cabins, some of them dating back more than a hundred years. They were owned by families and Sunday school classes from the various churches in the area, with the owner’s names nailed to brass plaques at the entrance. The Patterson Family and the Bond’s Grove Fellowship cabins were tied to my congregation. Inside there was an open space, and places for sleeping, laid out like a large family tent. In fact they were called tents, though by structure they were not.

It was my understanding that the camp ground was still off the grid. At night our light came from kerosene lanterns and the outdoor fires built for cooking. In the three years I attended the summer meetings I don’t recall a single message, but I still remember the warm light. Come spring the faithful would begin to put up posters advertising the visiting preacher and extol his oratory virtues. We were promised an inspiring message and more than likely that was the case, but I recall the fellowship.

It may sound strange, but before I was ordained my experience in the church was limited. I met Jesus my junior year of high school in a small membership congregation and then I was off to college where worship attendance depended on how I felt from Saturday night and whether or not there was someone with a car who would take me.

It was at these camp meetings that I came to understand what Christians meant when they said the word fellowship. It was like the warm light of a lantern glowed inside me. Sure, some of the glow came from the preaching, but most if it came from the singing and the connection I felt with my congregation. We ate together, laughed and held long conversations. I never spent the night in one of those ramshackle cabins, but in time I understood why folks did. When Christians spend time together they are strengthened and become more equipped to carry the gospel into the world.

I am looking forward to this year’s Preaching Mission. It is less than two weeks away. I am told that when Tom Tewell preaches, the gospel becomes relevant. He is an exceptional speaker. It is a three-day event, and I know that for most of us this is a lot to ask. We no longer live in a society where church is at the center of community life. But remember, we find our strength in Christian fellowship. There is soft lamp-like warmth when we spend time together, even when the world has become cold and harsh.

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer