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Bonnaroo’s ‘Jesus Tent’ draws 13,000-plus

MANCHESTER, Tenn. (BP) — Among 80,000 people at Bonnaroo — an annual camping and music festival in Tennessee — quite a few trekked to “The Jesus Tent.”

An estimated 13,000-17,000 Bonnaroovians visited The Jesus Tent for its 24/7 offer of shade cooled by fans, snacks, water, smartphone charging stations, WiFi and conversation — a peaceful oasis at a festival featuring 150-plus acts, ranging from Billy Joel and Earth Wind & Fire to Childish Gambino and Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters, over four days at a 700-acre farm near Manchester, Tenn.

While at The Jesus Tent, many visitors had life-changing conversations, several Baptist volunteers reported. Though many Bonnaroovians held the belief that all paths or religions lead to God, there was openness to talk about it.

The large response to The Jesus Tent makes it the largest evangelistic event of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and possibly of other denominations in the state, said David Evans, the TBC’s evangelism specialist.

Jake Dorak, who directed the outreach, said so many Bonnaroovians visited The Jesus Tent because of what was offered free of charge in contrast to the expensive Bonnaroo vendors offering food and even showers and because the tent was open 24/7. Many concerts are offered at night and into the morning, and fans often stay up to attend them, said Dorak, associate pastor of missions and evangelism at First Baptist Church in Manchester.

“The nations are coming to us, and we have an obligation to tell them about Jesus,” Dorak said of the music fans who flock to Bonnaroo from across the U.S. and from other countries.

Making the 24/7 schedule possible were 13 students from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., who worked the night shifts along with five members of a Tennessee traveling summer missions team coordinated by TBC staff.

A total of about 150 Baptists served as volunteers at The Jesus Tent.

First-timer Brady Wood, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Hixson, Tenn., noted that Baptists go on missions trips beyond Middle Tennessee to do what they can do at Bonnaroo. Wood recounted meeting people at The Jesus Tent from Texas, New Hampshire, Iowa, Kentucky and Ohio.

The pastor also liked the name of the ministry, saying it harkened back to the Jesus Freaks of decades ago.

“In the culture, the world we’re living in, we don’t have time to be subtle,” Wood said.

Donna Berg, a volunteer from Northside Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has been able to serve for several years because she is a schoolteacher on summer break.

This year Berg met three young men from Denmark. Bonnaroovians visited The Jesus Tent from numerous other countries including Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Germany, Italy, Vietnam and Kashmir, as recorded on a map in the tent where visitors could mark their home.

Berg said she is surprised at the Bonnaroovians’ receptivity, even inviting her into their tents as she has walked through the camping areas. She added that she is glad young people can come to The Jesus Tent if they need a “safe spot.”

Jason Ramsey, pastor of Center Grove Baptist Church in Tullahoma, Tenn., and two young men from his church also were among the first-time volunteers.

Ramsey said The Jesus Tent was meeting physical needs first and then offering spiritual help just like Jesus often did.

“The churches getting together is what’s real neat,” the pastor added.

The use of social media was new feature of the ministry this year including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook “to continue the conversation after Bonnaroo,” said Dorak, who started sending out and posting messages in March and ramped it up during the June 11-14 event.

“This is servant evangelism that anybody can do,” Dorak said.

It’s “contagious,” Evans said. “This is on-the-job training in evangelism.” The servant evangelism practiced at The Jesus Tent “is reproducible with any church of any size,” he said.

Evans and Dorak credited the many local Baptists who made the ministry possible, from 92-year-old Tom Womack of Highland Baptist Church in Tullahoma to several 18-year-olds.

Duck River Baptist Association, based in Tullahoma, led by Mark Puckett, director of missions, led the ministry for many years and continued most of its work this year including coordinating transportation for volunteers. Financial support was provided by Tennessee Baptists’ Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions, which allocated $10,000 for the outreach; Duck River association, $3,500; First Baptist Church in Manchester, $1,000; and other churches and individuals.

Connie Davis Bushey is news editor of the Baptist and Reflector (www.tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.