While I’ve talked a lot about the challenges of being a Presbyterian minister’s son growing up in the heart of the 1960s and 1970s North East Ulster Bible Belt, there are also many, many great memories.
I’ve summarised my experiences as a preacher’s kid using the title of one of the most famous of the so-called spaghetti Westerns, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.’ Here’s a link to a previous article on those experiences.
However, if there was one aspect of church life which I enjoyed the most, it was attending the traditional summer tent missions and outdoor evangelical outreaches, especially in July and August during the school holidays.
At first sight, such tent missions and outreaches may seem outdated and more akin to the Auld Tyme Religion of Ireland’s fundamentalist past, particularly the 1859 Revival in North East Ulster which saw thousands of people become ‘born again believers’.
But the tactic of the tent mission and open air outreach should now be viewed in the context of the relaxation of the coronavirus lockdown and the social distancing measures which could remain in place for weeks to come.
The Faith Mission movement was one of the great champions of the traditional Irish tent mission. It was effectively a mobile church which could be set up in a field. It was usually manned by two Faith Mission pilgrims who stayed in a small caravan beside the tent. The meetings were nightly and would last for a couple of hours each night for at least a fortnight.
They were timed so as not to clash with those churches which still had a Sunday evening service during the summer. The Faith Mission tended to concentrate on rural locations for its tent missions, leaving the inner towns and cities to the Christian Workers’ Union movement and the latter’s network of urban halls.
Music in the tent missions was provided by a piano, hand-pumped organ, or the piano accordion - certainly no electric guitars! Traditional hymns and psalms were sung - the modern Mission Praise songs and certainly Hill Songs were of an era to come!
But the best loved of all the tent missions was the annual Portstewart Convention, hosted in the north coast seaside town. Hundreds of people from across Northern Ireland would flock to that tent mission, which was usually followed by a walk along the Portstewart Strand or Promenade.
If I was lucky, I could enjoy an ice cream without the ‘tut-tut brigade’ noticing I had bought something on the Sabbath!
Most Sunday summer evenings were either spent in a Faith Mission tent, or an open air outreach. The latter was where members of our church youth fellowship would occupy the green area of a housing estate and share the Gospel with people in their homes.
The residents would open their doors and windows and watch us sing and preach. It was always an opportunity for any wanna-be evangelist to test their preaching skills.
The tent missions and summer outreaches also had a strong social context. During July and August with the schools off, the traditional Sunday evening church-based youth fellowships also took a break.
So the tents and housing greens also doubled up as a meeting place for your chums, especially if the traditional Saturday evening church youth club was also suspended for the summer months.
Spool forward to 2020 and the campaign by churches to reopen following the pandemic. No doubt the social distancing will prove a challenge for churches, especially if society is to avoid a second Covid 19 wave later this year.
So if we are unable to pack the pews when church buildings are eventually allowed to open, what could be the workable alternatives? Bring back the tent missions, I say! At first glance, you might think this is defeating the purpose as during the Sixties and Seventies, people were also packed into the tents, having to sit on uncomfortable pews, or chairs whose legs sunk into the grass!
But it may well be that people will have to gather for worship in much smaller socially distant groups than packed into church. Groups of about a dozen could meet in a tent socially distant, enjoy the Gospel message and singing as well as the joy of human interaction - and all within the social distancing guidelines.
While the online church has played a tremendous role in evangelism during the lockdown, nothing beats the enjoyment of human face-to-face contact and conversation. Chatting via a laptop is one thing, but it is most enjoyable to actually speak to a friend or relative in person.
One aspect of the lockdown was the rocketing impact of online religious worship, especially in an era where many Christian churches were facing a steady decline in attendances.
Likewise, while the traditional Faith Mission tent mission was exceptionally popular in the Sixties and Seventies, by the time this decade started in 2020, they were few and far between.
Perhaps the tent mission was a generational element? Has the tent been replaced with the laptop, mobile phone and ipad as a primary tool of evangelism?
It’s at this point we should remember the words of Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 18, verse 20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (King James Version)
My late father began his evangelical preaching through the Faith Mission. Sadly, many folk from that evangelical generation are no longer with us.
But it would be a tremendous testament to their legacy if, to maintain the social distancing guidelines, we saw a return of the tent tactic to enable people to worship together in groups like Matthew 18:20.