by Candace C. Hill
Clustered in the hills of Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, and in other locations around the country, are tiny faith communities from another era. Small gingerbread cottages around a central, open-air meeting space for summer worship and fellowship were once common places for families to get away from routines and commune with God in nature. These scenes, from days gone by, provide inspiration for a different kind of faith experience, a summer evening camp meeting—gathered under a tent.
Although traditional Vacation Bible School, held on weekdays in the summer, is a great way to reach out, the event often involves only the church volunteers and the children who attend. Congregational members provide support through collections of supplies and snacks, but what other opportunities for faith experiences are available to engage other youth, young adults, and adults from the surrounding community?
Consider planning an evening event for all ages on several consecutive weeknights, possibly a Sunday through Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. If your church does not have a large covered pavilion for outdoor meeting space, rent a big tent from a local rental agency or event planner. The vendor may donate the use of the tent for the opportunity to advertise in a visible place. Your space, pavilion or tent, will need to be large enough for everyone to move about and be comfortable throughout the evening. A little rain for this type of event will not be a problem, but always identify an indoor, back-up location.
Brainstorm the purpose for the event. Will the event be mainly for fellowship and celebration? Is it to build new and lasting relationships? What is important to learn or to experience? Set goals. When your vision is in place, develop an exciting theme and publicity materials to advertise throughout the community. Ask members and friends of the church to come, bring neighbors, and invite strangers. Welcome everyone.
Help those who gather to feel more comfortable by following the same order each evening—worship, study, and fellowship. Begin with singing. Add opportunities to meet and greet, to praise and to give thanks. Pray. Offer a different or unique experience each night. Use talent within your own congregation or community—storytellers, musicians, missionaries on sabbatical, and guest speakers.
Choose study materials to fit the purpose of your event, resources that are easily adapted for all ages. Set-up a variety of conversation areas, places for reflection, and learning experiences. Use photos and images on tables, readings and questions, and conversation starters. Ask participants to work collaboratively—older helping younger, younger inspiring older, long-time members with newcomers. Let people move about the area engaging in the opportunities provided to express and deepen their faith.
Gather for brief reflections on the evening. Invite attendees to share as little or as much as they are comfortable sharing about their experiences and discoveries. Close the formal time with a familiar song or blessing. Offer light refreshments and watch people continue to sit and to chat. The same informal flow each evening will become a faith tradition for this event and a life-giving memory of a faith-filled summer in months to come. You will be glad you gathered under a tent.
Candace C. Hill served coordinator of educational ministries through Congregational Ministries Publishing, Theology, Worship, and Education, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).Since this article was originally published, she has retired.