CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. (BP)–On Sept. 15, during “First Class,” a mandatory course for incoming freshmen, nearly a third of Campbellsville University’s incoming students responded to an altar call by Atlanta-based evangelist Rick Gage.
The introductory session is an address about values such as character, leadership and stewardship, and includes small-group mentoring sessions outside a large class meeting. Gage, who was leading a four-day crusade in the city, was invited to speak.
Theology professor Ted Taylor said the morning assembly was not a “hyper emotional” event.
“Gage spoke for 20 minutes, extended an invitation and before we knew it, we had 134 students at the altar,” Taylor said, adding that all but 10 were salvation decisions.
“He spent the next 10 minutes trying to talk them out of it, to make sure they were serious. We took them outside for counseling and talked to them again, and tried to talk them out of it again.”
The response thrilled Skip Alexander, a university trustee and pastor of Campbellsville Baptist Church.
“In my ministry I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a third of anyone committing their life to Christ,” Alexander said. “Especially this generation, which (demographer George) Barna describes as suspicious of Christianity.”
“I was there and I saw life change in this generation that will affect the rest of their years,” Alexander said after the first of two campus appearances by Gage — the second was a general assembly.
“I saw future missionaries that were saved, future pastors, editors and industrial leaders who will be Christians and go on to do great things.”
In all, 164 Campbellsville students made first-time decisions for Christ.
The overall response during the Sept. 14-17 events — which included revival services each night and special visits around the area each day — pleased crusade chairman James Jones, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. But he was especially surprised by the crowd of 8,500 that showed up for the last evening service.
“It was beyond my imagination to see that many people in attendance,” Jones said. “The crowd on [Sept. 17 of 3,500] blew everyone’s imagination.”
The wave of enthusiasm extended to the nearby town of Saint Mary, where 43 prisoners at the Marion Adjustment Center accepted Christ as Savior after evangelist Rick Stanley — who traveled to Campbellsville with Gage — spoke to a crowd of 300.
A graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Stanley said he has seen more than 200 accept Christ during his jail and prison visits the past year.
“They’re wide open,” Stanley said. “Christianity has gotten into what I call a ‘trendier-than-thou’; we can be cool and maybe slip [a mention of] Jesus in there. In prison, it’s that somebody loved them enough to tell them the real deal. You’ve got to talk to ’em and love on ’em and not be judgmental.”
Stanley said the spiritually newborn prisoners share a common experience with the young people who responded during the crusade. Two crushing forces dominate in their lives: the world is beating up on them and the devil is beating them down.
“The young people of America have seen and experienced everything but the power of God,” Stanley said. “When they hear the truth, they’re attracted to it.”
Like the collegians who came to Christ, the prisoners responded to the power of His Truth, he said.
Gage’s ministry counted more than 560 salvations, rededications and other decisions the week of Sept. 14, with 393 professions of faith. He credited the avid response to a year of advance preparation and prayer by the 25 churches that sponsored the crusade.
“They had hundreds of volunteers and had publicity, youth, prayer and counseling committees — all these teams working toward the goal of reaching Taylor County for Christ,” Gage said.
The largest single response came the final evening of the crusade, billed as “Youth Emphasis Night.” More than 200 people answered the altar call, including 132 who accepted Christ.
“We had to put counselors with groups of people,” Alexander said. “I was counseling five at a time.”
The following Sunday, Sept. 21, Alexander welcomed 10 new members to Campbellsville Baptist after baptizing them in an outdoor ceremony at a nearby state park. Seven were converts from the crusade.
Ten other new Christians were baptized in the ceremony, organized by churches in the Taylor County Baptist Association.
“The excitement level was higher than normal and even more so at church,” Alexander said. “We had a huge altar call and many decisions. The outdoor service was almost canceled because of threatening weather, so we’ll have more baptisms this coming Sunday [Sept. 28.]”
The reaction in Campbellsville mirrors what he has seen elsewhere this year, Gage said, adding that this search for God means the need for such evangelistic events has never been greater.
As for how Southern Baptists can prepare to satisfy this hunger, Gage suggested they pray and ask God to give them a burden and a vision to reach their cities, counties and communities.
Gage referred to a statement by Salvation Army founder William Booth that the best method of giving people a burden for the lost would be to take them to hell and allow them to briefly experience absolute separation from God and the fire that can never be quenched.
“That’s the challenge we have in our churches — to have a burden for the lost,” Gage said. “The need to reach our lost communities has never been greater. That’s why I believe the days for evangelism aren’t greater than right now.”
Ken Walker is a freelance writer based in Huntington, W.Va.