Tom Kendall remembers taking trips to Big Bass Lake in Underwood, Indiana, in the late 1950s.
“My grandfather used to take me there on Friday nights, and my dad would meet us up there on Saturday mornings because he worked,” said Kendall, a member of Southeast Christian Church’s Indiana Campus. “We’d fish most of the day Saturday. It was something we did a lot during the summer months. I slept in the front of the truck, my grandfather slept in the back of the truck with a tarp over him. My grandmother would make sandwiches for us. It just brings back old memories.”
The fishing is still good on the lake, but most now know it as Country Lake, part of Southeast Christian Church’s 200-acre Country Lake Christian Retreat.
Kendall and his wife, Brenda, volunteer at Country Lake.
“I was surprised when Country Lake opened up,” Kendall added. “The roads are the same roads that went around the lake, but of course, lots and lots has changed.”
20 years of growth
Country Lake opened in 1999 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary. What began with two dorms now has a 52-room lodge and conference center, five dorms, a dining area and a worship center.
Activities include swimming, paintball, fishing, hiking, a zipline, archery, a sports complex and a ropes course.
Southeast elder Matt Chalfant, who grew up swimming in the lake, presented the idea to purchase Country Lake to Southeast’s elders in 1998.
The initial response was to wait, but they revisited the idea a year later and bought the property.
“The opportunity for intense spiritual change as a young adult is huge in those early years,” Chalfant said.
“The ability to have three to five days immersed in Christian teaching, worship, fellowship and fun in a camp setting is a unique opportunity to reach young people. In terms of the adult side of things, we didn’t have a good off-site opportunity where we could do marriage, singles’, men’s and women’s Bible studies and retreats.”
Country Lake has become a destination for churches, organizations and businesses all across the country. It is typically booked 46 weekends a year, and last year it hosted more than 16,000 guests.
“As always, God’s ways are not our ways,” Chalfant added. “Southeast lay leadership saw this as an opportunity for the Southeast flock, but we didn’t realize 20 years later that we would have more people from other churches using the facility than Southeast because God’s vision was bigger than our vision.”
For the past 16 years, Office Manager Nancy Stone has watched Country Lake grow.
“We were not particularly busy Monday through Thursday, it was just the weekend, and it might not be every weekend,” Stone said. “I’ve seen us grow numerically to where we have people here during the week for a retreat or day session, then they leave and a new group comes in. When I first came, there were just a few camps, but now we are booked solid June and July. I’ve also seen new dorms go up, wagons and teepees brought in, the new bathhouse and the new worship center. It’s amazing how God has worked through this ministry over the years.”
Elder John Schmitt, who is Country Lake’s board chair, is grateful for how God has spoken into the hearts of students at Country Lake.
“The thing that warms my heart is to see how many kids use that lake not just to ride the zipline into the water, jump off the blob (lake bouncie), swim or canoe, but the number who use it to get baptized each summer,” Schmitt said.
During this year’s summer camps, 305 young people made first-time decisions for Christ.
Blankenbaker Campus Children’s Pastor Steve Young, who has been to more than 60 camps, was an intern the first year Southeast held summer camp at Country Lake.
“Brett DeYoung was in charge,” Young said. “I remember he said to me and another intern, ‘The first night the kids are here, you need to plan a game.’ There were 100 kids. We’re interns, fresh and didn’t know what to do. I remember we thought it would be fun to break piñatas at midnight. We hung four piñatas on basketball hoops, one with candy and the others were filled with birdseed, flour and the fourth I don’t remember. The camp director didn’t think it was so funny when the brand new asphalt on the basketball court was caked with flour. It took two or three summers before they were able to pressure wash it out.”
Over the years, the power has gone out in the summer heat. A pilot has landed his helicopter on campgrounds and hovered over the lake to spray the kids as he flew away. WLKY Sports Director Fred Cowgill had a segment on the news, “I Challenge Fred,” and he came to camp twice to do the blob bouncie and then have a water balloon fight with the kids.
Young, who got married at Country Lake, said 20 years of summer camps is beginning to bear fruit in the next wave of families.
“We’re starting to see that first cycle of the second generation of campers attending, which is pretty cool,” he said. “Camp has been not just life-changing for kids to get away and experience some new things, but eternity changing for thousands and thousands of kids that have been impacted there and been baptized in the lake. It’s amazing how much influence God can have in such a short amount of time.”
And what happens at camp doesn’t stay at camp.
“I would say this has happened at least half a dozen times,” Young added. “A kid makes a decision to serve Christ, we call home and let the parents know and ask if it’s OK if they get baptized at camp and invited them. The parents then asked, ‘While we’re there, would it be OK if we got baptized too?’ I’ve baptized a dad in the lake, then he’ll turn around and baptize his son.”
Behind the scenes
No one typically thinks about all the behind-the-scenes work it takes to make camp happen.
Executive Director Ross Knecht wants everyone who visits Country Lake to have a good experience.
“I tell all of our leaders our job is to really be unseen,” said Knecht, who joined the Country Lake staff in 2011. “We really want to offer an environment that is conducive to spiritual renewal, personal refreshment and aspiring relationships. The way we do that is by eliminating as many distractions as possible so they can do frontline ministry.”
Country Lake’s theme verse is 1 Peter 4:8, which says, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
“Hospitality is, ‘It’s going to be 95 with a heat index of 106 today, and we’re going to have jugs of water everywhere,’” Knecht added. “We’re not going to run out of water because as soon as that happens, hospitality runs down the drain. We really take the time to think through what hospitality without grumbling means.”
Country Lake’s grounds have to be maintained along with its hotel, restaurant, lodges, dorms and more.
“Logistically, we spend hours and hours and hours talking through the little things that no one will ever see, but if we didn’t do it, it would be felt in a big way,” Knecht said.
Country Lake is staffed by a team of full-time, part-time and seasonal workers.
“The greatest feedback we’ve had in the last year is how incredible our staff is,” Knecht said. “That’s not, ‘Wow, they really take the garbage out well.’ It’s really more of a spirit and heart. They have made Country Lake an environment where people can do ministry in.”
Southeast member Ross Batchelor is a longtime volunteer who helps maintain the facilities.
With a few others, Batchelor put up the paintball course, redid the old lodge, worship center and snack shack, and built the dining tables.
“We’ve basically touched about every building on that site,” he said.
In March 2012, a tornado cut a 49-mile path from Fredericksburg, Indiana, to Bedford, Kentucky, destroying hundreds of homes and killing 11 people.
Henryville, Indiana, which is about two miles from Country Lake, was among the hardest hit areas.
“The tornado was a way for God to turn the page for me,” Knecht said. “I was a little over a year in. I was struggling with the transition, and it was hard for me mostly because I didn’t have a distinct vision of what I felt God was leading us to. The tornado provided a blank slate. That turned into a new starting point for us.”
A day after the tornado, Knecht moved to establish Country Lake as a staging ground for tornado relief workers.
“The alternative to that was we get back to business as usual and forget about the community,” he added.
The community, parachurch relief groups and volunteer organizations all across the country rallied to begin rebuilding Henryville. In the following 18 months, Country Lake housed and fed more than 10,000 volunteers.
“God used Country Lake in a big way that year to just love on the community, which is how the church really looks like the church,” Schmitt said.