Spiritual disciplines emphasized at Winterfest, Gatlinburg
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Will Houghton, 17, is wearing sunglasses and a hat with an emergency-vehicle-style flashing light.
He’s carrying a handwritten sign offering “Free Hugs.”
In case his attire and sign didn’t give it away, he’s having fun — and growing closer to God.
“We call it a holy high,” Houghton said of his youth group’s experience at Winterfest.
Geared toward discipleship, the massive youth retreat features a cappella praise songs, dramatic skits, video presentations and interactive sermons.
Youth groups from Churches of Christ in 27 states are focusing on spiritual disciplines at the 27th annual Winterfest, which kicked off Friday afternoon and wraps up Sunday morning. (The Gatlinburg event follows last month’s Arlington, Texas, version of Winterfest, which drew more than 4,000 young people and adults. The Challenge Youth Conference, also involving Churches of Christ, is set for next weekend in Gatlinburg.)
As church vans and chartered buses clog Gatlinburg’s streets, Winterfest participants — split into early and late groups in the 6,500-seat convention center — assemble in a ballroom that stretches longer than a football field.
During a session Friday night, thousands of teens texted prayers that were displayed on nine big screens in the gigantic ballroom.
“This is one big Jesus party, isn’t it?” Josh Ross, minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., said as he greeted the crowd Saturday night.
“Whew! Whew! Whew!” the audience replied loudly.
Twenty-three teens and sponsors from the First Street Church of Christ in Cordele, Ga., made the 320-mile drive north to Gatlinburg.
The Georgia youth group sponsored four events — including a “Boston Butt” cooking, a car wash, a yard sale and a bake sale — to raise money for the trip.
First Street member Emma Jarrett, 18, said it’s her fifth or sixth time to attend Winterfest.
“There’s so many people, all coming together as one,” Jarrett said of why she returns each year.
“It’s all about Jesus,” agreed Jakelsy Walker, 18, also from Georgia church.