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Lake Junaluska balances heritage, progress

Trevor Hudson has never liked the hymn “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.”

The world behind me, the cross before me, he says, doesn’t make much sense. Isn’t Christianity about loving the world, not turning your back on them?

Come to mention it, he’s not in love with “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” either. Things of earth shall grow strangely dim? But isn’t Jesus supposed to bring the world and its needs into sharper focus?

“It’s blasphemy,” he says of the historic hymns, in an impassioned South African accent.

He’s saying it from the main stage at Stuart Auditorium perched on the edge of Lake Junaluska. His proclamation echoes off the soaring rafters and curving walls of the century-old auditorium, followed by a powerful silence.

Did he just say he hates “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus?” Pins dropping would resound in the silence, before Hudson continues, beseeching the crowd to listen to the world instead of mentally dimming it.

His message might seem unorthodox, but he is not the first to preach global-mindedness from that pulpit, and Lake Junaluska Assembly’s leadership hopes he won’t be the last.

Hudson came to the assembly’s oldest stage this month as part of the summer worship series. It’s a historic tradition that has long brought storied preachers and evangelists to the renowned Methodist conference center in Haywood County.

Actually, visiting preachers have been a part of the history of the place since its inception.

“Of course if you go back in the history — almost since the very beginning in 1913 — they’ve had different labels for the series and services that they had, but there were various pastors coming in from the get go,” says Bill Lowry, resident historian at Lake Junaluska and author of the book The Antechamber of Heaven, a History of Lake Junaluska Assembly.

Through the decades, the assembly has played host to famous clergymen such as Billy Graham and a slew of well-known British preachers.

From the beginning, the services were always well-attended, especially the summer meetings.

“The opening service, which took place in June of 1913, had approximately 4,000 people show up,” says Lowry, which was, he said, thanks in part to the friendly relationship the conference center shared with the local community.

Churches and businesses would get the news about summer preachers, spreading it along their built-in networks, and people came.

From the outset, says Lowry, the focus was worldwide.

“There was a very strong missionary emphasis on the grounds to begin with,” he says. “The very first event was a missionary conference, there were speakers there from China and other countries.”

That outlook is one of the solid foundations the leaders of today’s Lake Junaluska are hoping to build and grow the worship series on in the future.

Because the church is changing, and to stay alive, the assembly has to follow suit.

“I think our largest challenge is to reach a younger community,” says Roger Dowdy, the ministry director. It’s his job to keep things like the summer worship series relevant, and that’s sometimes a challenge — to serve and please the aging group that has long been the pillar of support and simultaneously attract a younger audience that will keep it alive.

“The relevance is by far the most important thing,” says Dowdy. “Preaching is changing in the church, it has become more free from the pulpit, it has become more narrative, whether it’s the preacher’s story or the church story. People want dynamic preaching.”

That’s a truth that can be seen across denominations in the Protestant church writ large in America, from the rise of the house church to the popularity of celebrity pastors and megachurches that focus and rely on the charisma of their leaders.

“It’s this incredible balance that we have to walk,” says Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jack Ewing. “We absolutely have to find ways to attract younger people so that this can continue going forward into the future.”

Ewing came to this job only a few months ago, with the charge and vision for continuing to usher Lake Junaluska into the modern church era.

With things like the summer worship series, the challenge is staying relevant and also true to the rich history of tradition the practice stands on.

Even before Lake Junaluska Assembly encamped on the lake’s shore almost 100 years ago, the tradition of traveling Methodists was already well established in Haywood County.

There are accounts of Methodist preachers stopping to give sermons here in the early 19th century. Many of their names are scrawled on the walls of the third floor chapel in the historic Shook House in Clyde, where many visiting pastors known as circuit riders made their pulpit pitches.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and the tradition hasn’t dimmed, but the strength of the church in society seems to be fading.

That truth isn’t lost on Ewing, who speaks of lost generations that don’t show up to the summer sermons like they did in decades past.

A 2010 Gallup poll found that 16 percent of Americans claim no specific religious identity. It was next to nothing in 1950. Another found that 70 percent of Americans told pollsters they believe religion is losing influence on American life.

Dowdy and Ewing know this is what they have to contend with.

“We will attempt to straddle this line between our traditional population base at the same time as being relevant to new generations,” said Ewing. “The reality is, what worship will look like in Stuart Auditorium 10 years from now, we don’t really know. But it isn’t about just being faithful to a tradition. We need to be faithful to God, not faithful to our traditions.”


Lake Junaluska Assembly Summer Worship schedule

All services begin at 10:45 a.m. in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska Assembly, unless otherwise noted.

• Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray - July 17

• Rev. Jeremy Troxler - July 24

• Rev. Mike Slaughter (8:30 a.m.) - July 31

• Rev. Grace Imathiu - July 31

• Rev. Shane Bishop - August 7

• Dr. Leonard Sweet - August 14

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