Christian conference draws thousands

Dec. 31, 2012 @ 11:13 PM

Some people come to Gatlinburg around the holidays to see snow. Others come to see almost a dozen of their favorite Christian bands and artists perform during a winter youth conference.

That's what around 20,000 mostly teenage Christians came to the Gatlinburg Convention Center for on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the Xtreme Winter Conference. Of course, that's not all they came for.

"Especially this time of year, people are looking for something great to do," said Eddie Carswell, one of the organizers of the event. "They can come here and be encouraged and listen to great Christian music and hear some people speak that encourage their hearts and honor the Lord."

The three-day event, which is organized by NewSong, a Christian band formed at Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Ga., featured Christian artists, speakers, activities and fellowship.

Carswell, one of the founding members of NewSong, explained that the band organizes several projects like Xtreme Winter Conference, including Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, the country's largest annual Christian music tour.

They've held the Xtreme event in Gatlinburg for the past 16 years, with four three-day sessions each year. Three of the sessions are held at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, another at the Pigeon Forge Convention Center.

Carswell said Sevier County is an ideal location for the event because of the variety of things to do.

"It becomes a destination as well as a conference," Carswell said. "It brings some extra meaning to get to come."

The conference is advertised to youth groups and churches across the country. Carswell said most of the attendees are bused in and stay at hotels around the convention center.

After check-in Thursday, the conference kicked off with music from Thousand Foot Krutch and Casting Crowns, as well as words from speaker Nick Hall. Saturday culminated with a performance by Tenth Avenue North.

"They hear Christian music, they hear speakers encouraging them, they have fun and hang out with their friends — those kinds of things," Carswell said. "It's music, ministry and speakers."

The conference also included sessions for youth pastors, in the hope that they also leave inspired, Carswell said.

"It's been an encouragement to students, the youth groups and youth pastors," he said. "Hopefully people leave here refreshed and excited. It's been a blessing to get to do it, and it's fun for us."

The second three-day session at the Gatlinburg Convention Center began Saturday after the first one ended, and will run through today.

rhargett@themountainpress.com