We woke up at 4:30 a.m. and headed to the Mitchell Church of Christ for a breakfast of eggs, biscuits and gravy, and lots of caffeine prepared for the entire group by Troy Young. As the suitcases were being loaded there was a certain excitement in the air. Some were excited that they soon would be able to go back to sleep during the long drive. Others were excited about making great time (insert lead foot jokes here). Personally, I was excited to be going on my first Winterfest trip, not knowing exactly what to expect. Once breakfast was over we were ready to embark on our journey to Gatlinburg, TN for Winterfest. The group of 23 teenagers and 12 adults piled in to five vehicles and pulled out of the parking lot. The adventure began.
And then the adventure grounded to a halt in Salem, Indiana where the caravan made our first stop to pick up 12 more teenagers and four more adults from the Southern Hills Church of Christ. After a few teens went inside the church to use the bathroom AGAIN the caravan, now consisting of 35 teens, 16 adults, and seven vehicles, was back on the road. We made a few scheduled stops and we pulled in to the hotel parking lot in Gatlinburg at 2:30 p.m.
This was my first Winterfest. I have been a member of the Church of Christ (Bloomfield, Southport, and Mitchell) all of my life. As an 18 year old kid looking at colleges, my mother wanted me to attend Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN which is a Christian University. Looking back, a part of me wishes I had. Growing up in a small town in Indiana and attending a small Church of Christ, I was not exposed to other Church of Christ children. I was smart enough to know there were other children in the world. I also knew there were other Church of Christ congregations. But as a young church-goer I never interacted with other Church of Christ children outside of visiting other churches.
So sitting in the Gatlinburg convention center with about 7,000 other members of the Church of Christ I was in awe. Although Winterfest is geared toward teenagers, I felt like I was there as a 36 year old teenager myself. It was my first experience with a church group this size. I worshipped, sang, prayed, laughed, cried, and had communion with 7,000 brothers and sisters. I was overwhelmed but in a way that felt amazing!
From the Winterfest website...The theme for Winterfest is WEAVE - I will Build My Church. WEAVE is the second part of a four-year series entitled THE WAY. The theme WEAVE emphasizes the importance and connection we must have with the church. This connection is not an option, as many of our young people report. We must be about sharing with our young people how important it is for them to be a part of the church. The goal of the weekend was to produce love, appreciation, commitment, respect, and a priority in our teens as well as renewal for those of us who are older, for the church.
Each of the four sessions we attended was moving. The first session was Friday afternoon after an early morning wake-up and long drive from Mitchell, IN to Gatlinburg, TN. It started out with a comedy group, Bean and Bailey, and they were funny. Growing up in the Church of Christ, I feel like comedy was not seen as a part of 'the church.' I've had this idea that comedians can't also be Christians, especially not in the Church of Christ. I can hear some people saying, "There ain't nothing funny about church." And they are absolutely right but my childhood had me thinking that EVERYTHING related to church had to be somber and totally reverent. No one actually said, "John, there's nothing funny about church and Christians can't be comedians." What's that old saying about actions speaking louder than words? But these guys were clean, funny, AND Christians. Who knew?
Next we sang praise songs and hymns led by Scott Young. I knew most of the songs but I had never heard that many people singing them together. A lot of times I caught myself just listening because it was such a beautiful sound. Words can't capture what it felt like to be in a convention center with 7,000 people singing praise songs. Although we all came from different congregations, we were coming together as a group to worship as one. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the hymns I grew up singing and I cherish those songs. But growing up I was never exposed to praise songs. We sang from the 'red book' (Sacred Selections) and I can remember when my grandfather, an elder at the Bloomfield Church of Christ, first led songs from the new 'blue book.' You could almost hear what some of the members were thinking and I'm pretty sure the phrase, "Brother/Sister So and So is probably rolling over in his/her grave," was uttered around many a family Sunday dinner table after that service.
Chris Seidman led the devotional and his message was inspiring and uplifting. His message about Weaving the church into our lives was just what I needed to hear, as I'm sure others did too. We ended the session with more praise songs and I left the convention center with a great feeling of belonging. Something I'm not sure I've really ever had before when it comes to church.
There was a powerful poet, David Bowden, who shared his gift with us. He captivated the audience with his powerful poems. I shouldn't call them poems. They were words with power, meaning, and mental imagery that I have never been around in any church. His passion was infectious and for a lot of our teens, he was the highlight of the weekend.
Woven in to each session was a story about three teenagers. The male character in this mini-series of sorts was a troubled teen. A hard life of addiction, rejection, and self-doubt had found this boy in a rehab facility, not sure of which way to turn. The two females were there to help and talk to him, as were a counselor and youth minister. The male teen found that he wanted to know more about Jesus and the story of all those who were helping him. He started out skeptical but he also knew deep down that there had to be something more to his life. There had to be something bigger than him and he wanted to know more about it.
Tomorrow I will write about our second day and continue to tell the story of our troubled teen. As good as the first day was, day two blew it out of the water!