Religious meetings can range from small retreats to sprawling, citywide conventions. And faith-based events cover the spectrum of attendees, whether they’re youth groups, families or older crowds.
These cities offer faith-centric groups affordability and easy access, along with entertainment, attractions and activities for attendees of all ages.
Branson, Missouri, is a mainstay for religious meetings and faith-based groups, mainly because of value: both monetary value and family values.
“I think it is probably the value that you find here in Branson and the location in the heartland where people do look for a destination that is closer to their values,” said Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The 250,000-square-foot Branson Convention Center regularly welcomes faith-based events, as does Chateau on the Lake resort. The convention center hosts Phil Waldrep Ministries’ 5,000-person Women of Joy weekend and 4,000 teens for the Xtreme Winter Conference. Pure Joy holds its women’s conference at the 4,700-seat Mansion Theatre, and Kenneth Copeland Ministries brings the annual Branson Live Victory Campaign to Faith Life Church, which started as a theater building.
Silver Dollar City theme park hosts the Southern Gospel Picnic for two weeks in August and serves as the venue for Young Christians Weekend.
Faith-based groups take advantage of Branson’s family-friendly attractions and entertainment, which includes hundreds of stage shows. Sight and Sound Theatre’s “Noah” opened in March and will run through December.
At Shepherd of the Hills Adventure Park, groups can tour the historic cabin, go zip lining, tackle the ropes course, drive all-terrain vehicles and attend the nightly outdoor drama.
Table Rock Lake has 800 miles of shoreline with 100 cabin-, condo- and motel-type resorts that groups can rent for retreats.
Sevierville, Tennessee’s location 13 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and minutes to Dollywood have made it a popular destination for religious events, especially youth groups.
“I think they’re really attracted to us because we have this hometown feel, we’re Southern, and people just love coming to our community,” said Ryan Shelley, sales coordinator for the Sevierville Convention Center (pronounced “severe-ville”).
The lodge-style convention center has two exhibit halls with a total of more than 108,000 square feet of function space and a flexible 19,000-square-foot ballroom. Just outside the center’s doors are two city-owned 18-hole golf courses.
In February, the convention center hosted the three-day Tennessee Church of God Prayer Conference and welcomed the Tennessee District UPCI Ladies Conference for the first time; the latter has already booked again for 2021.
Summer is peak season for faith-based youth groups at the convention center, and they often stay at the connected Wilderness at the Smokies Waterpark Resort. The hotel has one indoor and two outdoor water parks and is building a new one across the street that will open this summer.
Youth groups and families often turn events into vacations, exploring the mountains; visiting Dollywood, RainForest Adventures Zoo and SevierAir Trampoline and Ninja Warrior Park; and shopping in downtown and at the outlet mall.
Smaller groups can also use the Sevierville Civic Center or the event center at the Ridge Outdoor Resort, which has a 500-capacity auditorium and other meeting rooms.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Fort Wayne, Indiana, is practically encircled by major cities: Chicago; Indianapolis; Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; Cleveland and Detroit. But the northeastern Indiana city is an affordable alternative — and still a central location — that appeals to religious groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches and the General Council of the Assemblies of God. The city is also headquarters for the Missionary Church.
Downtown Fort Wayne “is very connected and convenient,” said Kristen Guthrie, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Fort Wayne.
Groups can meet at the Grand Wayne Convention Center, which has over 225,000 square feet of meeting space, including the 50,000-square-foot flexible Convention Hall and two ballrooms. The center connects to three full-service hotels; one, the Hampton Inn, opened just last year.
Across the street, the 1928 Embassy Theatre seats 2,471, and several downtown churches form a sort of network, with sanctuaries, theaters and function space that religious groups have used for their events.
The 13,000-seat Allen County War Memorial Coliseum arena has hosted events like Living Proof with Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer Live and Women of Faith.
Four blocks from the convention center, the new Promenade Park sits on the banks of the St. Marys River and offers a riverfront amphitheater, an event lawn with a bandshell and Promenade Park Pavilion, which can seat 150 for banquets and has garage-style doors that open up to river views.
Montgomery County, Maryland
Just northwest of Washington, D.C., Maryland’s Montgomery County is home to the cities of Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Rockville and Bethesda.
For faith-based groups, such as Church of the Living God and the Northeast Regional Church Ushers Association, the suburban location offers affordable accommodations, easy access to three major international airports and day trips to monuments, memorials and museums lining the National Mall, as well as faith-based attractions like the Washington National Cathedral and the Museum of the Bible.
The county’s 68 hotels and meeting venues have nearly 10,000 guest rooms and more than 974,000 square feet of function space. The 455-room Bethesda North Marriott in Rockville has over 61,000 square feet of meeting space and just completed a $25 million renovation last summer. The DoubleTree by Hilton in Silver Spring has 20,000 square feet of function space, and the newly branded DoubleTree by Hilton Washington D.C. North/Gaithersburg is undergoing a $15 million renovation that will include all 301 guest rooms, the lobby, the restaurant and bar, and 16,000 square feet of meeting space. The Bolger Center conference hotel has 70,000 square feet of IACC-certified meeting facilities.
The National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase has lodging for up to 800 guests and 40,000 square feet of meeting space. Rockwood Manor, the former National Girl Scout Camp, is a retreat with cabins, bunkhouses and lodges for up to 85 overnight guests and has six flexible meeting spaces for 80-person events.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico’s faith communities range from formal religion to spiritual seekers. The region’s indigenous Pueblo Indian tribes still observe many of the same religious ceremonies today as they did when Spanish settlers arrived with Catholicism in the early 1600s.
“For faith-based groups, it’s not just Christianity; you can incorporate and discover so many different beliefs here,” said David Carr, director of sales for Tourism Santa Fe.
San Miguel Chapel dates to the city’s founding in 1610, making it the oldest church in the continental U.S. In downtown, the 1878 Loretto Chapel houses the Miraculous Staircase, whose spiral construction confounds experts. Next door, the Inn and Spa at Loretto has 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space.
La Fonda on the Plaza is the only hotel on Santa Fe’s historic plaza. The hotel has hosted events for Lutheran and Presbyterian groups, as well as the Knights of Columbus, in its 10 meeting spaces, which include the 6,560-square-foot ballroom and a terrace with an up-close view of the iconic 1886 St. Francis Cathedral.
Groups can arrange to attend sacred Pueblo Feast Days or be blessed by a leader of the Picuris Pueblo tribe at the Hotel Santa Fe.
Spiritual Directors International will hold its annual conference in April in Santa Fe, and yoga retreats and meditation groups often gather at Upaya Institute and Zen Center.
Along the 56-mile High Road to Taos, which winds through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, groups can see several Spanish-style Roman Catholic churches in area villages.