Winterfest: Still Relevant After 37 Years

Knoxville, TN–This past weekend at Smoky Mountain Winterfest a group of 61 volunteers were recognized as “Unsung Heroes,” those who have been behind the scenes filling every volunteer capacity from running sound, hosting guests, or helping with security. The group represented a small fraction of the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of pastors, youth leaders, laypersons and parents who have assisted in growing and managing Winterfest since it began 37 years ago as a band of five youth groups that came together in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a time of refreshing and renewal.

On March 8-10, Thompson-Boling Arena on the campus of the University of Tennessee was packed with over 12,000 delegates. Guest musical artists included the powerful People and Songs and the world-renowned Planetshakers from Australia. Opening each night was Kaylee and Erica, daughters of Jamie and Judy Jacobs Tuttle, who are carrying the torch to the next generation. K&E’s album, “Heaven Is All Around,” recently debuted at #9 on the iTunes gospel and contemporary Christian downloads.

Russell Evans of Planetshakers (right) leads in a powerful message on Saturday night (click photo to enlarge)

Yes, Winterfest is geared toward youth. Weave your way through the packed arena corridor and you’ll note by far most are between 13 and 17. Take in the pre-service activity and you’ll see teenagers “running the gauntlet” through tubes, boxes and inflatable pools, finding a flag in whipped cream and weaving in and out of a maze of styrofoam barriers on a tricycle. However, when the countdown to service begins, the atmosphere transforms into a raucous set of worship where thousands of middle and high school students can’t wait to rush the stage where they spend the next hour in a time of full-on praise. When the featured speakers take the stage, there is no mass exodus to grab a snack or buy a souvenir. The cavernous arena of spectators sits with rapt attention as the Word is delivered by such guests as Pastor John Gray, Reggie Dabbs, or Sam and Russell Evans, founders of Planetshakers. In similar fashion, thousands stream down the aisles to rush the stage at the end of service when the call for commitment is given. Those same young people who minutes earlier were “mob-worshipping” were now on their knees. A scan of the stands reveals pockets of youth gathered around one another, seeking God in a refreshingly uninhibited fashion.

At the same time you realize Winterfest is not just for Generation Z. While parents, youth leaders and chaperones tend to remain in the stands, they are just as engaged as their youthful counterparts, setting the example for worship and praise and stepping in as counselors where needed.

It might be assumed that Winterfest is one big Church of God youth camp, but this outreach of music and Word is much more. For example, approximately 2,500 of the 12,000+ participants at Smoky Mountain Winterfest were not Church of God. According to registration figures, there were youth groups from the classical Pentecostal movements such as Assemblies of God and Pentecostal Holiness, but there were also Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and more. All of them experienced an unashamedly Spirit-filled move of God throughout the weekend.

After almost four decades, it might be expected that a concept like Winterfest could have run its course, but for anyone who has attended one of the regional events in the past year, you realize the impact that Winterfest leaves on the thousands of young people who are saved, filled with the Spirit, recommit their lives, or set on a course for future ministry.

According to Director of Youth and Discipleship David Blair, over 100 church groups registered for Smoky Mountain Winterfest that did not attend last year.

“We have experienced two years of back-to-back growth,” Blair stated. “We are grateful for the increase, especially with so many similar event choices these days.” Blair also noted that the livestream reached over 70,000 for the weekend.

When you experience Winterfest live, you are encouraged for the future of our young people. While the atmosphere and decibel level rivals any sports event or rock concert they may attend, at Winterfest that same emotion is infused with Pentecost to powerfully equip and inspire the Jeremiah Generation. Winterfest has earned a solid reputation in the on-going evangelistic efforts of the Church of God and has launched the ministries of thousands of young people.

As the Lord tarries, may the next 37 years of Winterfest be even more effective for the Kingdom.

—-Cameron Fisher, Church of God Communications

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