By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
MANCHESTER — The line outside the tent is lengthy, but it moves along steadily and orderly. Even at 10:30 in the morning, long before any musical acts have taken the stage, the Jesus Tent is buzzing with activity at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
Bringing to mind the image of the occupants boarding Noah’s Ark, the processional of young adults, often arriving in pairs, gradually makes its way closer and closer to the tent.
Once inside, the group continues to progress, moving up incrementally beside the long and narrow “pick-up” tables, where a variety of free items — from apples to sunscreen to shampoo — are available for the taking. In the meantime, the back of the line gains numerous newcomers, content to patiently wait their turn.
It’s a cycle that repeats itself, nonstop, for the better part of five straight days.
The Jesus Tent — an outreach ministry of First Baptist Church, Manchester, and supported through a team of churches from Duck River Baptist Association and other associations, and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board — operates almost like a perpetual motion machine throughout the duration of the annual Bonnaroo event in early June.
“We set up the tent on Wednesday night at 5 p.m., and we run straight through to Sunday afternoon,” said Jake Dorak, associate pastor and minister of missions and evangelism at First Baptist. “We’re open night and day, 24 hours a day.”
Funded by gifts through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions, the Jesus Tent has been a mainstay at Bonnaroo for more than a decade and has become a popular place for many of the festival’s regulars.
For the past four years, TBMB evangelism specialist David Evans has teamed up with Dorak to help oversee the tent. Together, they serve as the point men on the project.
It’s hard work, naturally, and it takes months of planning and preparation. But the rewards are plentiful — and eternal.
This year, there were approximately 200 spiritual decisions, including conversions, rededications, and prayer requests.
“I can honestly say that I have not found a better, or easier, place on the face of the planet to share Jesus than at Bonnaroo,” said Evans, “and I blame the Holy Spirit for that. Before we even get to the tent, the Holy Spirit is at work, preparing the hearts (of the attendees) for what’s in store.”
How it works
The overall mission of the Jesus Tent is to reach the Bonnaroo attendees by demonstrating the love of Christ.
Those who visit the tent are able to pick up the free goodies in a “no-strings-attached” environment. They are not greeted by counselors, nor do they have to sign up for Sunday School.
Rather, the sharing of the gospel takes place outside the tent, as volunteers fan out into the open fields that surround Great Stage Park. “The goal is not for us to sit in the tent and have people approach us,” said Evans. “We want to go out into the crowd and bring our message to them.”
The Jesus Tent has hosted 15,000 to 19,000 visitors each year for the past three years, and Dorak said the tent’s popularity is due, at least in part, to the word-of-mouth endorsements from the campers at Bonnaroo.
They know, he said, that they can come to the tent and not feel pressured to talk about spiritual matters. Instead, they can come in and just feel loved.
“I believe we’ve earned the trust (of the attendees),” said Dorak, “and I think that factors so much into the success.”
Added Evans: “We feel (the formula we use) is a great way of disarming people and erasing the stigma that many people have about church.”
This year, a worship service was held during the final hours of the tent’s operation on Sunday morning, with Evans delivering a brief message and giving an invitation. Attendees who were interested in making a decision were invited to speak with counselors or fill out response cards.
It takes a village
The list of assignments and duties involved with the Jesus Tent is rather lengthy. But so, too, is the list of volunteers.
“I am always blown away by how many people are willing to give of their time,” said Dorak. “It is truly humbling to sit back and see that happen.”
The volunteers generally work three-hour shifts, but some feel called to go well beyond that. “I have seen several times when someone will work their shift, and then immediately come back and sign up to work again,” said Dorak.
The day shifts are filled with people of all ages, and the overnight shifts are held down by a group of college students from The Bridge Church in Oxford, Ohio.
“The volunteers are the key to it all,” said Dorak.
Looking back … and ahead
Interestingly, the concept of the Jesus Tent sprang forth from water — as in, bottled water.
In the summer of 2001, when Bonnaroo experienced its first significant attendance boom, the city of Manchester was woefully ill-prepared for the massive influx of visitors.
The result was total gridlock in the streets of Manchester, and the traffic tie-ups spilled over onto the highways, too.
Brenton Cox, the lead pastor at First Baptist, Manchester, felt moved to reach out to the stranded drivers, many of whom were trapped on the road for hours. So Cox came up with a plan: For several hours each day, church members went into the streets, moving from car to car, passing out bottled water.
First Baptist continued this ministry each summer during the early years of Bonnaroo’s success.
Eventually, the traffic problems in Manchester were eased when city officials developed new-and-improved routes for the festival-goers. Cox, however, felt called to maintain an outreach to the Bonnaroo attendees.
The concept of an evangelism tent soon came about — and the idea turned into a reality in 2006, when the “More Than Music” tent made its debut.
Nine years later, by popular demand, the name was changed. “We were aware that many of the ‘Bonnaroovians’ referred to us as ‘The Jesus Tent,’ ” said Dorak. “So, in 2015, we decided to do some rebranding, and we officially changed our name to the Jesus Tent.”
But while the name has changed, the focus has not. The project has remained true to its bottled-water roots, with the continued goal of meeting people’s need.
Including, most importantly, their need for Jesus.