Current research indicates that church membership, and church activity is decreasing. The latest statistics suggest that millennials are skeptical of churches and the number of young people leaving the church once they hit college is at an all-time high. But for all the negative and worrisome numbers, there’s a glimmer of hope, a lifeline, a heart-beat—The American faith-based youth conference complete with energetic speakers, concert worship teams and fervent calls to action, still has a pulse.
Evangelical youth conferences for Christian faith groups of all types burst onto the scene in the early eighties, and while some have fallen victim to changing times and culture, many are still thriving and some are expanding.
Barna research suggests that Americans are practicing their faith less within the walls of the physical church, but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe or that they’re not connecting spiritually in other venues. In fact, the same research shows that the vast majority of Americans (75%) pray regularly, and more than a third still read their Bibles outside their regular church services.
Separate research indicates the top two priorities of youth leaders are discipleship and building relationships. When asked to list the top five activities essential for building relationships necessary for effective discipleship–outside regular youth group meetings–mission work and camps were the top cited priorities, but 23% listed large youth conferences as effective.
Mission trips may be considered more effective for establishing relationships that connect faith to service, but much of the latest research shows America’s youth have gotten way too busy for them. That trend of general “busyness” is an impediment to both discipleship and relationship building. In fact, youth leaders overwhelming listed “youth busyness” and “lack of parental involvement” as their two greatest challenges. So while mission trips, may be ideal opportunities for spiritual growth, and relationship building, youth and families have much less time or willingness to travel long distances to devote a week or more to missions.
Youth conferences on the other hand, remain a viable option for church youth groups and families to get away for short weekends together, and while such conferences have had to evolve in one way or another through the years, their focus is the same.
Such is the case with Hearts on Fire, a mainstay youth conference in Pigeon Forge, TN that has experienced tremendous growth over the last three decades. According to Hearts on Fire Founder, Scott Carter “The message stays the same and will always be the same. God loves us and He sent His Son to draw us into a personal relationship with Him. The methods however have changed, especially in the area of music. Thirty years ago, there just wasn’t a lot of contemporary Christian music like there is today” that appealed to young people.
Carter’s “Hearts on Fire” began in 1986, with 150 attendees, and with Carter serving as speaker and even cook. Through the years HOF attendance has grown to thousands. The 2016 Hearts on Fire conference drew 12, 049 youth from around the southeast. Carter who has been involved in faith-based missions around the US believes the success of Hearts on Fire lies in its mission and says he finds no greater joy than watching God touch teenagers’ lives. “Mission work can start right where you are and for Hearts on Fire that’s here in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The whole purpose of Hearts on Fire is to share the Gospel with middle school, high school and college-age young people and challenge them to a dynamic walk and commitment in Christ.”
That mission coupled with Scott Carter’s years of experience has been a formula for continued growth and success. The growth of the conference has allowed him to bring in some of the top speakers and top artists in the Christian music industry. The 2016 conference brought a lineup that included speaker Clayton King, For King and Country, Lauren Daigle, and the comedy-drama duo, The Skit Guys.
Though times have definitely changed, Hearts on Fire doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult issues or calls for unity within the church. According to Carter that is purposeful. “It’s very purpose driven. We live in a time when things seem so divided and polarized. Racism, politics, and such have created a lot of dissension but in Christ we are One. We are family and God’s family loves big!”
Perhaps loving big is what keeps people coming back to Hearts on Fire year after year, and perhaps that’s the reason, they’re able to expand in the coming year. Hearts on Fire will hold its first student conference in Charleston, West Virginia in August 2017. An excited Carter believes this expanded vision is all a part of a bigger plan. “Thirty years ago, I had no idea God was birthing something that would grow like Hearts on Fire has. Each year He expanded my vision and now here we are.”
Youth conferences remain a place where relationships are enriched and built over weekends, and where young people find a spiritual connection that will hopefully burn within them for a lifetime. Successful Christian conferences around the country are evidence of their staying power, and Scott Carter is not surprised and encourages people to keep up the good work.
“There are a lot of great things taking place among evangelicals. I’m no expert but I would encourage all believers to keep on keeping on, to never give up, and to love big and love loud. I believe inside the heart of everyone is a place that’s meant to be filled with Gods love.”
But Carter, who also serves as Youth Pastor for First Baptist Church of Sevierville, offers a warning to today’s youth leaders. “We must keep our sins confessed, watch out for lust, power and greed and forgive one another and go forward sharing the Good News” He believes prayer is the key to sustaining the work, “In James 5:16 we read that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. I believe prayer has sustained us. God gets all the glory. It’s never about what we can do, but rather what He alone can do.”
For those who attend them, America’s evangelical youth conferences like Hearts on Fire, could mean the difference between lasting relationships and faith, and hearts that wander away church after high school. It’s more than nostalgia, these conferences offer an opportunity for young people to grow and for many to hear a message they’ve never heard before.
With statistics indicating that today’s youth are struggling with identity, depression, loneliness, and anxiety, opportunities to hear messages of hope and love, and a chance to make a spiritual faith connection, may be why conferences like Hearts on Fire see continued growth.
For Scott Carter, “Nothing is more beautiful than watching this young generation worship with heart and soul…I believe long after I’m gone God will continue to use this conference to draw others to Him.”