Who: Scott Carter, First Baptist Church of Sevierville
When the first Hearts on Fire conference took place in 1986, “I did not have this vision of seeing 11,000 kids,” says pastor and founder Scott Carter. In fact, he felt lucky to make it through the night after a tornado cut power at the small resort where he and 150 youth were meeting. “The next morning, we opened up the blinds, gas grills were brought over and we did our thing,” he recalls.
Specifically, that meant hosting a program of music, speakers and prayer designed to help teenagers open their eyes to Christ—the fire aspect equating to developing a passion for God that remains the event’s driving force today. “I wanted Hearts on Fire to be a result of the [mission] to go and tell the love of God,” says Carter, “and I stayed with it.” That fire has also fueled a pair of satellite events: a second HOF in Branson, Missouri (2011 and 2012), and a third conference in Charleston, South Carolina, which has grown from 250 to more than 700 attendees since 2013.
During three decades of organizing his mostly Baptist (but “anyone’s welcome”) event, Carter has stuck by his trusted HOF crew and playbook. “I’ve never had a planner. We [including his secretary Judy Steele and a few HOF board members] do it all ourselves,” he says. Steele helps arrange promotion and hotel rooms, while Carter hires speakers and entertainment, and books the venue. They recently inked a three-year deal with Pigeon Forge, Tennessee’s snazzy new LeConte Center—within budget. This helps satisfy another HOF goal: keeping it affordable for young attendees. “We charge $35 for the weekend, and that’s a huge part of our success,” he says. Affordability also provides an incentive for expanding Hearts on Fire. “We’re looking at Charleston, West Virginia, for 2017,” says Carter, adding that he’s already found five churches committed to an HOF event there.