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Camp’s outdoor fellowship focus of church program

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This summer, everyone in Johnson County is invited to camp.

You can sing along to camp songs that beg for audience participation. Counselors will perform goofy skits that get everyone laughing.

Under the stars, people will groove to the sounds of bluegrass, jazz and country rock. And before everyone goes home, they’ll get a campfire story.

The program is called Campfire Nights, and it’s being presented by Southport Christian Church. The church is bringing the outdoorsy fun of a summertime campfire and turning it into a community entertainment event at the Greenwood Amphitheater.

Skits, mock commercials and singalongs will give the activities a down-home feel, while regional and national musicians play smooth jazz and stomping blues.

“The whole concept is a nice family evening out,” said Doug Lofton, senior pastor at Southport Christian Church. “We think it’ll appeal to a range of generations, where grandma and grandpa can come out with mom and dad and their kids, and everyone will be happy.”

Campfire Nights is an extension of a sermon series that Southport Christian Church has done for the past five years.

Working with a musician friend, who had recently won a national competition for thumb-picking guitar, Lofton came up with an idea for a new kind of church activity — the Front Porch Series.

“Augusts are really slow months for churches. We were trying to figure out a way to get people to come back to church after the summer,” Lofton said.

It would be modeled after “A Prairie Home Companion,” the live radio variety show created by author and humorist Garrison Keillor.

Church officials built a homey set, brought in special bands and modeled the service after this kind of show. The tweak to traditional worship services proved a boon, as people flocked to see the unique music and structure of the series.

“Now, August is the best attended month we have at the church,” Lofton said. “The church has let us walk that fine line between entertainment and worship.”

But for the Campfire Nights, organizers wanted to take the feel of that worship series and take it outside the church.

The new event coincides with a change in the church’s goal of making a larger impact on the southside community. Leaders wanted to become more mission-based, getting out to the people and living the Bible through their actions.

“The idea is not to try to set a hook and get people to come to our services,” he said. “We’ll extend that invitation. But the intent is not to get them into our walls so much as it is to get us out of our walls.”

Jim Ream, a member and leader of the church as well as the chairman of the University of Indianapolis theater department, helped design the sets for the Front Porch series. He tweaked the formula for the new event to retain a nostalgic feel.

“We tried to capture a little bit of that old, home front porch quality. Nothing fancy, but almost like the old homestead,” he said. “For this new event, we’ve held on to parts of that. We’re trying to do similar things, try to have a campfire thing.”

A “camp director” will welcome people and help outline how the night will unfold. To get the audience into the mood, organizers will be leading silly camp songs.

“We have some of our own praise band and musicians set up to be a house band and do some songs that hopefully a lot of people will know,” said Leah Trigg, music director at Southport Christian Church.

People are encouraged to bring picnic dinners while they sit in their folding chairs under the stars. Skits will have a subtle message, weaving in aspects of life on the southside, such as popular restaurants and famous landmarks.

“Everyone will hear those touch-points that relate to what it’s like to live down here,” Lofton said.

An emphasis has been placed on the artists who perform during the series. Lofton used to minister in Nashville, Tennessee, and retains contacts through musicians making a name in country’s spiritual heart.

Marlin McKay, an Indianapolis jazz musician, has been slated to perform the first event.

Gritty Delta blues guitarist Brian Keith Wallen and bluegrass jam band Flatland Harmony Experience will lend an Indiana feel to the shows.

Buddy Jewell, a national country artist from Nashville, Tennessee, has accepted an invitation.

During a set-break between the music, Lofton will come on stage to give a campfire story. Instead of biblical tales, the stories will feature familiar folk characters and give a moral.

“Hopefully, they’ll have a warm, fuzzy feeling when they go home. They’ll get a little bit of a message, but it’s not going to be preaching,” Lofton said.

In the planning of the event, Lofton and others have been careful to make Campfire Nights welcoming to all.

Those who have never been to Southport Christian Church, or even attend church at all, won’t feel left out of inside jokes that everyone else will get, Lofton said.

There will be no sermon, no communion and no worship-based songs.

“One thing I enjoy is the mix of humor and serious, you can laugh and cry at the same time,” Ream said.

Besides simply providing a night of entertainment, the events will serve the church’s goal of impacting the community.

Each night, organizers have chosen an area nonprofit group to benefit from a collection taken. Agencies such as the Interchurch Food Pantry, Johnson County Community Foundation and Johnson County Humane Society will receive donations this summer.

“We hope they take away a sense of connection, a sense of community,” Lofton said. “But we also want to let people know about this church community that we have out here.”

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