Recently my family and I attended The Gathering at McLane Stadium at Baylor University. It was a follow-up to a similar event in Waco in 2015. The two primary emphases of the event were evangelism, and manifesting unity in the body of Christ. The event was supported by hundreds of churches from the region. These included mostly evangelical and Pentecostal churches, including congregations that were majority African American, Anglo, and Hispanic. There were also some mainline congregations among the sponsors, and at least one Catholic church. From my untrained eye, there seemed to be about 30,000 people in attendance.
The leadership of the event and those on stage were well-balanced between African Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics. The featured speakers included Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew and San Diego pastor Miles McPherson. McPherson gave a powerful message about how God radically saved him from a life of sin and drug addiction while he was playing in the NFL. McPherson provided a clear explanation about how we can be saved from eternal misery by accepting the grace of God through Christ. Hundreds, and perhaps more than a thousand people responded to his gospel invitation, and came forward to pray with counselors at the end.
As someone who has written extensively about the mass evangelism campaigns of George Whitefield and other 18th-century revivalists, it was fascinating to witness this example of mass evangelism in 21st-century America. I was favorably impressed. There are significant similarities between an event like The Gathering, and those of Whitefield’s revivals. But we should also not underestimate the challenges mass evangelism faces today, either.
Among the similarities: churches and believers typically undergird such events. Some might criticize mass evangelism events because many, if not most attendees are churchgoers. But that’s the reality—those who respond to the gospel are typically friends, family, or neighbors of churchgoers who invite them to such events. The already converted also supply staffing for the event, from ushering to the choir to prayer counselors.
Also, mass evangelism events with lasting consequences do not hold back about the hard truths of the gospel. I’m afraid that I have been to other Christian events where, when the “gospel” was preached, it was watered-down and seemed more like motivational self-help than a message on the stark realities of sin, righteousness, judgment, and grace. McPherson did not harp on the threat of hell, but he certainly highlighted its reality as that which we must be saved from.
The most visible difference between revival meetings in earlier phases of American history and this one was the multi-racial leadership of The Gathering. Of course, one meeting at a football stadium hardly resolves the besetting tensions over race in a city’s churches. But it was an important, public example of Christians from the dominant ethnic groups of the city, working together in unity around the message of the gospel.
Probably the most formidable difference between the mass evangelism of Whitefield, and virtually any efforts at mass evangelism today, is the contemporary lack of media support for such campaigns now. In my biography of Whitefield, I noted that one of the key reasons for Whitefield’s phenomenal success is that he was a master of the new media of his time, especially cheap printed sermons, travel journals, and newspapers. This mastery helps account for the origins of Whitefield’s longtime friendship with Ben Franklin, the most innovative publisher in the colonies. Whitefield was the greatest celebrity of his day, period—not just the greatest religious celebrity—and a major boon for a printer like Franklin. (A theme I will expand upon in my forthcoming biography of Franklin.)
Billy Graham had something like Whitefield’s sort of popularity in the media, especially in the 1950s. But no religious figure in America has anything like it any more. Some leaders who have the most visibility in the media today, of course, have theological commitments that evangelicals find dubious.
Unless there is some political angle to a mass religious meeting today, the media generally yawns. Thus, I noted that The Gathering garnered little media coverage, even in the Waco market, except for the local newspaper noting that it was happening. Online searching suggests that one local news station did a report on the event itself.
Events like The Gathering and its church supporters do use their own strategies of electronic outreach, like social media, paid ads, and live streaming. In that sense, “media” is far more diffuse and democratized than it was even 20 years ago in America. But when compared to the way that Whitefield utterly dominated the publishing and media markets of his time, there is no doubt that mass evangelism has lost its apparent newsworthiness today. It would be hard to imagine how to change that, except through occasional sympathetic reporters, editors, and producers.
But the work of evangelism goes forward, and the church obviously can’t expect anyone but the church to do its work for it. I came away from The Gathering believing that citywide mass evangelism can still be an effective tool. And it is one of the most obvious ways in which the churches of a city can demonstrate unity, not just in sentiment, but also in practice.
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