DAVIS — A young girl laughed as she dangled from a zip line above murky green water that rippled faintly as she soared overhead.
A few yards away, a boy slowly walked along a tree-lined path, stopping to read signs encouraging him to pray and reflect on God's direction for his life.
These contrasting opportunities are key to what Falls Creek has been all about, Oklahoma Baptist leaders say.
A wide range of outdoor activities, along with Bible-focused sessions and worship, converge at the popular summer camp and conference center in the Arbuckle Mountains.
It's a combination young people seem to love, judging from the tens of thousands that attend camps there annually.
But Baptist leaders say they have even bigger dreams for the idyllic setting near Davis.
The Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, which owns and operates Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, said plans are underway to build a lodge, a welcome center and an event center on the 360-acre complex.
Jordan said the convention has raised $10.5 million for the planned $12 million expansion project that will help make Falls Creek a year-round facility. He said convention leaders hope to raise the rest of the funds within the next year, with construction expected to begin by fall 2014. He said the project should take about a year to complete.
“This will take our ministry to a whole new level,” Jordan said.
A day at Falls Creek
Six years have gone by since Oklahoma Baptists dedicated the enclosed 7,400-seat climate-controlled worship center replacing the iconic open-air tabernacle as the site of nightly youth camp worship services at Falls Creek.
In the intervening decades since J.B. Rounds and W.D. Moorer founded Falls Creek in 1917, it has been known primarily as a Christian youth camp.
Plenty of signs point to Falls Creek as a summertime tradition in Oklahoma.
James Swain, director of Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma conference centers, said 50,000 to 51,000 young people will have attended when the 10-week camp season culminates later this month. He said a separate annual Indian Falls Creek camp experience for American Indian youths and a children's camp will bring that total to about 60,000 youths.
Many of the adults helping to shape the future of all those young people attended the youth camp themselves as teens.
Jordan has said he accepted a divine call to preach as he prayed while seated at one of the wooden pews at an evening worship service in the old open-air tabernacle. Other leaders, including Andy Harrison, also said they attended the camp as teenagers.
Harrison, the convention's student programs director, said churches create their own camp youth curriculum but also join in with the overall Falls Creek themed-activities and recreation.
“So you have your own unique camp experience with your group, then you have an opportunity to have a corporate camp experience,” Harrison said.
Jordan said Falls Creek also plays host to church groups from other states. He said of the estimated 900 churches that visit the camp each year, about 100 are from out of state.
Activities build skills, offer fun
On a recent sunny day, Christian rock music blared out of speakers at the camp's skate park pavilion. Young people whirled on skateboards around and over ramps, while several youths from First Baptist Church of Sterling climbed high atop a nearby ropes course — one of several at Falls Creek.
The Rev. Mark Hall, senior pastor, said the Sterling church rented a cabin for its group of 78 youths and adult advisers. He said the church typically brings smaller groups to the camp, but leaders felt comfortable bringing a larger group this year because of the flexible Falls Creek format.
Watching as several youths made their way along the ropes course, Hall said he appreciates the diverse activities that allow young people to have fun and learn about the Lord in an informal, youth-oriented setting .
“It's been fantastic. This is one of the fun things, because it teaches them to cooperate with each other,” he said of the ropes course.
Harrison said many church groups spend mornings at their cabins then venture out into the camp complex in the afternoon. He said activities such as the skate park and ropes courses are open from about 1 to 5 p.m. for youths' enjoyment.
Sports area appeals to youths
Cheers could be heard coming from the camp's open recreation area long before a visitor arrived at the popular camp spot.
Several groups played volleyball, basketball and disc golf. Softball games were going on, and other youths were playing a human foosball game with a soccer ball.
Neon pink, lime green, lemon yellow — the colored T-shirts worn by youths promote their church name or youth group but also help them keep up with each other in the crowd.
At any given moment, young people watching the sports activities cheer loudly as the games continue.
Looking on, Harrison smiled and said the young people seem to love the outdoor sports area, because it is always jam-packed.
Mobile missionary initiative
Several students from Oklahoma Baptist University parked their “Mobilstan” in the open recreation spot, hoping to gain the campers' attention.
“Mobilstan” is a van designed to help tell the story of missionary efforts around the globe.
Recent OBU graduate Kasey Chapman, 22, said the group discusses the importance of missionary work with campers who venture over to check out the colorful van. To help convey their message, Chapman and other OBU students dress in colorful clothing that missionaries serving in other countries might wear. For extra emphasis, they offer the campers foods like seaweed and wasabi — items some overseas missionaries might eat as they immerse themselves in another culture.
“Our main focus here is telling people about missions,” said Chapman, who went on a mission trip to Cambodia last year.
“Our emphasis is that anyone can be a missionary, and, really, we believe that all believers are called to be missionaries.”
Campers glean missions perspective
For a more in-depth look at missionary life, campers visit the camp's Wynn Center for World Missions. Harrison said Baptist leaders envisioned the center as a place where campers could be introduced to mission efforts being conducted by Southern Baptists around the world.
The center includes areas highlighting issues such as human trafficking, poverty in Asia and clean water efforts in Africa. After learning about an initiative expanding on the themes of the long-running True Love Waits sexual purity project, campers are invited to write their names and goals for their life relationships on placards that are placed on display.
In another part of the center, campers can type their daily shopping habits into a computer, and a special program tells them how many people around the globe may be working under harsh conditions and for little pay to make the items they typically purchase. In another area, staff members demonstrate how a global project is bringing clean water to people in northern Ghana. Also, a poverty and hunger display was designed to replicate a hut where an impoverished family might live in India or Asia.
The center also includes a small theater area where campers can watch faith-themed feature films such as “Soul Surfer” and “Courageous.”
“We're trying to make it as interactive as possible,” Harrison said.
“It gives us the opportunity to tell people what the needs are around the world and how we can help others,” he said.
“Every single student that comes in here, we stop and pray for them because we want to pray for them and the world, and we want them to pray, too.”
Gum and a bathtub...sort of
Some of the more quirky aspects of Falls Creek include a tree and a spring-fed stream area that some people think resembles a bathtub.
Harrison said campers seem to find the “Gum Tree” a fascinating part of informal Falls Creek tradition. The top limbs of the large tree were blown off by high winds earlier this year. But still standing is the trunk, which is peppered with chewing gum in different colors and various sizes — from a mouthful to a small morsel — making it stand out in the forest area.
“People have deposited their gum on this tree for a long time,” Harrison said.
He said the tree is probably the second most popular place at the camp.
The most popular place is Boulder's Spring, also known as the “Devil's Bathtub.”
Harrison and Baptist leader Jordan said camp leaders want people to call the natural spring area by its formal title, but they realize the more colorful name sticks in campers' minds. Harrison said the area has been likened to a bathtub because of its pool-like shape and the rock formations that look like soap dishes.
Several young people from First Baptist Church of Mustang and older youth advisers visited the area on a recent day. The group members laid their shoes at the water's edge as they waded barefoot into the water.
Matthew Keeter, 14, said he was drawn to the stream because it provided respite from the heat. “It's nice and cool,” he said.
Other campers combat the heat in other areas.
Harrison said male and female campers are allowed to play separately in Baptist Lake and an area known simply as the entry pool. So that each group of young girls and boys gets an opportunity to experience all of the water fun available, the groups alternate days to experience each area.
Water slides, inflatable icebergs and an inflatable trampoline seemed to make the experience fun for the youths.
Worship and response
The Falls Creek day culminates with an evening worship service in the tabernacle.
Visitors can tell when the service time has approached as thousands of teens walk through the camp, all headed to the same place at one time.
Activities take center stage before worship each night, with Oklahoma Baptist University students taking the lead on a recent day. Teens swatted green and yellow (OBU colors) balloons up in the air as part of one exercise. Later, OBU students talked to campers about the university's addition of football this fall.
The Chris White Band led the teens in praise and worship. The lights were dimmed, and young people all over the building bowed their heads or raised their hands as the band sang about God's love.
“Your love never fails, it never gives up,” the teens sang along with the band, before Ed Newton, the night's featured speaker, arrived on stage.
Baptist leader Jordan said the evening worship services are now live-streamed to 19 countries around the world courtesy of the Internet. Through the Web, the most important part of the Falls Creek experience — worship — is going far beyond the boundaries of Oklahoma, he said.
As the service ended, campers filed out of the tabernacle.
As they rise in the next morning, they will hear bells ring, one for each camper who decided to accept Christ at the service.
It's a fitting and faith-filled way to start another day at Falls Creek.