Revival Time by Henry Regehr
Excitement was mounting around the prairie church and in the prairie community: old fashioned revival meetings were coming to town.
The caravan of semi-trailers, with large painted signs emblazoned with crosses and the words “Tent Revivals” arrived at the large empty space on the fringes of the town. Immediately after school we rushed to the site, watched as three huge wooden tent poles were anchored to the ground, cables were stretched and fastened, and massive sheets of canvas were manhandled onto the cables and secured to the poles. Backless benches were placed in rigid rows. Sheets of plywood emerged out of the trucks, piece by piece, and were assembled into a platform. Speakers bigger than any at the hockey arena were hung into place and the public address system was very loudly tested. All was ready for the big exciting night.
“My first task is to make people feel guilty”. Yes, that is what an evangelist told me many years later. Really, the first task is to stir the crowd with raucous music, familiar worn gospel songs to tug at old memories. Jokes and light hearted stories were told to make the audience responsive and compliant. And of course, there had to be a collection to defray expenses. (“This is the Lord’s work but a costly venture, and giving is good for the soul. Please give very generously. It is a gift to the Lord”.) Later, in the second week the evangelist will tell the people, who by now have become followers, that he will need a new semi-trailer truck and so the faithful contribute enough in one collection to purchase of a new Mac truck and trailer. “The Lord has blessed us with this new equipment” he will tell his new adoring friends.
And then his sermon begins. The evangelist’s voice becomes more authoritative, the volume of the public address system is set at high. He establishes his dominance. He thunders about the coming of destruction and death and hell. “Why is he so angry?” the overwhelmed girl asks her mother. “Because God is angry”. “Why is God angry?” “Because we are all sinners and will go to hell if we don’t get saved” her mother sounds uncertain, but the first task of the evangelist is taking shape. The anxiety and feelings of guilt are emerging according to plan in his compliant listeners.
My earlier experience of this feeling was at nine years of age. As son of the local minister, having learned obedience and searching with all my little might to be compliant to get his approval, which never came, I was enthralled by the process. The wriggling of a thousand worms in my stomach I considered to be normal excitement and only much later discovered that it indicated an out of control anxiety. I stood, overcome with this weird feeling like the terror I felt standing in front of my angry father while he berated me and waved the menacing Russian belt which was soon put to use with ten big ones.
The audience was, of course, made up of true believers. What erring person would want to deliberately subject themselves to this? This was “revival time” after all. The evangelist, having heard the question often, “Why have another revival?”, explained in remarkably simple terms: “A bath doesn’t last, does it?”
Then came the “alter call”. Sinners were urged, fervently, to come to the plywood altar, confess their many sins and be “saved”. That was the moment when the burden of guilt miraculously disappeared, and a sense of calm flooded mind and body. It was the time of change, conversion. The colors became sharper, life seemed entirely positive and a lightness flooded the mind. God himself had taken away all sin. It was the peak of peak experiences. A psychologist friend later wrote about the psychology of “conversion experiences” and that helped me understand this much better.
Next it was time for “backsliders” to come forward to the alter. That covered a multitude of sins and sinners and would bring many anxiety prone people to the front to confront the transgressions of the past year. It was, he said, a “harvest of souls”.
During this time, the audience was quietly singing the over-familiar invitation song:
“Just as I am, without one plea…
O lamb of God, I come.”
The emotional tension was overwhelming but effective. It kept people coming back, night after night, for the annual spiritual orgasm. It kept them from reflecting and introspecting, from questioning and doubting, it re-enforced their true-believer status and they felt refreshed.
The song dragged on:
“Just as I am and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot…
O Lamb of God, I come.”
And still they came to the altar, the evangelist begging his listeners to come down the aisle.
“Just as I am though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt….”
Emotional exhaustion finally set in and still the call went out.
“Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come.”
At last, manipulated, tired and spent, we all went home already looking forward to the next evening and another bath.