A crowd of more than 11,000 packed Infinite Energy Arena from Thursday through Saturday.
The crowd hailing from across the country didn’t flock to see a pop artist, the Atlanta Gladiators, Georgia Swarm or a graduation ceremony.
The 15th Free Chapel Forward Conference was at capacity for the fifth consecutive year — at least, according to officials — and students from 32 states and five nations came for music, dancing and to hear Christian messages from a lineup of guest pastors hailing from churches around the country.
Youth leaders and students as young as middle-school age attended as well as high school and ministry groups from college campuses. There were 5,220 attendees from Georgia and 2,220 attendees from Free Chapel’s local campuses in Gainesville, Gwinnett, Cumming and Buford.
The first day of the conference was Thursday, with morning and afternoon session through Saturday evening. Michael Drawdy, Shelby Simmons, Riley Long and Raegan Mace from Augusta were attending their fifth conference and the biggest takeaway from their experiences this year were the messages.
“It’s different than any other conference,” Drawdy said. “Any other conference preaches the same thing. … Forward is about people getting their lives right and delivered.
“It’s about students. … They come here and see there is life with ministry.”
It was the first time for Estella Bourn, Raechel Russell and Abigaile Wells from Centre, Alabama. They came and stayed for the music.
“The songs are great,” Bourn said. “It’s a great environment, and everyone is up.”
Doors opened at 9 a.m. for Saturday’s morning session. There were pre-session competitions between members of the conference’s four different tribes. Attendees are separated into four tribes — Drip, Icon, Squad and Flex — that send representatives for competitions between sessions to earn points throughout the conference.
Atlanta-native band Passion performed a roughly 40-minute set that led into a sermon from Levi Lusko, a pastor from Fresh Life Church in Montana. His sermon focused on sex, relationships and dating with social media such as Tinder. His sermon titled “The Problem with Pineapples,” compared sex to pineapples, which he said were considered a rare delicacy in Europe after traders began to ship them back from the Americas circa the 16th century. On stage, he compared a pristine pineapple to a can of pineapple chunks.
It’s a metaphor for what sex becomes outside of the bounds of marriage.
“(The pineapple was) something prized … not meant to be stabbed with a toothpick,” Lusko said.
Jentezen Franklin is the Senior Pastor of Free Chapel, a multi campus church based in Gainseville. Each week, his television program, “Kingdom Connection,” is broadcast on major networks all over the world. His responsibilities typically ended on the second day of previous conferences. Based on popular demand from previous conferences, he made appearances Saturday, including a Q&A session just before noon.
Voices like Lusko’s and the perspectives they provide, Franklin said, are how the conference has managed to keep its message fresh after 15 years.
“The culture of Forward Conference is one that students know they’re going to have fun, they’re going to hear great music and great bands and they’re going to hear relevant messages to their life,” he said. “Someone is going to talk to them about where they’re living now and how do you flesh out the walk of Christ.”
All except the inaugural Forward Conference have been held in Infinite Energy Arena, formerly the Arena at Gwinnett. While Franklin said there have been conversations regarding hosting conferences in different markets, he doesn’t see the current iteration leaving the Duluth area in the near future.
“We kicked around the idea of going to bigger venues, but there is something so special about this area,” Franklin said. “We love the hotels and we love the security of this area. For high school students, it feels great and we have so many partnerships with businesses.”