YEC celebrates 50 years of life-changing decisions, remains focused on gospel
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Keith Watson has seen the Youth Evangelism Conference from almost every angle. He first started going to the event as a boy in the 1970s, and has rarely missed the annual gathering in the years since.
Watson, 53, traveled to downtown Nashville again this year to be a part of the conference, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 9-10 at Municipal Auditorium.
Watson, pastor of Council Baptist Church in Charleston, said he enjoys the conference now as much as ever.
“I have attended YEC as a student, a pastor’s kid, a student leader, a youth minister and now as a pastor,” said Watson. “I get just as excited now as I did 40 years ago.”
Watson is one of many YEC loyalists who make a point of clearing their calendars each year in order to be a part of a ministry that has been impacting teenage lives for the past five decades. The conference, put on by the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, has hosted more than one million attendees since its inception in 1969.
“I’ve been coming for 20 years — and I just love what YEC stands for,” said Sarah Beck, whose husband, Keith, is the youth pastor at Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville. “It’s a great place for students to build their faith and to become fired up and passionate about going back into their schools and witnessing to their friends.”
This year’s conference featured an opening-night message from evangelist Clayton King, along with praise music from the YEC Worship band, and a special time of recognition for YEC coordinator Kent Shingleton. (See related story.)
The weekend also included performances by The Skit Guys — a two-man Christian comedy/drama team — and a message from featured speaker Deron Whitehead.
There were 654 first-time professions of faith and 265 rededications during the weekend, providing the latest evidence of the powerful impact of YEC.
“I love YEC for what it did for me in my life, and for how it drew me closer to Christ in my own personal walk when I was younger,” said Wes Depew, the youth pastor at Dixie Hill Baptist Church in Bolivar. “In the last few years, as a youth leader and youth pastor, I’ve loved seeing what God has done in the lives of the students I’ve brought.”
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YEC has experienced all kinds of changes during its 50-year run. The conference has been hosted at five different venues — Belmont, Vanderbilt, Opryland, Murphy Center and Municipal Auditorium — and has featured an ever-changing lineup of featured guests and artists.
But through it all, YEC has always held true to its roots. It has followed the simple formula of making sure that “the main thing stays the main thing.”
Watson, the pastor at Council Baptist Church, said YEC’s single-minded focus has been evident through the years.
“The location has changed, the music and speakers have changed, and I have changed,” Watson said, “but the mission of YEC has never wavered. The commitment of sharing the good news of Jesus has always been the central theme of YEC.”
That same message is also crystal clear in the music. The YEC band performs powerful worship songs — and they do it loudly and with enormous energy. The songs are occasionally accompanied by pyrotechnics.
“Over the years, the music has really progressed and it really reaches the students,” said Depew, who first started attending the conference as a child. “I know there might be some old guys who don’t like the music. But it reaches the kids. And everything that is done here is geared for the students. And that’s what I love about it.”
The conference has a legacy of impressive guests.
The legendary Jerry Clower was among the main attractions in the early years of the event. Also, renowned evangelist Jim Wilson and his long-time musical sidekick, Larry McFadden, were also among the featured guests in the early years.
The old, old story
Shingleton — who has served as the YEC coordinator for the past 20 years and is now passing the torch to TBMB evangelism events specialist Jay Barbier — said he and the other YEC leaders have always worked diligently to ensure that the conference is entertaining and engaging for teenagers.
However, Shingelton and the other leaders have made certain that the true purpose of the event never gets lost amid the details of production.
“There was a time, maybe 10 to 15 years ago, when we, as leaders, felt like, ‘Man, we have to have the big bands, the big artist, the famous Christian musicians,” said Shingleton. “But we quickly realized, hey, if a youth leader wants that, he can take his kids to the Christian concert. And so, I think the key to YEC’s success has been our unwavering dedication to the gospel.”
Barbier, who was introduced at this year’s conference, said he can hardly wait to see what God has in store for the conference in the years ahead.
“I’m pumped about the opportunity to lead YEC,” he said. “This is our chance for thousands of youth to hear and respond to the gospel.”
Barbier said that YEC’s track record of reaching teenagers for Christ “gets me dreaming of what all we can do to spread the name and fame of Jesus.”
Behind the scenes
Each year at the conference, Dan Ferrell can be found at his customary station, selling T-shirts in the concourse. He has served as a volunteer at YEC since the early 1970s.
Ferrell and the other volunteers are the unsung heroes of the event, spending 8-10 hours at the arena. Still, many of the pro-bono employees say that working the event is no sacrifice.
“I always have a great group that I get to work with,” said Ferrell, the TBMB production services manager. “It’s a lot of fun. And, while the sessions are going on, you can leave your table and go inside the auditorium and worship.”
For many of the volunteers, working the event has become a family affair.
Jennifer Ferguson, a member at Cross Roads Cowboy Church in Bon Aqua, has worked the T-shirt tables for the past 13 years. Her daughter has joined her for the past 12 years and her son for the past 11.
“It’s something we look forward to every year,” said Ferguson. “We make a point of coming every year, and we really plan for it to make sure we save the dates.”
Ferrell’s daughter, Alex, worked with him at the T-shirt table for 10 years.
“It was a very special time for us,” said Ferrell. “Just to get to see her worshiping, and to get to worship with her, was very memorable for me.”
In many cases, attending YEC has become a tradition that goes from one generation to the next.
“Having started coming as a student myself, and now to be coming back with my own students, it’s really neat to see God work in their lives the same way that He was working in my life 20 years ago,” said Beck.
“Someone cared enough to bring me as a kid, and I have brought kids belonging to others and I have brought my own kids,” said Watson. “Without YEC, tens of thousands of kids would have never heard the gospel of Jesus. Praise God for YEC!”
Barbier, the incoming coordinator, said his prayer is that the conference will continue to be a vibrant force that leads to lives being changed for many years to come.
“My desire is to make YEC the pivotal Evangelism Event for Youth that our churches can’t wait to attend and participate in,” he said.