Published October 16, 2014
MADISON — Years ago, Bobby West would invite men from his home church, Centennial Baptist in Rutledge, to his farm for a deer supper. West liked serving, and the men liked eating.
Then the church grew, and the crowds at West’s farm became so large that eventually the only reasonable solution was for the church’s Men’s Ministry to sponsor The Sportsman’s Night. Still, they needed a venue.
For several years, the church rented tents for about $8,000 to host the hundreds who attended, said Michael Stovall, Centennial’s pastor. But this year, they sought another solution, and the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) had one.
With Cooperative Program (CP) funds, the GBC began purchasing tents in the 1990s. They currently have three: 40x80, which can seat 500; 60x90, which can seat 750; and 60x150, which can seat 1,250. Each is available for Georgia Baptist church-ministry initiatives including Vacation Bible School, revivals, block parties, harvest festivals, and wild game dinners.
For Centennial, their annual 2014 Sportsman’s Dinner drew 610 to hear Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson tell about his African safaris as he presented an evangelistic invitation. Thirty-five attendees made professions of faith.
“A tent signals something special is happening,” said Phil Burgess, who volunteers as the tent ministry coordinator. “They are a tremendous evangelistic tool.”
Tents as magnets
Against the night sky, tents shine and naturally draw attention, particularly with the overflow of music. Burgess fondly remembers the north Georgia church that pitched a tent outside their sanctuary for a revival. A man walking by wandered into the tent.
Something had turned this man off to church when he was young, and he had vowed never to attend again.
“If the revival had been in the church, he wouldn’t have stepped foot inside,” said Burgess, who serves Shadowbrook Baptist Church in Suwanee as superintendent of buildings. “But because it was in a tent, he found Jesus.”
When the Israelites escaped Egypt, God instructed them to build a Tabernacle. In its simplest form, the tabernacle was a portable tent, which served the Israelites during their 40 years of wilderness wandering. The tent was always set up in the center of their encampment, and it contained the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. Most importantly, the spirit of God resided in the Tabernacle. The Israelites would go to the Tabernacle tent to make sacrifices for their sins as they encountered a gracious God.
As Burgess and other volunteers across the state service the tent ministry, they regularly see God at work, particularly in the host church. The GBC contract requires the host church to supply sweat equity, which typically translates to about 15 local volunteers.
“If I have 15 guys that will listen to me,” Burgess said with a laugh, “we can set up or break down in two hours.”
The benefit is twofold, Burgess said. The church saves money to do other mission work. And, “When you get a group of guys together, the fellowship is unreal.”
In 2013, only about one-half of churches that utilized this GBC resource filed reports with the state convention. Of those reporting, about 21,000 attended events that resulted in 667 professions of faith, 93 rededications, and 31 baptisms.
“It’s more of a humbling experience for me to think that I’ve been a part,” Burgess said.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming. To schedule a tent for your church event, contact Susan Davis at email@example.com or (770) 936-5346.
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