The sun slowly disappeared into the bay as the caravan of trucks rolled into town like a Barnum & Bailey circus. The news of a huge tent being raised at the foot of Oakland’s ghetto row near the Sixteenth Street Train Station spread like a brush fire. Sawdust made a carpet on the ground underneath rows of wooden folding chairs where the canvas tabernacle stood. Cars and chartered busloads of people of all races brought their sick, infirmed, and diseased to be healed. Others came out of sheer curiosity and fascination. This was the scene when some of the great revivalists and evangelists like A. A. Allen, Oral Roberts and others came to the Bay Area during the 1960s.
I was just a small boy when my parents first took me to one of many services to see this white man with red hair from Arizona command demons to come out of the possessed. A. A. Allen charged across the platform like a prize fighter in a boxing ring laying hands on an endless line of hopeful—mostly African American worshipers—waiting for a miracle. Aides caught them as they were knocked out or slain in the Spirit onto the stage.
People literally came from miles around to be touched by these men of God under the big tents. My parents never explained to me who these men were or why we there instead of us worshiping at our own church on Seventh Street. But now as I look back I realize they were just as curious as others—not because of the miracles—rather because of the excitement over these men who claimed to have power to perform miracles. The “big tents” added another dimension to draw people who connected with the experience of the “old time revival meetings.” None of this mattered to me. I was just a little boy excited and fascinated about being inside a tent.
Miraculous testimonies of deliverance from demons, addictions, or some unknown malady were all a part of the nightly service. The main attraction was the healing service. People didn’t come to hear preaching; they came for the miracles. They came to witness some poor crippled soul toss their crushes aside and dance across the stage. Or to see someone bound to a wheelchair get up and walk. Eve Simson wrote in her book, The Faith Healer,
“At the revival meetings a tremendous variety of illnesses are dealt with. Claims have been made as to the miraculous healing of cancer, [venereal disease], [tuberculosis], paralysis, blindness, deafness, arthritis, broken bones, migraines, tooth cavities, and many other ailments. On occasions the evangelists have engaged in preventive work, such as maintaining that they have just given an instant blood transfusion or prevented an imminent heart attack” (87).
I believe in miracles. I’ve seen too many miracles in my own life and ministry to discount the supernatural and awesome power of God manifest through Divine healing. Let me also say that there is nothing wrong with having a revival underneath a tent, on the street corner, in prison, or any other place where the Holy Spirit is present. During the early years of the formation of the Black Church the slave preacher’s church and congregation met outside underneath “brush arbors”, in livery stables, camp meetings, or “underneath the open sky” (Raboteau 1978). And of course the Israelites worshiped in the “tabernacle of the tent of meeting” in the wilderness after they left Egypt (Exodus 39:32-41).
A New Era
Gone are those days of sojourn in the wilderness. Gone are most of the “signs and wonder days” and big tent revivals. Times have changed and so have the needs of people. The progression has been noticeable: from the brush arbor to storefront and regular churches; from regular churches to converted theaters and huge auditoriums; and now the megachurch phenomena. The Church has always been mobile and found its way to wherever people hungered for the Living Word.
In the process of change in location or place of worship—so it seemed to some—had the message of salvation. A new era of prosperity gospel preaching and “feel-good” therapy sermons had emerged to replace the once fiery discourse about hell and repentance. Today, people are in pursuit of wealth, individual success, and a pseudo-spirituality that doesn’t mention God or the Christ that suffered.
To be fair, the Church has had to keep up with the changing times. Technology and the age of the computer require a new approach to delivering the Gospel. Congregants are more educated and knowledgeable; they are also more affluent and busy. People want their felt needs met and they will shop for a church that fulfills their needs.
Family ministries in particular have become the central focus in outreach and evangelism strategies. People want to spend more time at home and other social activities and less time in church than years ago. Children’s church, nurseries, youth ministries, singles and couples ministries, marriage and divorce counseling are niche marketing strategies to attract new and potential members. Age, race and ethnicities, socio-economic groups, music, preaching, and worship styles are all factored in today’s evangelism and outreach. Therefore, marketing strategies have become more sophisticated and targeted to appeal to those needs in order to keep people at church.
George Barna noted in his research and study of growing churches in the U. S., that some pastors, “. . . did not view a needs-oriented ministry as a marketing gimmick, but as a method of ensuring effective ministry . . . they saw a needs-based outreach as a way of plowing the fertile fields. Knowing what was on people’s minds, and applying the truth of Scripture, guaranteed that they would have an attentive audience” (Barna 107). People look for churches that understand and offer solutions to many of their day-to-day lived experiences.
Market the Messenger
Before I was called into pastoral ministry and leadership I spent eight years employed with the Xerox Corporation in sales and marketing. After I resigned to pursue my calling in ministry I took many of those skills and intense training I received at Leesburg, Virginia and incorporated, transferred, and transposed them into the church. Jesus understood this concept well. He took ordinary fishermen and made them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19-20). He calls us to use our skills, gifts, and talents to advance His kingdom; never to abandon them.
Marketing the church and its message is a concept that makes some leaders in the church uncomfortable. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, however, raises a number of interesting questions regarding the public witness of the Church in a consumerist culture. Wigg-Stevenson argues, “Should we market the church and the church’s message? . . . In particular, can we use marketing techniques such as niche targeting and branding? Can we help but do so? Can we change the medium without affecting the message? Or does the medium of marketing itself taint our message, leaving us only to resist to the last breath any accommodation to our consumer culture?”
As I considered these questions, several others emerged: Firstly, do churches that grow faster numerically do a better job at marketing than others? Secondly, can a church grow and be successful without marketing? Again, Wigg-Stevenson seems to suggest that marketing is an essential part of our public witness. He states,
“The champions of better church marketing say that withdrawal and resistance are not options for a local church that seeks a public presence. We live in a commercialized culture that accepts that virtually everything is for sale. There is simply no way to be in the public arena without engaging in marketing.”
While this may all seem well and good, however, the larger question must be ask, are we winning souls and are we disciplining people to Christ. Or, are we just recycling the same old dead fish we caught, threw back, and passed them off to some other church. Most of today’s outreach is appealing to people that are already Christians who have no real loyalty to any one local church or denomination. It’s all about filling our pews, individual success, and personal needs met.
There are definite lessons to be learned from those successful churches and ministries that understand marketing and the importance of reaching a targeted group. There are also warnings and cautionary signs inherent to churches and ministries that engage in marketing techniques and strategies to win converts. For instance, a church or ministry can get caught up in promoting their church, ministry, or pastor and forget why the Church exists in the first place. It can quickly become a personality event-driven occasion rather than a kingdom building experience. I sometimes wonder whether or not we are creating a religious pop-culture of believers that only come to church to experience the “next thing” rather than building a relationship with Jesus.
It’s Revival Time
Marketing cannot replace revival. There seems to be no limit to what we can create with our computers, Photoshop, a good digital camera, and design software. We can layout a marketing design literally in minutes if you have a team of creative people who know how to plan a marketing campaign. None of these things however can replace a God-ordained, God-inspired, God-led revival. George Barna notes, “There is a huge difference between God’s vision for us and the ideas we dream up on our own” (Barna 1991, 87).
Revival is a term that’s not used often in the church today—at least not in the traditional sense. When I think of revival I am specifically speaking about those seasons or “time of refreshing” and renewal the Holy Spirit brings to the life His church and transformation in our communities. It is that “vigorous season of preaching, conviction of sin, prayer, joy, worship, and evangelistic activity.” We don’t have very many revivals today, we have events.
Historically, when we look at the revivals of the past they brought positive change in society and the church. However, much of what we call revivals today are events where we come to hear well-known speakers, professional singers, and have a worship experience that makes us feel good rather than leave us being transformed. However, if we clearly understand the revival that took place in the book of Acts, it transformed an entire community of people (see Acts chapter 3).
Theologian, author, and scholar, Richard Foster argued, “We have forgotten that we wage spiritual warfare on all fronts at once—personal, social, institutional. Revival certainly begins in the individual. But it works its way out. The social implications can’t be ignored. Loving God and loving neighbor go hand in hand. William Penn said, ‘Religion doesn’t take us out of the world. But it pushes us into the world and excites our endeavors to mend the world.’ This is part of the task of revival.”
Have we lost the spirit of the early church revivals? I’m not suggesting we bring back the big tents or that we need some well-known evangelist, pastor, or prophet(ess) to orchestrate a revival. I do believe we need believers that will fast and pray, willing to “humble themselves,” repent and seek God’s face. Only then will we hear from heaven, our sins forgiven, and healing for the nation (see 2 Chronicles 7:14). Then we will have a revival that transforms lives and our communities.
 His mother was Native American, Cherokee.
 Simson, Eve. The Faith Healer. New York: Pyramid Books, 1977.
 Raboteau, Albert J. “Steal Away.” Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 213-31.
 Barna, George. User Friendly Churches: What Christians Need to Know About the Churches People Love to Go To. Ventura: Regal Books, 1991.
 Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler. “Jesus Is Not a Brand.” Christianity Today January 2, 2009.
 O’Brien, Brandon. “Rx for Spiritual A.D.D.: Interview with Richard Foster.” Leadership Journal August 15 2011.