May 2008

I grew up in an era of revivalism, in what was then part of the cherished “Bible Belt” in the home of a Southern Baptist preacher. We had revivals twice a year—spring and fall, regardless of anything else. I have a deep-seated, special place in my heart for week-long revivals because I said Yes to Jesus for the very first time in the last night of a revival meeting. My dad has long reminded me that he was not preaching when I came to know the Lord. It would be important to note that both my mother and my father have always lived their faith so faithfully in front of me that I would have to be blind not to learn of Jesus at home long before I went to church (and I went to church nine months before I was born).

Not so very long ago, I was attending a “Bible Conference” hosted in one of our churches in the southern part of our state. One of the speakers, a vocational evangelist listed among the hordes of them in our denomination, quoted statistics. Here are his observations, the age and veracity of the study cited is unknown to me:

  • Churches not holding a Revival meeting during the year reported one salvation for every thirty-six members for that calendar year.
  • Churches holding Revival meetings, but having no salvations reported as directly related to said meeting reported one salvation for every twenty-four members.
  • Churches that held Revival meetings and could track at least one salvation decision to that meeting reported one salvation for every eighteen members.

His point was that we are able to effectively reach twice as many people with the gospel message when we schedule and hold revival meetings as when we do not. Underlying that point is the one that continues to stick in my craw—“Hire me (or someone like me) to come and preach for you, and you will be able to boost your numbers to report to the denominational headquarters.”

I’ve turned into quite the skeptic over these numbers issues. Firstly, because I’m not sure whether it is a biblical principle to hire a highly emotional preacher to come in and stir the pot in order to reach more people. I believe that I know why, historically, the extended meetings known as revivals or camp meetings were highly effective in turning out decisions for Christ: (1) At one point in history, the church was the center of the social makeup of every community and the annual or semi-annual meeting known as revival was part and parcel of the entertainment—people who had not yet accepted Christ as their savior would come to see the show, hear the message, and be moved to decision. (2) Even as the church became less and less influential in her sway over the community, members of the church spent months preparing for the event. Advertising was up to date, non-Christians were made a specific part of prayer times for both individuals and groups, special attention was given to the conducting of the meeting with emphases such as “old fashioned night” where people were encouraged to dress in ancient attire, “children’s night” and “youth night” focusing on different age groups, and “pack a pew night” where members were encouraged to get as many unchurched people into the building to hear the gospel message as they could—some even signed up for a pew. (3) Pastors and evangelists took time during the week to visit in the community giving verbally “engraved” invitations to all who would be willing to attend.

I can also speculate what is happening in most churches that hold special meetings with emphasis on a revivalist moment: (1) Advertising that was up to date and worthwhile in 1962 looks unprofessional and uninviting in a day and age of sound bites and Internet podcasting (stop it with the black on white—or black on goldenrod—flyers, people don’t read them). (2) Church members are uninvolved in the inviting process—in fact, the handful of people that we do get to show up more than once a week are those who show up anyway, who decided to follow Jesus two lifetimes ago. (3) Pastors are lazy (dare I castigate myself?) and evangelists have become demanding—I have gotten reports of some who show up at the church three minutes before they are to speak and leave before the last “amen” is uttered.

The bottom line though is: why do we do it? For the church it seems that numbers boosting is the point. For the revivalist or evangelist it seems to be about making the money to put in their pockets.

And the question that I’d love to know the answer to is: How many people of the newer generations are we reaching?

If you’d like to help out, here are some questions you can answer in the comments section (aside from the ones already posed): Does your church have annual/semi-annual revival meetings? If so, how long are they—2 weeks, 1 week, 4 days or 3? Do you prefer professional evangelists (vocational is the word they prefer) or local pastors to lead the effort? Have you seen any increase in the numbers of people making lasting decisions for Christ as a result of your special revival efforts? What do you do as follow-up to help those who make decisions to grow in their faith?

Talk freely among yourselves.


Missional Press is branching out. Read the announcement here.

I’ve finished my reading of Kinnaman’s unChristian and posted my review. I still have a couple of things that I’m working through that I will post here at a later date.