(RNS) — From the time he was a child in Alabama, Lee C. Camp was taught to pay attention to those around him and to make anyone he met feel at home.
For his mom, Southern hospitality and the simple kindness of making conversation was serious business.
“She would get very upset with us if we ignored an adult and didn’t say hello and engage them,” Camp, a theology professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, said in a recent interview.
“She taught us that you engage the adult in front of you and you learn how to have a conversation with them. It’s just part of what’s expected.”
Camp has put those lessons to good use in recent years as host of “No Small Endeavor,” a radio program, podcast and live show that explores what it means to live a good life. The radio show, which features long-form interviews with musicians, best-selling authors, scientists, artists and thinkers — currently airs on a handful of public radio stations, including WPLN in Nashville, with plans to expand in the new year.
Among the show’s guests: actor and author Rainn Wilson of “The Office”; Christian music legend Amy Grant; Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen; New York Times columnists and authors Esau McCaulley and David French; astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman; historian Kristin Du Mez; actor Charlie Sheen; and the late Charlie Strobel, a beloved Nashville priest who founded a homeless ministry called “Room in the Inn.”
The “No Small Endeavor” show has been described as “Fresh Air” with a Southern twang, with hints of “On Being,” the program about spirituality that ended its long public radio run last year. The guest list reflects Camp’s abounding curiosity about the ideas and people who shape our world.
“When we invite somebody, we feel like they have something really beautiful or true or good to contribute to the world,” he said. “We try to set up a space where they can offer their best.”
Esau McCaulley, who appeared on “No Small Endeavor” in September to discuss his memoir, “How Far the Promised Land,” said he was impressed by the show’s culture of hospitality and by the level of preparation Camp had done ahead of time.
“It’s always good to engage with someone where you can have a real conversation,” McCaulley said. “It’s also good to have people of faith who aren’t off in the corner but who can create a space where people from different perspectives are welcome.”
Public radio seems like a natural home for “No Small Endeavor.” But the journey to the airwaves took a number of twists and turns. The show grew out of Camp’s desire to create a Nashville version of Prairie Home Companion — the legendary public radio variety show set among the Lutherans of a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, Minnesota — combined with his love for breaking down what he calls “false dichotomies.”
The version created by Camp, with a host of friends, was known as the “Tokens Show,” a mix of theology, music, laughter and thoughtful commentary that ran for years starting in 2008 at Lipscomb, the Church of Christ university where Camp teaches.
“Tokens” — named for a quote from William Stringfellow about the search for the “resurrecting power of God in the world,” said Camp — found a supportive community at Lipscomb, which nurtured the show during its early years and remains a sponsor. The show also gets support from the Templeton Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.
Among the show’s highlights has been its annual Thanksgiving Show, hosted for years at the Ryman Theater and scheduled this year on Nov. 19 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where guests will include country music star Vince Gill and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. During the show, the audience will likely sing along with an a cappella version of the Doxology and “Thank You Thanksgiving” — a humorous hymn of praise to Turkey Day as the best holiday of all.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the show pivoted and created a podcast, with clips of music performances and interviews. Those conversations had also been part of the show but took on a central role when live performances were on hold. The podcast became the template for the current version of the radio show, said Jakob Lewis, one of the show’s executive producers.
The focus on a podcast and, later, a radio show was accompanied by a new name in 2022. The name “Tokens,” despite its theological roots, turned off both guests on the show and potential new audiences — sounding too much like “tokenism.”
Camp said the name no longer communicated what the show was about. The new name, he said, does a better job.
“Our tagline — exploring what it means to live a good life — describes in a very short number of words precisely what we’re up to,” Camp said. “It seems to have resonated well with people.”
Camp and the show’s producers also had to find a way to keep the show’s roots in Southern hospitality and yet make it accessible to a larger audience. In its early days, the show developed a following in what Lewis called a “hyperlocal, insider religious audience” that spoke a common language. That worked for a live show in Nashville but doesn’t work as well for a non-religious audience of people sitting in their cars and listening to public radio all around the country.
“A key tenet of the show has always been hospitality,” Lewis said. “And so how do we talk about things that we know are important and matter and be hospitable to an audience that may not speak a religious language?”
At the same time, the show’s Nashville roots and Camp’s experience as a theology professor who teaches about virtue and ethics make the show unique, said Lewis, who believes part of the appeal of the show to a national audience is that Southern perspective.
The show debuted first on WPLN, Nashville’s public radio show, and is now distributed by PRX. As part of their appeal to potential public radio stations, the “No Small Endeavor” team put together a holiday special, with expert interviews on gratitude. So far, about 40 stations have signed up for the special, said Lewis. He hopes more stations will pick up the special — and the ongoing show — in the months to come.
“We’d like to be on every station in the country,” he said.
Camp said the show already has exceeded his expectations. He’s grateful for the people he gets to work with — and that he gets to read some of the best books out there and then talk to the authors and thinkers about how to live a good life.
That’s something important in a polarized time. People who are just trying to live a good life need someone who can show them a better way, he said. And they want to hear meaningful conversation, not just people yelling at each other.
“There’s that old line about the world will be saved by beauty,” he said. “I think there’s something to that. We need compelling pictures of beauty. And so that’s what we are looking for.”