It's more than the call of Christmas lights or the promise of a parent-free weekend. Twenty-six years after Resurrection was created as an evangelical experience for youth, teenagers are still arriving in Gatlinburg on Friday night and departing 36 hours later with a new or renewed tenderness of heart that may well stay with them for life.
OK -- we admit -- for many youth, Resurrection really is the untethered tease of living it up in a mountain resort with thousands of other freedom-seekers. But what's important is what happens when the Holy Spirit shows up and the Word and music collide over the young and restless gathered at Gatlinburg Convention Center.
"I come to Resurrection because it makes me feel like I'm not alone," says Austin Jenkins, 17, a member at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City District. "God is with me, but so are my friends."
Jenkins first attended Resurrection as 6th grader, but it was his 8th grade year when he was diagnosed with melanoma and first appreciated what the spiritual weekend could offer.
"I had problems with it. I was standoffish," says Jenkins, referring to the cancer. At Resurrection, his youth group surrounded him with prayer and love -- causing him to cry tears of joy then -- and to fight back tears as he tells the story today.
"Now that I'm going into my senior year and thinking about college, this is more than just getting away from parents," said Jenkins, now cancer-free and a member of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries (CCYM). "It's a chance to meet God on your own without having it pounded, pounded, pounded into you."
'Punch him in the mouth'
Last weekend, Jan. 14-16, Holston Conference hosted the first of two Resurrection weekends in Gatlinburg with about 7,300 youth and counselors attending. This weekend, Jan. 21-23, a second batch will come to the Smoky Mountains for a dual-weekend attendance of about 12,000.
The weekend involves four sessions of praise music and messages, with additional music and drama presented by youth groups representing all 12 districts. The final session, on Sunday morning, includes Holy Communion.
When youth aren't worshiping or buying T-shirts and CDs in the convention center, they participate in devotions; relax with their own youth groups in hotels or cabins; or partake of the shopping, dining, and G-rated entertainment of Gatlinburg.
The 2011 theme is John 3:30: "He must become greater and greater, and I must become less."
This year's speaker is Adrian Despres, returning to Resurrection with the same message and props used in 2004 -- but nevertheless effective on a new class of youth. His dorm-room humor and assaults on sin ("I hate Satan. I'm going to punch him in the mouth as hard as I can") seemed to win his young audience's attention.
On Saturday night, Despres encouraged listeners to lie face down in prayer and repentance, which many youth and counselors did. Many were in tears.
According to the Rev. Mark Sexton, pastor at Tazewell Family Worship Center in Tazewell, Va., the youth in his group were amazed by the Saturday night session.
"They said they had never experienced total submission to prayer," said Sexton. "It was awesome to see that many people at the feet of God."
Alexis Boyd, age 10, said Despres' focus on sin caused her to reflect on how she shouldn't fight with her brother, while the praise music of Wayne Kerr was preferable to that of her own church. Boyd attends Hillcrest Baptist in Richlands, Va.
"It was kind of loud," she said of Kerr's band. "I like that."
Brenda Altizer, Hillcrest youth leader, began bringing her Baptist youth to Resurrection in 2010 after one of her members, Junetta Nuckels, was invited to attend with another church. Instead, Nuckels, age 16, encouraged Altizer to lead their group to Gatlinburg.
"I like it because there are a lot of people here, the same age, worshiping God, with a common interest," said Nuckels.
"They see other youth their age who are not ashamed to be Christian," Altizer added.
Tyler Neas, youth ministry director at Kern Memorial UMC, said that Resurrection is influential for young people at varying faith levels.
"If they're riding the fence, then this might get them to make the commitment to Christ," he said. "If they're just coming for the trip to Gatlinburg, this might be where they find God. If they're already in a relationship with Christ, this is where they can go deeper."
Resurrection could be more effective, however, if youth pastors were intentional about building year-round on the spiritual peak that happens each January in a mountain town rimmed with decorative lights, according to the Oak Ridge District youth leader.
"We've got to stop doing our own agenda and start doing their agenda," Neas said.
- Haven't registered but want to attend the Jan. 21-23 session? Download this late registration form and call Holston Youth Ministries at (866) 690-4080.
- Not a teenager but still want a Resurrection-like experience? Divine Rhythm was created in kind for adults ages 18 to 35. Get in on the Jan. 28-30 event in Pigeon Forge.