Camp meetings, I am told, started in the hinterlands of America in the days before radio, television, and other forms of modern entertainment. Camp meeting, quite simply, was the only game in town. People came to these meetings because they offered quite a change from their normal activities. I am also informed that the evangelists at these meetings often preached for days before giving any sort of invitation, altar call, or whatever. After a week or two, with them preaching Christ and against every sort of sin, the people were so often so deeply under conviction that they flocked to the “Mourner’s Bench,” desperately seeking salvation-salvation from sin.
With this in mind, I am reminded of Edward Smith’s biography of the 17th century Quaker preacher, William Dewsbury. From recorded history we can tell that Dewsbury spent at least 21 years in prison for his activities as a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. It is said that he came to consider the “locks and bolts” which imprisoned him “as jewels.” But before he came to this state of grace he was convicted of his sinful condition and sought God diligently for years, from his youth.
Now I go to a “camp meeting,” struggle to stay awake during the boring sermon and then witness the evangelist give his altar call. When none respond he will broaden the invitation until anyone in any state of grace can come, and it looks, I suppose, as if something has been accomplished.
A young pastor showed up, for the first time, on the last day of camp meeting and asked an older minister, who had been there for every service, how the preaching was. The response: “Don’t ask me that.” Why? The preaching he had been hearing bordered on pathetic, although both evangelists had “Dr.” before their names.
A minister friend of mine had attended three camp meetings lately. He regarded one of them as liberal, another as moderate and the third as very conservative. He said they all had two things in common: “No conviction of sin” and in the two that had altar services (the liberal and the conservative) there was no real spirit of prayer.
I recall, years ago, an evangelist friend of mine telling me, “I am expected to get people to the altar.” He had a pained look on his face as he said this. I wonder, are we just going through the motions?
I am not offering any panacea for the problem; I just don’t see that doing what we have been doing for decades is the answer.