Imagine a county fair-type event, attended by thousands of community friends and church members alike, where everything that happened focused on the Bible and Jesus Christ. Imagine these thousands enjoying fun activities and events all sponsored by the Adventist Church. Imagine recouping part of the expenses through entrance fees, concert tickets and concession sales.
This dream became reality in the Upper Columbia Conference on July 23 when the first ever Refresh Christian Family Fun Fair opened its doors for five days at the Spokane County Fairgrounds.
Spokane’s city newspaper, the Spokesman Review, gave the event a front page headline and featured the story at the top of its “Region” section.
“My dream for Refresh was to create an event that would follow the counsel of Ellen White to reach the large cities of America with camp meetings and the use of recreation to get the attention of the multitudes,” said Kevin Wilfley, Refresh coordinator and Spokane Linwood Church pastor. The fair combined the wholesome aspects of a county fair with the educational and spiritual aspects of a camp meeting.
“This kind of evangelistic camp meeting has the advantage of providing opportunities to learn using all of the senses,” says Max Torkelsen, Upper Columbia Conference president. The fair engaged the senses with Christian concerts, evangelistic sermons, trade show-type ministry booths, youth and children’s activities, and a vegetarian food court.
Each night featured a concert by such well known musicians as Steve Green, Michael Card and Wintley Phipps. The concerts were followed by evangelistic sermons by Ron Halverson.
“We came to see the baseball game next door,” said one non-Adventist family, “but that was sold out, so we came over here to see what was happening, and we were delighted to find out that we could hear Michael Card in concert.”
In the exhibit hall more than 65 ministries set up booths. Fred Hardinge, Bibleinfo.com director, was surprised at how many non-Adventists he encountered that were thrilled to learn about Bibleinfo.com. Adventist Health offered several health-related informational booths and also provided health testing.
“One of the most amazing stories happened in the Garden of Eden exhibit,” said Gordon Pifher, Upper Columbia Conference executive secretary. “It was amazing because one family (which included three generations: daughter, mother and grandmother) said, after they had been almost all the way through the exhibit, that none of them had ever really heard the story of salvation before.”
One of the main attractions for youth was the “Pilgrims Progress” obstacle course designed by Wayne Hicks, Upper Columbia Conference Pathfinder and family life director. One part of the course was a climbing wall where participants took a backpack full of water balloon “burdens” to the top of “Mount Zion” and shed them at the cross. “Teamwork is what most kids said they learned about the Christian walk,” said Wayne, “but they also said that unloading their balloons at the top of the climbing wall was a very good illustration of how we should unload our burdens at Calvary.”
On Sabbath those who attended got a special surprise: entrance and meal tickets were free to emphasize the blessing of the Sabbath and give volunteers opportunity to share why the Sabbath is a special day for Adventists.
Kevin estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the 8,000 attendees were non-Adventists. Families came from all over the Northwest and Canada.
Jim Kilmer, Upper Columbia Conference church growth director, coordinated the tabulation of the response cards distributed through exhibits and activities. He reported that 1,340 cards were collected, including 184 requests for Bible studies, 132 requests for information about how to commit one's life to Jesus, nine requests to prepare for baptism, and many other requests for prayer and information. “It has to be one of the greatest events our church has ever sponsored in Spokane,” he said.
The follow-up committee organized a network of ministers and lay people who responded to each card within five days. In addition, the committee planned three area seminars specifically to meet the needs of people responding. A directory of area Adventist churches with a listing of upcoming events was also provided.
“I was initially hesitant to undertake the expense of the Refresh fair,” said Max Torkelsen, “but after working with Kevin Wilfley and discussing Ellen White’s counsel on the purpose of camp meetings and the methods she suggests for reaching people, I was convinced that we needed to do this.”
“Jesus often used recreational settings to give his teachings,” says Kevin, “and Ellen White has a lot to say about how we should conduct camp meetings and evangelistic events. In volume nine of the Testimonies, she writes, ‘In the cities of today, where there is so much to attract and please, the people can be interested by no ordinary efforts. Ministers of God's appointment will find it necessary to put forth extraordinary efforts in order to arrest the attention of the multitudes.’”
In her writings, Ellen White refers to people setting up health food booths and tent meetings at large city events like county fairs and circuses. In 1877 the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement borrowed the Michigan Conference’s camp meeting tent (which could hold 5,000 people) and set up a health food café next door to “Barnum’s Great Menagerie.”
Refresh may be a one-time event. Max explains, “It really was a miracle that the fairgrounds were even available this year, and there are no open dates in the near future. Our only option at this point would be to take some of the booths and activities and pay to conduct them at the actual Spokane County Fair.”
Evangelism was the winning point of the event. “Some people may say that the expense of the event, while there were lots of neat stories, wasn’t really worth the number of converts that were produced,” says Max. “But what we have to realize is that evangelism is a process....Refresh was just one of several ways to introduce people to Jesus and help them develop a relationship with Him.”