Several months ago, a church in Seattle had a weekend revival. Then the meetings from that event carried over into the following week. And the next week after that. By the time they hit the fifth week, the church was getting bigger crowds, the event had its own hashtag (#westcoastrumble) and the nightly meetings were being broadcast online.
Similar revival meetings in San Diego were making this look like a regional phenomenon. By the eighth week, I decided this just might be news and so I started pitching a story about it. Religion News Service was interested and they ran my story April 19.
This got me to thinking about revivals, mass meetings and movements, all of which are notoriously hard for a secular newspaper to cover well. Just what does constitute a large religious movement? Crowds? Miraculous healings? The fact that it’s spread to other locales?
Which is why I was interested to hear of a similar revival happening in West Virginia. The religious media, in this case CBN, were the first to arrive on the scene after a mere three weeks. CBN began with:
MINGO COUNTY, W. Va. -- There's a new sound coming forth from the hills of southern West Virginia -- a sound many prophets have foretold but haven't heard until now.
For the past three weeks, the large sports complex in the small coal-mining town of Williamson, West Virginia, has been filled to the rafters with people crying out for God.
It all started when Tennessee evangelist Matt Hartley visited a local church for what was supposed to be a three-day revival service but it just kept going.
This is what happened in Seattle, where there was a three-day meeting that never stopped. Two of the main preachers at the Seattle meetings were revivalists from Nashville. Hartley, the preacher in West Virginia, is from Shelbyville, also in central Tennessee.
"This is not man-made, charismatic, hyper spiritual," Hartley told CBN News. "This is the presence of God that is overwhelming us, that is being released upon hungry people that are tired of just stagnant Christianity and "safe" church."
"They want Jesus more than anything else. That's why they're here," he said.
Hartley also spoke at the local high school where revival seemed to break out among the students. "Four-hundred to 450 students got saved at Mingo Central from Matt Hartley coming in and speaking at a voluntary prayer club," Katie Endicott, with the Mingo Central High Prayer Club, told CBN News.
So when did the local newspaper get involved?
When someone threatened a lawsuit, that's when. From a May 8 article in the Williamson Daily News:
CINDERELLA – Mingo County Schools has changed school policies regarding student religious groups after activities led by evangelist Matt Hartley at Mingo Central High School (MCHS) were determined to be in violation of state and federal law.
During the week of April 13, religious sermons conducted at MCHS, caught the attention of the religious watchdog organization, The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF).
On April 18, correspondence was sent from Patrick Elliot, FFRF Staff Attorney, to Robert Bobbera, the Superintendent of Mingo County Schools regarding unconstitutional religious assembly.
On April 17, a Fox TV affiliate out of Charleston covered the meetings as something that was “positive and uplifting” for the community and on May 12, the NBC affiliate ran its version of the events. The latter was more a crowd story, saying that “thousands” have been attending revival services since mid-April.
Mingo County, by the way, is in the far southwestern tip of West Virginia. Back in 2011, I spent several days in the county next door: McDowell County, counted as having some of the shortest life expectancies in the country. Mingo County is at the bottom of the state’s 55 counties, along with McDowell, in terms of poverty.
We're talking about the non-touristy part of the state where the death of the coal industry has resulted in much of the populace leaving the area for better jobs. Both countries are isolated and far from an interstate, which may be why reporters aren’t falling over themselves to get there. Not surprisingly, this revival’s Twitter hashtag is #coalfieldawakening.
Trying to figure out what’s genuine and what’s a flash in the pan is a tough call. Reporters don’t want to be left out of a genuine story, yet revivals can fade out as quickly as they started, leaving the media outlet look like it’s been snookered by a non-event. Then again, the world-famous Azusa Street revival 110 years ago in Los Angeles went on for four years.
I wouldn’t say the media are exactly rushing to cover these events in San Diego, Seattle or West Virginia. Decision magazine, out of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has the most recent report on the West Virginia meetings and I’m guessing secular outlets -– if they are aware of what’s going on -- are waiting to see if students will continue to gather over the summer.
To even start comprehending some of these revivals, reporters need at least a passing familiarity with the lingo and theology of the charismatic movement, which is what’s influencing the West Coast meetings. The revivalists themselves are a fascinating group, as a lot of them are in their 30s and not a few are from the greater Nashville area. Their mentors, who are in their upper 50s or 60s, are related to the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a movement described in a recent Christianity Today cover story.
Definitely find some academics who are familiar with the religious personalities behind these revivals. My own research turned up two professors at Biola University who had written books on the NAR and were quite helpful. Start looking up the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Periscope accounts of leaders and churches in these movements. A lot of them know each other, swap pulpits with each other and post lots of personal information on these sites.
I don’t think journalists go wrong showing up at these revivals after a decent time – at least a month – has elapsed and they show no sign of stopping. Come sooner when there’s push back, such as someone threatening lawsuits, arrests, etc. Some of these groups have little experience dealing with the media, so it takes some time to gain their trust.
And who knows, if these meetings turn out to last a long time, your articles will have been among the first published about them and everyone will be referring to your work to inform their stories.
That's not a bad place to be. The worst thing that could happen is to miss the story entirely.