Youth Evangelism Conference Leads to 780 Salvations
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — When the lights dimmed, the excitement level spiked inside Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville. After weeks of anticipation, the big moment had arrived.
Then, with an explosion of lights on stage and a rush of adrenaline among the attendees, the 2019 Youth Evangelism Conference came to life. More than 6,000 teenagers, youth ministers and leaders sprang to their feet, joining together with the YEC praise team for a thundering rendition of the praise anthem, “Glorious Day.”
The high-energy opening sequence set the tone for a weekend of worship and evangelism at the annual conference, which is sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and has been held in the Nashville area for 51 years.
This year’s YEC once again proved to be a powerful platform for the gospel. By the time the two-day conference came to a close on the afternoon of March 16, there had been 780 first-time professions of faith.
“YEC 2019 was incredible,” said TBMB evangelism event specialist Jay Barbier, who serves as YEC coordinator. “This conference is all about introducing people to the love of Christ. And from the opening moments to the grand finale, it was all about Jesus.”
Barbier was named YEC coordinator last spring when Kent Shingleton retired from the position after 20 years in the role.
“I’m so honored and humbled to have the opportunity to lead a great event to reach people for Jesus,” Barbier said.
This year’s conference included Wade Morris and Jordan Easley as the featured speakers. The event also included the music of Rush of Fools, and special messages from TBMB director of evangelism Roc Collins and TBMB evangelism team leader David Evans.
Youth groups from all around the state — in addition to several groups from outside Tennessee — came together to form a near-capacity crowd at the spacious arena for the conference, which has drawn more than one million attendees since its inception.
Coming back for more
Although YEC always attracts a long list of first-time attendees, the bulk of the crowd is normally comprised of “repeat customers” — groups and individuals who have developed a tradition of making the trip to Nashville each year for the conference.
Gene Mills, the youth pastor at Pocahontas Baptist Church, is among those who annually attends YEC. He brought a group of 39 to this year’s conference, and noted that the group included six college-aged students, who serve as mentors for the other attendees.
“Over the last nine years, we’ve had some youth saved here (at YEC) every year,” said Mills, who has brought a group to the event each year since becoming the church’s youth pastor in 2011. “And that’s what it is all about.”
Mills noted that the youth “always go back home energized and enthused” about their relationship with Christ.
Richie and Andrea Hickerson, co-leaders of the youth group at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Dresden, have been taking their youth to YEC for the past 16 years, including a 30-member group this year.
“It provides an atmosphere where the kids can get away from home, get away from the distractions, and get involved in the worship,” said Richie. “It’s definitely a chance for the kids to hear the gospel — and that’s the main thing, of course.”
Andrea added that she is always amazed that the youth run into familiar faces at the conference.
“What’s really neat is, even though we are three hours from home, our kids come here and see others kids from their school,” said Andrea. “It’s like we come all the way from across the state to wave at each other,” she added with a laugh.
Municipal Auditorium has hosted YEC for the past several years. The conference has also been held at several other venues through the years, including Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, Belmont, Opryland and the Murphy Center on the MTSU campus.
Barbier said the evangelistic success of this year’s event was the result of long hours of hard work put in by an almost countless number of individuals.
“It’s been an entire year of dreaming, vision casting, prayer and planning,” said Barbier. “Honestly, the last month of preparation has been mentally exhausting and invigorating at the same time. … The fun for me was establishing a team that could take this event to the next level. Our TBMB staff helped take the lead and they knocked this out of the park.”
Why it’s appealing
What is it about YEC that causes youth leaders — and more importantly, the youth themselves — to want to return year after year? The answer to that question is almost as lengthy as the number of churches who attend.
Andrea McDaniel, the wife of student pastor Michael McDaniel from Hilldale Baptist Church in Clarksville, said she believes part of the appeal of YEC is that it gives the students an opportunity to feel the support of other Christians.
“YEC builds community among the youth,” said McDaniel, who helped oversee a group of 42 students from Hilldale this year. “They get the chance to worship Christ with a ton of other believers, and I think that is special for a teenager. It’s easy for Christian teenagers to feel like they are alone — but when they get to identify with other believers, and see others worshiping with them, they love that.”
McDaniel and her husband have been at Hilldale for five years, but she noted that the youth group has attended YEC for many years prior to that.
Toni Dunville, who also works with the youth at Hilldale, said the format of YEC is tailor-made for teenagers: “Even though it only lasts a short amount of time, that can be a good thing, because kids can lose their focus (at longer events),” she said. “A short trip is a nice little get-away.”
Another appealing element of YEC revolves around the conference’s schedule. The opening-night session usually ends around 10:30 p.m., and many youth groups will stay in town that night.
“Getting to spend the night in Nashville — that’s an exciting deal for the kids,” said Adam Hickey, youth leader from First Baptist Church, Sparta. He then added with a smile, “And they get to go to Waffle House at midnight, so that’s always an experience for them.”
Hickey noted that the youth group from FBC Sparta has attended YEC “for the past 15 or 20 years.” He said this year’s trip was a little different because the church’s youth pastor, Kevin Weldon, had to miss the event after coming down with the flu earlier in the week.
Dalton Noe, youth pastor at Circle C Cowboy Church in Morristown, was attending the event for the first time. Noe, who has been youth pastor since the start of the school year, brought a group of 14 students.
“For our group, it’s something different,” said the 20-year-old Noe. “Being at a big retreat like this, it’s something the kids really look forward to. It’s away from their parents, away from their normal, everyday lives. And they get a chance to get out, be themselves and have fun in a Christian environment. And that’s definitely a big draw.”
The YEC leadership team has “changed things up” through the years to keep the event fresh. But the central theme of the conference has never wavered: It’s always been about bringing youth to Jesus.
And that message will continue in the years to come.
“Keeping the focus on Jesus is one thing that will never change about YEC under my leadership,” Barbier said. “The conference will always be about giving students an opportunity to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In addition to the first-time professions of faith, many other life-changing decisions are made at YEC each spring.
This year, 61 individuals surrendered to a call to the ministry during the conference.
William Burton, ethnic church planting specialist for the TBMB, has first-hand knowledge of the impact that YEC can make. Burton surrendered to a call to the ministry while attending YEC as a youth.
“I was 18-years-old when I attended the 1985 Tennessee Baptist Youth Evangelism Conference with my church, Mill Springs Baptist, in Jefferson City,” he said. “I was a college freshman, trying to figure out what God wanted for my life. In midst of 10,000-plus teenagers, I heard God say to me ‘what is your problem; why are you not serving me?’ ”
Burton said his entire life-path changed because of the decision he made that weekend.
“Because of YEC and God’s call on my life, I changed my major to church music and enrolled at Carson-Newman University,” Burton said. “I have since served in ministry as music minister, youth pastor, missionary to Venezuela with IMB, pastor, church planter and now serve Tennessee Baptists as the ethnic church planting specialist.”
Burton is a prime example of YEC’s exponential evangelism, as the decision by one individual ultimately leads to many salvations.
“When the evangelized become the evangelizers, that’s great commission living,” said Barbier. “Our dream is to get the students to know Jesus and make Him known.”
Burton said he is proud to be part of YEC’s legacy. And he’s even more excited about the future of the event.
“YEC is effective because of intentional prayer, intentional evangelism and intentional challenge to respond to God’s call,” he said. “It takes a commitment from our churches to invest in the lives of the next generation of leaders.
“It has been a 50-year commitment by TBC churches to support YEC through GOTM and the Cooperative Program,” Burton added. “No single church could have the lasting impact that YEC has had over the years, but together we will continue for the next 50 years.”