MANCHESTER — The Bonnaroo Music Festival is back to full capacity, and so is the Jesus Tent.
Since its beginning in 2002, the Bonnaroo festival has generally attracted an estimated 80,000 to about 100,000 visitors each year to Manchester.
The festival was shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19, followed by an abbreviated fall version in 2021. Last year, the event drew about 60,000, far from its normal capacity.
This year, however, an estimated 100,000 people attended the festival which includes The Jesus Tent, a ministry of First Baptist Church, Manchester; Trinity Baptist Church, Manchester; Duck River Baptist Association and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“This was a bounce back year for Bonnaroo,” affirmed Jake Dorak, associate pastor for missions and evangelism at FBC, and coordinator of the Jesus Tent.
The Jesus Tent grew out of a need local Baptists discovered when the first Bonnaroo Music Festival was held more than two decades ago.
“Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations. Most of the time that means going to them, but sometimes they come to us,” observed Brenton Cox, lead pastor of First Baptist Church, Manchester. He noted that visitors to Bonnaroo come from all over the world and many of them do not know Jesus as Savior or have not had a positive church experience.
“In 2002, the first year of Bonnaroo, Manchester was logistically unprepared for the vast influx of traffic,” recalled Brenton Cox, lead pastor of First Baptist Church, Manchester.
“Our ministry to Bonnaroo that first year began when we saw people sitting in their cars in front of our church for four hours in gridlocked traffic. We were having Vacation Bible School that week, and I asked my wife Cyndi, our VBS director, what we could give them,” he said. “We had orange sherbet ‘push-ups’ left from VBS and we walked down the highway in front of our church handing out free ice cream to the people in the cars,” Cox said.
“In the following years, we distributed hundreds of bottles of water to those waiting in traffic,” Cox said.
The water bottles included printed labels with John 4:13-14, “Jesus said, ‘Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ ’’ (NIV), he said.
As the event continued to grow, a traffic plan eliminated the long car lines so the outreach strategy had to shift, Cox said.
Kerry Walker, then pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Manchester, secured a strategic location for a stationary ministry under a tent in 2007.
The “More Than Music” tent began a ministry of free food, drinks, Bibles, shade and gospel conversations, Cox recalled.
The ministry grew to a joint sponsorship of First Baptist Church, Trinity Baptist, Duck River Baptist Association, and Tennessee Baptist Convention (now TBMB) he continued.
“On social media the Bonnaroovians began calling the ministry “The Jesus Tent,” and we changed the name to reflect their nomenclature,” Cox said.
Cox, who will retire in August as pastor of First Baptist, coordinated the ministry for several years before passing the mantle to Dorak in 2015.
Though not an official part of the Bonnaroo Music Festival, “we have a great relationship and partnership” with the festival’s leadership, Dorak said.
Dorak and Cox estimate that approximately 15,000 people pass through the Jesus Tent each summer. Cox said that number is a “conservative estimate” based on the number of cups that are passed out each year. “Not everyone who visits the tent gets a cup of something to drink,” Cox said.
At this year’s festival, 219 volunteers from four states manned the Jesus Tent and engaged Bonnaroovians in gospel conversations.
“This was probably the best year we have had in nine years,” Dorak observed, noting that more visitors to the tent this year had an openness to spiritual issues that were not as evident in past years.
He noted that those attending the festival would come into the tent and sit down and read the Bibles that were available. “We also had greater participation among attendees in the Sunday worship service,” Dorak said.
As a result of the gospel conversations, 28 people turned in decision cards. “We will find a Southern Baptist church in the city they turned in and ask them to follow up,” Dorak added.
Cox and Dorak are especially appreciative of the partnerships they have had over two decades.
“I am grateful for the willingness of First Baptist Church, Trinity Baptist Church, and other area churches to seize this opportunity,” Cox said, adding, “I am grateful for the vital partnerships of Duck River Baptist Association and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board in this ministry.”
Ryan Keaton, emerging generations specialist for the TBMB, has represented the Board at Bonnaroo for the past two years.
The tent provides a natural environment to have gospel conversations and the several thousand who come through the tent every year have the opportunity to not only leave with some free food or hygiene items, but with a positive experience with Christians.
“This evangelistic effort is a beautiful picture of the cooperative gospel work that can happen through the generous gifts of the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions and the Cooperative Program,” Keaton said.
Cox reflected on the ministry at Bonnaroo. “As I think back over 22 years of ministry at Bonnaroo, I thank God that He entrusted us with the opportunity to touch the lives of now hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.
“Most of all, I am thankful that there are people who came to Manchester for a weekend of music and left with the amazing gift of eternal life.” B&R