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Christian Conference Centers: Versatile Venue Draws Diverse Crowds
By: Carol Pappas

In Alabama, they call it "the Shocco experience." In North Carolina, it's "a mountain of faith." In the Midwest, it is that place to restore, renew and reconnect.

They are among the country's most versatile venues for holding meetings, conferences and retreats, and they draw hundreds of thousands of people each year to their mountains, lakes, forests and streams, all conducive backdrops to a closer kinship with God.

It is not unusual for event reviews from these locales to focus on the heart of what they offer. The phrasing may differ a bit, but the sentiment is the same.

"Guests often share they sensed a special presence of the Lord during their visits," said Buster Taylor, executive director at Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center in Talladega, Alabama.

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, this 780-acre campus is less than two hours' drive from metropolitan cities of Birmingham and Atlanta, but the difference between their busy, bumper-to-bumper traffic and the soothing calm of a place like Shocco is precisely the difference in allure for such a destination.

"The peace and serenity found here bring people closer to God, closer to decisions that change their lives forever," said Wendy Westerhouse, sales/public relations associate for Shocco.

Zach Norman, who is in marketing and program development for Lake Williamson Christian Center and Midwest Christian Retreats, said, "The greatest benefit of bringing a Christian event to a Christian property is that our ministries both share the same core values. Our value for ministry trumps the standard business rules that our corporate counterparts live by."

He continued, "In this, we give over and above, not because we want to win a customer over, but because we want their ministry to be successful. Because when we shine, it makes an eternal difference."

And, that shining light has made a distinct difference in the lives of those who have chosen Christian conference centers as their meeting and retreat places.

"There are many thousands of pastors, missionaries and church staff members who can point to a moment at Ridgecrest when they committed their lives to Christ or to vocational ministry," said Byron Hill, executive director of LifeWay Conference Centers and Camps, which operates Ridgecrest in North Carolina and Glorieta in New Mexico. "Marriages and entire families have been strengthened or transformed, and numerous laypersons have received training to better equip them for ministry."

Guests may achieve their goals through facilitated, thought-provoking discussions, climbing a rock wall, building a team through a ropes course or taking a peaceful stroll through the woods.

No matter the method, the result is traditionally the same. Hill's colleague, Melissa Inman, who serves as marketing director for LifeWay, cited the common thread that runs through all these conference centers.

"We hear over and over again from our guests how meaningful it is to have a break from their busy lives and spend a few days focusing on things that are really important in life -- our relationship with God and those we love most," Inman said. "Our families on retreat have time to pray together and for one another, without the numerous distractions at many other resort destinations. Our hope is that they return home with renewed love for the Lord and for one another."

At the end of the stay, it is the guests themselves who eloquently put it into words. One Shocco guest said, "You can't help but see God's hand in the beautiful grounds here, and His spirit was here."

Angie Gentry of New Desire Christian Ministries commented, "Shocco Springs was the perfect escape for the couples who attended our marriage retreat. The rooms were spacious and clean, the food was great and the surrounding nature allowed our attendees to relax and focus on God."

Evangelist Billy Graham called Ridgecrest "a center not only for inspiration and blessing to people who live in western North Carolina, but to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country."

The nearby Billy Graham Training Center called The Cove states, "There is a gentleness and serenity about The Cove which frees you to focus your attention upon God. We are committed to providing an environment with minimal distractions while maintaining the highest standard of service."

Whether it is a youth group, a couples' retreat or an organization of key church workers and lay people, Christian conference centers offer that special place to get away from the hectic pace of everyday life and focus on fulfilling the missions that lie before them.

And, in doing so, they find those missions effectively furthered by the use of top-notch facilities, accommodations and state-of-the-art technology.

"There seems to be a myth that going to a Christian conference center means your group will sacrifice quality in order save money," said Norman. "Our properties have grown up from our roots as campgrounds that once were home to a few cabins and a big tent." 

Located within an hour's drive of downtown St. Louis and just an hour and a half from Springfield, Illinois, "Our properties offer a range of packages and options -- deluxe options include all the comforts you'll find at a major hotel, but our properties are also versatile enough to offer economy packages that help budget-conscious groups," Norman said.

Not only are there accommodations to fit any budget or facilities to meet virtually any need, the value comes in the centerpiece of everything they do.

Shocco's Westerhouse said, "Christian conference centers like ours are able to provide a distinctly Christian environment, where students and adults alike discover and rediscover the wonders of Christ's teachings. We are dedicated to God and serve as ministry partners to the groups we serve."

She continued, "The core values and the spiritual needs are always present, but it's the environment we are able to provide that completes the circle and makes these versatile venues ideal for spiritual transformation and renewal."

Carol Pappas is a newspaper veteran who retired after 30 years in the industry to found her own business, Partners By Design, a multimedia firm.

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