DULUTH — Outside the Infinite Energy Arena Thursday afternoon, teenagers were riding carnival rides, eating snow cones and playing a variety of games including bowling with oversized bowling balls and pins.
Inside the arena, the first evening of Forward Conference began with a version of “The Dating Game,” on stage in which a student questioned prospective dates he could not see. That was followed by a jousting competition in which representatives from four “tribes” began a competition that will last throughout the weekend.
This is not your typical church youth conference.
“This is a weekend where youth groups from all across the country come and they laugh and they have fun,” said Brock Byrd, youth pastor at the Gainesville campus of Free Chapel, which has been doing the event since 2006.
Outside is just a small taste of what happens in service. The reason why we do games and rides and big bowling pins that you can set up and knock over is because we believe that a life lived for God is the most fun life you can live. We’re all about having fun and living life to the fullest. We come here to experience God in a fun way.”
One of those experiences is the “tribe wars” with competition between four tribes named Ice, Quake, Cyclone and Lit. The estimated 13,000 students and adults at the event were assigned to one of the tribes when they registered.
Points are awarded for competitions as well as the spirit and enthusiasm of each tribe. The winning tribe gets “bragging rights” until next year, according to Byrd.
“People will paint up in colors and they’ll be screaming for their tribe,” Byrd said. We’ll have massive battles on stage. They’ll be knocking themselves off ledges and everybody goes crazy to see which tribe at the end of the weekend is going to be hailed the victor.”
Byrd said the games and other activities are there to break down walls and give students a chance to encounter God.
“The purpose behind tribe wars and the games is just to have people open themselves up to us,” he said. “Once they’re having fun, they say, ‘I can trust this place; I can have fun in this place.’ It’s a tool that God gives us for people to tear down their walls, to lower their defenses. To me, it allows God to be able to speak to them and move into them.”
Thursday’s opening night featured the internationally known Hillsong United band from Australia.
Hillsong singer Joel Houston was also the featured speaker for the night. Other speakers during the weekend include Reggie Dabbs, who speaks in public schools and church events around the country, and Jentezen Franklin, pastor of Free Chapel.
Jacob Thomas, a 2016 Gainesville High graduate who attends Free Chapel College and is studying to be a youth minister, is serving as a host and volunteer for the conference for the first time. He said the event has been life-changing for him, particularly last year.
“I was living a really bad life, hanging out with the wrong people and last year at Forward Conference changed my life,” said Thomas, who added that he started coming to the conference when he was 13.
“Pastor Franklin talked about looking at yourself in the mirror and living for God and stop trying to live like other people want you to live,” he added. “Right then and there I changed my life. This week makes a full year of me being clean from any drugs or anything that I’ve ever experienced. I haven’t had the desire to go back to any of those things.”
Camille Barrett, who also attends Free Chapel College and the church’s Gainesville campus, recalled a time when the conference made a difference in her life.
“I remember going in, and I was just down and didn’t know why I was there,” said Barrett, who wants to work with children’s ministry. “Pastor Jentezen Franklin preached a message. I called my mom and said, ‘It’s like he went inside of my head and made a sermon about everything I was going through.’ That’s where I decided I wanted Jesus to be my main focus. If it wasn’t for Forward Conference, I don’t think I would be in ministry school.”
She added that the tribes serve to help everyone have a place and purpose in a conference with thousands of people.
“I think what makes it so special is we have the tribes and the different things that incorporate unity; you still feel included,” she said. “For someone like me who’s really shy, that’s important.”
Byrd added that the different atmosphere of a youth conference is good for spiritual growth.
“There’s something special that happens when you get out of your normal environment, when you’re away from your parents,” Byrd said. “I was actually in high school when they started this and attended the conference. It spoke to me that I’ve never had more fun than this in my life. I don’t have to go searching the world to have fun. I can find it with God.
“Church doesn’t have to be boring; church doesn’t have to be stuffy; church doesn’t have to be quiet. Church can be loud.”