Resurrection celebrates 30: Three founders reflect on 1985 idea that exploded

Resurrection celebrates 30: Three founders reflect on 1985 idea that exploded


It could have been called Serendipity or Hullabaloo, the first names they considered.

Instead, the Rev. Don Thomas pulled a Bible from a bookshelf in the Rev. Hugh Kilgore’s office and flipped it open to the gospel of John. The word “Resurrection” seemed to leap from the page, and the three youth pastors serving in Holston’s Cleveland District agreed that God has chosen the title for the spiritual event they were planning.

That was 30 years ago. This year, on Jan. 16-18 and Jan. 23-25 at Gatlinburg Convention Center, Holston Conference and more than 11,000 youth and counselors will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the winter weekend retreat that many look forward to all year.

When Thomas, Kilgore, and the Rev. Steve Blakemore began planning in 1985 the first-ever Resurrection at Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg, they were thrilled when 450 people came for the powerful mix of music and message. Over the years, attendance climbed and Resurrection expanded in ways the three founders admit they could have never dreamed.

Last weekend, The Call talked with Thomas, age 63, Blakemore, 58, and Kilgore, 56, to gain more insight into the mega event that has become one of Holston Conference’s proudest ministries. 


THE CALL: Thirty years is a long time. What surprising changes have occurred since that very first Resurrection?

DON THOMAS: The technology. Back in the early days, we just showed up in Gatlinburg. Now we have the ability to share this ministry through social media and livestreaming, and it’s having an impact across the world.

HUGH KILGORE: It’s been an exercise of faith that we’ve been able to remain current and engaged not only with young people, but we’ve stayed engaged with the Holy Spirit. The purpose has never been to be wrapped up in my own ego or myself. Our purpose has always been to reach young people for God, above all, above all. 


THE CALL: We hear so many stories about how people’s lives have changed because they attended Resurrection. Tell us one of those stories.

DON THOMAS: One of the most notable stories we’ve heard about is Shane Claiborne [founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia]. He was a reluctant attender from the youth group at First Maryville Church. He wasn’t initially there to meet Jesus, but Resurrection had an impact on him and was an important part of his spiritual formation. And of course, later he came back as a speaker.

STEVE BLAKEMORE: I think of Laura [Lambert] McLean, who as a youth was called into ministry at Resurrection, and now she is our main link to Holston Conference [as a youth ministry coordinator]. We hear of a multitude of stories, but it’s been a blessing to watch Laura come up through high school, college, as a youth minister, and now she’s on the conference staff.


THE CALL:  When you think back to that first Resurrection in 1986, who was there? What faces do you remember?

STEVE BLAKEMORE: I’m positive that David Graves was there as a youth minister from Hixson United Methodist Church, and Stephen DeFur was in his youth group. I think Dennie Humphreys was there. You know, we prayed for 250 people to attend so that we could break even on the finances. When 460 came we had money left over, so we thought, “Maybe God wants us to keep doing this.”

DON THOMAS: I think I’ve seen a photograph with Nathan Malone sitting in it.


THE CALL: There have been so many praise bands and speakers throughout the years. Which ones are most memorable for you?

HUGH KILGORE: Some of the speakers I’ve developed close relationships with are Duffy Robbins and Rodney Smothers. I’m excited to have Reggie Dabbs back as this year’s speaker. I have a very strong relationship with James Ward. He very much helped us to grow, and he helped us to develop an understanding of what it meant to have a worship band.

STEVE BLAKEMORE: I’m grateful for the ministry and music of James Ward. For eight years he really helped us grow this event. I appreciate Chris Tomlin who was our band when he was first starting out. Starfield was with us for three years … Duffy Robbins, a professor of youth ministry at Eastern University, was our speaker for four or five years … and also, Helen Musick from Asbury [Theological Seminary]. She was a very subdued presenter but nonetheless very powerful.

DON THOMAS: James Ward, out of Chattanooga, was our music artist for 10 years. He’s giving a concert on Saturday, Jan. 24, this year. Maybe not the youth, but a lot of the adults are excited to go see him because he really impacted them through the years.


THE CALL: What is your personal favorite part of the Resurrection weekend?

DON THOMAS: It’s the annual church family reunion – just seeing a parade of people come by – adults, youth, pastors, lay leaders, from all the church connections over the years. It’s like a high school reunion where Jesus is the reason for the reunion.

STEVE BLAKEMORE: I have two favorites. The first is Saturday night, when we give the invitation to make some kind of response to God. It’s very moving to watch the adult counselors give such tender care and prayer to these young people who are moved by the Holy Spirit. The second is the celebration of Holy Communion on Sunday morning. It’s not just the size of the crowd that I find moving, but the kind of extraordinary reverence that settles on the participants, even though it takes place in the great hall.

HUGH KILGORE: I love every aspect. There are a host of volunteer ministers – lay folk who have served over the years, watching the doors, handling the mechanics of Holy Communion or the offering for YSF, manning the desk for registration – all of them serve without a lot of hoopla. They serve without asking for anything. I want to make sure they know they make a difference.


THE CALL: What is something that people don’t know about Resurrection?

STEVE BLAKEMORE: They don’t know about the hours of conversation and meetings that go into, not just planning, but envisioning what we want to do. It’s not like we just show up and somebody flips on the lights. I also don’t know if people realize how much goes into keeping registration as low as it is. We’ve worked a lot of agreements over the years to keep the prices low. For a lot of kids who live in Holston or in other denominations in the hills of Georgia or North Carolina, $40 is a lot of money. Hugh has really worked hard to keep that before us, to be real sensitive to the needs of the small country church.

DON THOMAS: You see the speakers and the bands, but I’m not sure everyone realizes that prayer is a very intentional aspect. We have a very important prayer time, the Youth Leaders Breakfast, on Saturday morning, and there is also a prayer room and a prayer labyrinth offered.

HUGH KILGORE: Resurrection has a powerful partnership with Holston Conference and a whole lot of other people in the Christian faith around the country. I hope we can continue to walk that way and reflect the Kingdom of God and the greater church.


THE CALL: Where is Resurrection going in the next 30 years?

DON THOMAS: It’s going to take the leadership of people beyond me to make it more than just a January weekend. We have an opportunity to reach more people and make it more diverse by repackaging it into smaller events and sharing it through social media.

STEVE BLAKEMORE: We have some dreams, some things we think about. The thing I see most immediately, over the next 10 years, is for the event to actually begin to serve even more as a model for other Methodist groups across the country … to grow the reach of the event and impact the annual conference.

HUGH KILGORE: I have no idea. Fifteen or 30 years ago, my vision wasn’t large enough. God’s vision was much larger … My prayer is that we would remain open to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, whatever it may be.


Thomas is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. Kilgore is senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pulaski, Va. Blakemore is associate professor of philosophy at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss.

For more information about Resurrection 2015, visit or contact the Holston Youth Ministries Office at (865) 690-4080.

See also:

"Resurrection marks 20th year" (The Call, 1/28/05)



Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.