Visiting a Big Tent church for a week

08 Jul

We’re back from our week at the JH Ranch in Northern California. I was there on a Father/Daughter adventure week with our oldest daugther Katrina. A friend whose family has benefited from the ministry of the Ranch encouraged me to try this and helped us go.

There is much to say, and I’ve begun writing my reflections, but for today I thought I’d report on the worship there to keep to my thread of reports on visits to churches.

Each night at the camp, right after supper, we had worship time in the Big Top Tent. It would open with a set of three or four worship songs, after which there would be a ‘talk’ which was followed by a form of altar call, after which a musician would often come back out and play some more. But that is a very simple and brief explanation.

Here’s the longer one:

The Big Top Tent is a huge white circus-style tent, with three peaks and flags on it, with side walls that it was possible to completely open up for air circulation. When you walked in you noticed two things right away: strong pleasant smells, and the sight of a western town’s downtown storefronts along the back of the stage area. The smells were of the best of hay on a hot summer day, with all of it’s sweetness, and the smell of fresh sawdust. Examining more closely you noticed the entire outside perimeter of the space and the front of the stage were lined with dry green hay bales and that the floor was covered with woodchips. The colourful facade of storefronts began at the far right with a barn and moved along through various stores with wares in the windows to the JH Lodge in the center, and beside that another store, the bank, and then the jail. Way over on the left the facade became a wall on which some farm tools were displayed and in front of that was a range of instruments such as drums, guitars and keyboards. Centerstage was a tall wrought-iron barstool with a backrest and there was a matching table that was about three feet across. No pulpit or stand, just the table.

The audience had multiple rows of very low to the ground blue lawnchairs set out for it. Dads had a hard time getting in and out of these. That may have been a part of the intent of the arrangement, where the Dads had to be helpless at times. I don’t know.

When we came to events in the Big Top, we would sit until the musicians started us off. The first night, Sunday, the first two songs touched me deeply. This was partly through the words and their message which was so relevant to my life, and partly just because of the atmosphere in the place, or most likely because of the Spirit’s touch through the songs — the sense I had of God speaking or singing these words right into my soul.

One song was a version of the words of Isaiah about how we will wait upon the Lord and he will renew us, and the other was “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Both had clear themes of God standing by his people in times of trouble and struggle, turning hardship to praise, and lifting us on wings like Eagles despite it all. That notion is what both clutched at my throat and squeezed tears of appreciation out of my eyes. I let them run, though at that point I did still sorta hide the trickling torrent from my daughter. I did do my best to not be self-conscious about them. I was surprised to be so affected so early, but there was power there in that place, and there is something about seeing people from a wide variety of Christian experiences coming together to worship One God, each within or just beyond their own comfort level of exuberant expression. And so many young people! And so pumped up for God in a real way, a way that proved lasting, as it did not fade or crack at any point in the whole week.

This was one thing Katrina remarked on several times — how steadfastly positive and ‘up’ the staff were. The staff were all college-aged, and seemed to be primarily people who had come through one of JH’s programs before and came back for a summer to be staff. Each of them had a ‘back-story’ that was not always so sweet, and each of them were hired partly on the basis of evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, testfied to by people around them. There were about 100 of them, taking care of all the needs of about an equal number of ‘guests.’ And these kids were working for no pay as we regularly count pay. They were volunteering their 6 week stint and some their entire summer!

So I hope now you can imagine the effect of that pumped-ness despite heat, long days, and many many needs from the guests. The Up-on-God-ness flowed over into the worship.

After the songs we would be seated and hear a talk, mainly following a theme of “G” for a life of Gratitude; “O” for a heart of obedience; and “D” for… (I’ll have to look it up later). These talks included a lot of personal story, and were very well presented and done. By well presented I don’t mean that they were polished and professional and slick. Though the contents were clearly well known to the speakers, and were often about the raw parts of life and growing up, these things were spoken of in a sensitive way. The talks were given by Bruce Johnson, his wife Heather, and a guy everyone called Mack. A couple of them were quite compelling. Katrina’s favourite was the one about God’s love, given by Heather. What I liked was that they were not “Christianese” fluff. In fact within them there were some clear warnings about being a nominal Christian, or a churchy person. Each talk contained numerous truisms, such as the exhortation to the daughters “Don’t marry a Christian, marry a godly man!” with clear illustrations of the pitfalls. I wholeheartedly and wholemindedly liked that portion and the truth of it. Beyond that, I will not illustrate because it will give away much of the teaching, teaching which is best heard in context. I also will be writing critique reflections of what I heard and saw in a separate place and time. You do need to know there were things I had trouble with, but there is no denying the presentations contained good scriptural and godly truth and wisdom, all couched and seasoned nicely in grace. In fact, the vast majority of my cautious fears about the experience (described elsewhere) turned out to exist in vain, they were not realized.

Each talk would end in some form of invitation/call to some new level of commitment, generally delivered without excessive coercion or ‘milking’ the sentiment of the moment. There were exceptions. After a closing prayer or two we would be generally dismissed, with an inviation for anyone who wanted to to come kneel at the front bales, where someone would come and pray with you.

At that time one or two musicians would come back out and play meditatively while people were given as long as they needed to ‘be’ there.

These seven worship services — closing with the finale on Friday night, a finale that peaked the week with it’s powerful, compelling, moving, laughter-and-praise inducing personal testimonies from daughters and fathers about what God had done in them in the week — have left a lasting after-glow that had me feeling no need to attend a local service today. Writing this reflection is my worship for today.

God is good.

For more stories follow this link: JH Ranch stories and reports 


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