The heritage of the Christian religion in the rural South is tied to revival meetings. More than two centuries have passed since the great revival which broke out in the Cane Ridge meetinghouse near Paris, Ky.
Thousands professed religion there as ministers denounced sinfulness, persons repented and the Holy Spirit fell upon the converts in demonstrative ways.
The revival spread across the frontier and reverberated from place to place for decades. Established congregations grew dramatically. Hundreds of new congregations were planted, often as new communities were formed.
One or more annual revivals became a staple of the churches serving rural communities. Many of these were scheduled toward the end of summer, after the crops were matured but before the time of harvest.
The practice continues.
The past four weeks have been filled with church revivals and camp meetings in the area where I live.
Baptists of all stripes, some Methodists, Pentecostals and Holiness folk have gathered in their little churches. They have prayed for revival. They have planned for revival. They have invited the unchurched to attend. They have invited friends from other churches to join with them during the revival meeting.
The music has been stirring. Local quartets, choirs and soloists have been in great demand.
The preaching has been strong and pointed. The evangelists have done their best to call the lost and the backslidden to faith, repentance, renewal and restoration. They have also sought to deal with friction and division within some of the congregations. In those instances they have talked about how conflict in a church can hinder its effectiveness.
So far this summer we have not witnessed any great revival of religion here due to these efforts. Some of the children who professed faith during Vacation Bible School have presented themselves for church membership. Some families have joined a church by letter from another. Several folk have come forward to rededicate their lives. And a few crusty old sinners have yielded their lives to Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
Truth be told, the unchurched do not flock to these revivals. They appear to be lethargic regarding their spiritual condition. They are not so much hostile, as they are unwilling to allow for the transformation of their lives at this time. I suppose this is why we take such great delight in the few conversions which we are privileged to observe.
Some can recall past times when revival did sweep across one of our communities. They tell of a season when scores of persons got serious about their spiritual conditions and lives were transformed. Some of the ones telling the stories are the continuing fruit of that time of revival. But alas, revival fires do not seem to continue for a long time. Ardor cools. Satan again has his way in lives.
We fret because so many around us do not appear to be committed to having Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord in their lives. We long for a deep and continuing revival of Christian faith and practice. We struggle with knowing how to facilitate this happening within our life time. We want to be a part of a great revival. We want to live the Christian life among other Christians. We want to experience Christian community within our churches and across our communities.
Sometimes when we get honest with one another, we question the usefulness of having annual or semi-annual revival meetings. They take effort and resources. Do they really produce enough to merit what is put into them? Is this a method which has out-lived its usefulness? Is there a better way?
Or, is this so much a part of who we are we must continue to have revival meetings if we are to continue to exist? Would the discontinuing of revivals threaten the level of community that we now experience in our churches?
These discussions can be heated and enlightening. We have not yet found an acceptable answer. So, most of us just keep on trying to do better at a method we grew up with. We pray. We seek out effective evangelists. We promote the event. We train and involve the members of the church. We invite musicians who are talented and who have a following. We experiment with various time formats–weekend, four day, six day and seven.
Usually, as we reflect upon the event, we have mixed emotions. We had prayed and hoped for much more. We have been disappointed by some who did not support or did not respond. But then there have been some other things, often surprising things, small victories, and we can also rejoice.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.