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Present and past Red Coat Award winners pose for a photo at the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.
Inside Story
Photo provided by Rhonda Zorn Fernandez

The bright present — and future — of the church

Attendance tops 10,000 at the largest of Lads to Leaders' half-dozen Easter weekend conventions across the nation.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Twenty-two years ago, my young family loaded a U-Haul truck and trekked east on Interstate 40 so I could chase a big dream.

No, I didn’t move to Nashville to seek country music stardom. Sadly, I can’t carry a tune.

Instead, we left our home in Oklahoma and relocated to Music City — hundreds of miles from family and friends — so I could work for The Associated Press. 


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We called Middle Tennessee home for less than a year before I transferred to AP’s Dallas bureau — much closer to loved ones — but oh, what a fun 11 months we enjoyed in the Volunteer State.

On the professional side, I covered the 2002 fight over a proposed state lottery in Tennessee (it passed) and a prayer service the night the Iraq War began in 2003.

Other memorable stories ranged from a profile of a man who paid children $10 each to learn the 10 Commandments to a feature on Christian music taking over bars and nightspots during Gospel Music Week to an interview with the 104-year-old widow of famous traveling evangelist Marshall Keeble.

On the personal side, my wife, Tamie, our three children and I saw a few Grand Ole Opry shows and visited the picturesque Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.

My family found a friendly, loving spiritual home with the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Franklin, Tenn. That’s how we came to experience the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville for the first time in 2003.


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To the best of my memory, our oldest child Brady — who was in the fourth grade and about to turn 10 — did Scripture reading and puppets that year. Before the convention that Easter weekend, fellow Christians tried to describe the enormity of the crowd at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

But words failed to capture the overwhelming nature of seeing literally thousands and thousands of young people and adults fill every nook and cranny of the massive hotel complex — all focused on developing leaders to serve in God’s kingdom.

More than two decades later, I returned to Nashville this past weekend and encountered the same awe-inspiring scene.

Lads to Leaders participants from the Karns Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn., receive awards during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Lads to Leaders participants from the Karns Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn., receive awards during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn. From left to right are Madison Green, Meredith Green, Carrigan Dresser, Brooklynn Dresser, Makenzie Green and Adalynn Dresser. The two groups of sisters were honored in the year-round songs of praise category.

In every direction, parents and children filled the Gaylord Hotel’s ballrooms, hallways and escalators.

Some wore colorful T-shirts displaying the 2024 convention’s “I Am Not Ashamed” theme from Romans 1:16. Others sported Sunday suits and dresses for Bible speeches and other presentations. 

Attendance in Nashville — the largest of a half-dozen Lads to Leaders sites across the nation — topped 10,000 for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were at 10,300 the year of COVID. We had that many registered, and then we canceled,” said Blake McAnally, the convention’s director and an elder of the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala. “We went down to about 3,500 (the next year), and we’ve been climbing back ever since. So this year we hit our goal.”

The 2024 number included about 3,600 children and 6,400 adults — parents, coaches and judges — split into red, yellow, blue and green groups. They represented roughly 200 Churches of Christ from Tennessee, Alabama and other neighboring states.

Not all of those Christian families stay at the Gaylord Hotel. 

Some commute locally. 

Blake McAnally, an elder of the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala., directs the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Blake McAnally, an elder of the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala., directs the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Girls from the Camden Church of Christ in Tennessee receive awards during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Girls from the Camden Church of Christ in Tennessee receive awards during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

But many of the participants spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at the hotel — making Lads to Leaders one of the biggest, if not the biggest, events of the year for the convention center. Stefanie Ball, a Gaylord spokeswoman, said the company’s guest privacy policies prevented her from discussing such details.

“This hotel has 2,880 rooms, I believe,” McAnally said, “and we (Lads to Leaders participants) will be about 92 percent to 93 percent of the people here.”

Rhonda Zorn Fernandez is a Lads to Leaders board member and the daughter of the late Jack Zorn, the organization’s founder. We’re blessed, too, that she accepted an invitation last year to join The Christian Chronicle’s national board of trustees.

Tuscumbia Church of Christ members pose for a group photo during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Members of the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in Alabama pose for a group photo during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn. Read a related story about that church’s “Rick & Bubba Show”-themed puppet skit.

I first met Rhonda in 2015 when I traveled to Alabama to report on the challenges faced by Christians who become caregivers for older parents. No one loves Lads to Leaders as much as Rhonda or finds as many friends to hug at the annual conventions as she does. 

At Rhonda’s invitation, the Chronicle set up a booth at this year’s Nashville event and signed up many new readers. If I missed anyone, click this link to receive our monthly print edition and our weekly email newsletter for free. 

I was blessed to lead a prayer Saturday night at one of the four simultaneous Nashville awards assemblies — each with more than 2,000 people packing the ballroom! I even put on a suit and tie for the special occasion.

For all the rightful concerns about declining church membership and young people leaving the faith, the crowds at Lads to Leaders and Leadership Training for Christ events across the nation provide hope for the future.

“People like to say it’s the future. It’s actually the present.”

Then again, it’s not just the future we’re talking about.

“People like to say it’s the future,” Mitch Henry, president of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., said at the Nashville convention. “It’s actually the present.”

Amen, brother.

The present — and yes, the future — of the church never looked so bright.

Present and past Red Coat Award winners pose for a photo at the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Present and past Red Coat Award winners pose for a photo at the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: conventions Easter future of the church Inside Story Lads to Leaders Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes Leadership Training For Christ membership numbers Nashville Nashville Tennessee National News Opinion Rosses Tamie Ross Tennessee Top Stories young people leaving youth leadership training

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