Branson taking the spiritual lead

This vacation hot spot is more than just the fun it promotes. The author of a book about faith in Branson says religious themes are found in the shows, theme parks and the area's landscape.

Linda Leicht

After attending plenty of Branson shows, sometimes three in a day, many visitors wrap up their vacation with another kind of show — church.

Tim Hill has been taking the stage at the Jim Stafford Theatre every Sunday morning for about five years, not to entertain his audience with Branson-style singing and dancing, but with the word of God.

"We are seeing miracles," Hill said. "People are accepting Jesus Christ and people are being healed in the theaters in Branson."

The sense that Branson has been divinely elected to bring people to faith is the subject of an upcoming book.

Aaron Ketchell has been visiting Branson since he was a teenager. The 34-year-old religion and American studies scholar at Kansas University has turned his interest in the Ozarks into a book about the spirituality he has seen develop in his family's vacation spot.

"Holy Hills: Religion and Recreation in Branson, Missouri" will soon be published by Johns Hopkins University Press, but the public is invited to get a preview of Ketchell's work at a Monday lecture at Missouri State University.

"In Branson, church reveals itself outside church doors," said Ketchell, whose lecture will focus on the "very, very subtle brand of religiosity" he finds at Silver Dollar City.

Ketchell recalled a visit to the theme park when he noticed that the rock cairns had speakers in them and were playing gospel music.

"The religiosity is even woven into the landscape itself," he said.


Jack Herschend, co-owner of Silver Dollar City with his brother, Pete, has overseen much of the park's development.

Herschend, 73, came to Branson from the Chicago area when he was a teenager after his parents purchased the park. He was no Christian when he arrived nor was Branson much of a religious place, he said.

"There really wasn't much of a Christian culture in Branson before the 1950s," said Herschend, who recalled that the Presbyterian church, the largest church in town, had an attendance of about 75 each Sunday.

Herschend's own conversion experience has some distinct similarities to the city's own embrace of Christian spirituality. Both were introduced to religion by a single man. Herschend credits a "traveling hardware salesman," John Shanahan, with giving him the time and interest, and eventually a book, that changed his life when he was 28.

The man he credits with doing the same for Branson is Joe White with Kanukuk Kamps. White, whose father started the camps, moved to Branson in the 1960s, working at Silver Dollar City, and returning to live. He became a "pied piper for kids in the Branson community," said Herschend.

"He led many of those young people to Christ," he said. "We're in our third generation of those young people."

The culture that White and Shanahan planted in Branson has produced fruit all along Missouri 76, straight up the mountain to Silver Dollar City.

The Herschends both became committed Christians and both used their faith as the basis for their business decisions.

"We found ourselves with this tremendous new experience and new reason for doing things," said Jack Herschend. "We met on a log out behind the Wilderness Church (in Silver Dollar City) and agreed that God has blessed us with this tremendous asset in the cave and the park. We wanted to figure out how to use it for the Lord."

Like Branson, all of the Silver Dollar City properties are geared to welcome all visitors, no matter what their faith. But the bottom line for the Herschends is they and their employees live by "Christian values and ethics" and that is reflected in their businesses.

One way that is done is through the company's Servant Leadership program, that uses a biblically-based business style. The program also was introduced to the community business leaders.

The result is not a business style that "hits you over the head" with religion, but provides a fertile ground for Christian values.

"The Christian culture is something that is fragile," said Herschend. "It can easily be lost, particularly in a community that's changing and growing so fast."


Hill came to Branson from California, where he had a thriving business, was building a new home and saw himself as an evangelist in a community where exciting things were happening.

In the Ozarks hills he not only found a place that welcomed Christianity, but he was sure God had sent him there to work. He was convinced that he was headed to the right place when relationship expert and author Gary Smalley, now a good friend, told him the story of a prophecy by Corrie ten Boom, author of "The Hiding Place." The Dutch woman had a vision of angels as she was flying over Branson and declared that it was going to be a place that would be blessed by God.

For Hill, that prophecy has come to fruition. "This has been an incredible harvest ministry for souls," he said.

Hill's service is one of several worship services in theaters around the city on Sunday mornings.

"A lot of people use their show services as a capstone to their stay," said Ketchell. "It's a crescendo for their vacation."

With 600 to 700 people in the theater during the tourist season for Hill's service, that appears to hold true. Hill says many of those people want even more.

He has opened a new church, Church of the Acts, in an old theater on Missouri 76 near Silver Dollar City. The church doesn't use a theater style performance. Instead, it relies on an ancient style of worship found in the Bible's book of Acts, with those attending sharing a meal, celebrating Communion and listening to a teacher.

The church offers services on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, when the area theaters are filled with audiences for their featured acts.

But Hill said he will never abandon his Sunday morning theater service, which offers a unique venue that draws people of all faith backgrounds.

"All the stigma is gone when they come in to worship," he said.


There may have only been a handful of churches and few worshippers when the Herschends arrived in Branson in 1950, but today there are countless churches, some as big as the theaters on the strip.

First Baptist Church of Branson was a "very small" church in the 1950s, Herschend recalled. Today, the church has 1,200 members, and about 750 people attend each Sunday morning. Most are residents. Many are tourists.

Jay Scribner came to the church in 1977 and retired as its pastor last year. In that time, the church has grown by at least 500 percent.

"I've seen a very positive thing happen with Christianity and religion in Branson," he said.

He has watched the growth in theater ministries, especially over the past five years. He also has seen more tourists arrive in his church, preferring a more traditional worship style.

"In the 21st century culture, I think there's room for both, especially in a place like Branson," he said.

Ketchell has watched the rise in religious expression in Branson. He has poked around looking for it's signs and opined on its development. He has pointed out the nostalgic idea that the little city tucked away in the Ozarks hills represents a pure form of Christianity, a nondenominational brand of religion that isn't tainted by sectarian feuds. And he has witnessed the modern expression of those ideas broadcast from faux rocks and performed on theater stages.

It is the story that brought Branson into the public consciousness in the 1920s that reveals the message of Branson, he said. Harold Bell Wright, who wrote the book "The Shepherd of the Hills," offers the "meta-narrative of the city and the region," he said.

It is the story of a preacher struggling with his faith who comes to the Ozarks to find solace, Ketchell said. It's a story that continues to inspire millions who visit the city, whether they know it or not.