Family fun, fellowship and first-class music are the ingredients that make Campfire Nights special. True to its name, the program sports campfire activities and a good-ol’-days theme, albeit it takes place at a fictitious campground (the Greenwood Amphitheatre).
The initiative, launched in June by Southport Christian Church, is an offshoot of Southport Christian’s Front Porch Church series, which is loosely based on the “Prairie Home Companion” radio show.
“We enjoy so much success with our Front Porch series that we decided to offer something similar on Sunday evenings during the summer,” said parishioner Barry Browning.
The next installment of Campfire Nights runs from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday at the amphitheater, just south of Main and Meridian streets and behind the fire station. The stage will be decorated in a way that resembles a campground.
“Campers,” who will receive a warm welcome before the program begins, are encouraged to bring picnic baskets laden with goodies; they will also want to bring chairs or blankets as there are no seats at the facility. And there is plenty of shade if the sun is still beating down.
“This in no evangelistic event,” said the Rev. Doug Lofton, church pastor. “It’s just a fun and relaxing evening for families and a multi-generational crowd. Everybody will feel like they belong.
“I’ll tell a moral-based story, and the skits can be humorous, heartfelt or poignant. We will kind of touch on the way things used to be. We have lost our appreciation for the simple things in life.” A part of his message will focus on the increase in violence and how Southsiders should appreciate what they have and not complain that Carmel and the Northside have everything. “We really got it pretty good,” he remarked. “We shouldn’t worry about what we don’t have.”
“This is not an in-your-face, come-and-be-saved gathering,” said Browning. “It’s not an overtly religious program. It will appeal to everyone. We don’t want to chase people away.”
In addition to skits and storytelling with a meaning, there are also singalongs, performances by the church band, prizes awarded by WHZN-FM 88.3, and a featured group. Sunday’s special ensemble is the Flatland Harmony Experiment, a locally based band that plays upbeat bluegrass music and has recorded three compact discs.
Founded in 2011, the band – Scott Nelson, Kris Potts and Johnny Plott – plays about 150 dates annually to enthusiastic audiences of 1,500 people across the country. The group’s instrumental mix of mandolin, banjo and upright bass allows ample space for musical experimentation and expression.
Browning and Lofton said they are fortunate to have such a talented band performing. “Our music is our hook,” said Lofton, who was ordained in 1981 and served in Iowa and most recently Nashville, Tenn., before coming to Southport Christian, whose 600 to 700 parishioners congregate at 201 E. Epler Ave. “We bring in the best of what (groups) we can find or who we know through contacts.”
“No one will go away disappointed with the music,” said Browning. “If you like bluegrass, you’ll like this.”
“The Flatland Harmony Experiment just keeps getting better and better the old-fashioned way ... through lots of hard work,” said Danny Barnes. “They have good songs and a good vibe. They are great musicians and great guys.”
Next month’s program (Aug. 17) features national recording artist Buddy Jewell Jr., who was the first winner on the “Nashville Star” talent show. Signed to Columbia Records in 2003, his debut single “Help Pour Out the Rain reached No. 3 on the country charts.
Lofton views Campfire Nights as a way to increase the church’s outreach. “This should bring exposure to us and what we do. We want to create more of a presence in the community while touching the community outside the walls of a traditional church setting. We want families to be talking about this program the next morning.”
The inaugural program attracted about 200 people and resulted in nearly $500 being collected for the Perry Township Social Workers Support Fund.
This month’s event will benefit the Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County. Campers are asked to bring canned goods or make a voluntary donation to the food bank.
Browning said he was pleased with the turnout for June’s program. “Through word-of-mouth we had a good crowd. We’re advertising a little for this one, and this story should help. “We have a good group of creative people of various ages (some in their 20s) who are helping to put on a good program.”
If Campfire Nights enjoys the success that the Front Porch series has, it’s a good bet that it will be around again in 2015. “It’s better than 50-50 that it will be back,” said Lofton, who added that the Front Porch program is the church’s biggest draw annually, even surpassing December and its Christmas services.