Beliefs Culture

NEWS FEATURE: Christian Rock Festival Marks 25th Year

c. 2003 Religion News Service

HERSHEY, Pa. _ Standing yards away from a bazaar of Christian T-shirts, CDs and jewelry, 18-year-old Sarah Buccos was drinking in Creation East, a music festival that highlights the diversity and popularity of contemporary Christian music.

“I really didn’t know that the Christian music industry existed until I came to Creation,” said Buccos, back for the second year in a row from Fairhaven, Mass.

Now, the university sophomore is immersed in it, enjoying the blaring music of Christian bands that “rock,” wearing a “Body Piercing Saved My Life” T-shirt and decorating her lower lip with a small, blue magnetic blinking light she bought in the exhibit area.

“It’s really made a positive impact on my life because now … I’m more free to worship in my own way,” said Buccos, who attends United Methodist churches. “I’m not constricted to hymnals.”

She joined tens of thousands of others who traveled to central Pennsylvania June 25-28 for the 25th anniversary of the festival that is part concert, part workshop and part revival.

For some, it was a chance to see their favorite contemporary Christian music artists. For others it was a time to introduce their young children to the fact that older teens can get excited about music with familiar beats but a Christian message. For most, it was a thrill to be in a huge gathering of people who shared their beliefs.

Usually held in the rustic setting of Mount Union, a town nestled in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the festival was forced by wet conditions to move to a stadium and arena at Hersheypark and campsites on the grounds adjoining the theme park.

The Rev. Harry L. Thomas Jr., a former disc jockey who leads a charismatic church in Medford, N.J., said the idea of the festival came to him in a vision in 1971.

“I felt the Lord had shown me thousands of kids on a hillside,” he recalled in an interview.

He and co-founder Tim Landis made it a reality in 1979, introducing “Jesus Music” artists Petra and Keith Green to a large audience. Five thousand showed when only 3,000 were expected.

After gathering for years in a park in Lancaster, Pa., the festival blew out the transformers when it reached 20,000 people. Thomas moved it to Mount Union in 1984, holding it there annually with the exception of a 1995 flood and this year’s adverse conditions.

Last year 70,000 attended, and organizers said a similar number trekked to Hershey this year. A West Coast version, Creation West, will be held for the sixth time July 23-26 in George, Wash.

The eastern festival continued to highlight big names in the industry, such as Michael W. Smith and tobyMac, and introduce new artists, such as Sandtown, an urban youth choir from Baltimore. They represented the range of sounds _ from praise and worship to hip-hop _ that emanate from contemporary Christian music.

But Barry Alfonso, author of “The Billboard Guide to Contemporary Christian Music,” said annual gatherings like Creation are more than a chance to hear established and new acts in this subgenre of music that sold almost 50 million albums in 2002.

“They mean a great deal to people as a gathering of faith,” he said, noting that they outlast many events in the pop music world.

Joel Lehman, a 17-year-old from Lancaster, camped out in a waterproof tent at the festival for just that reason.

“It’s an incredible thing when you see this many people that care about God,” said Lehman, who attends a Grace Brethren church and has been to Creation at least four times. “To be honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of much of the music here. But what keeps drawing me back is I can still enjoy the concerts simply because of the message that is being put across.”

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Speakers who take the mike before and after the musical performances are taken seriously.

When Joshua Harris, a popular speaker on relationships, spoke at the festival’s smaller venue, the Giant Center, 1,000 people were turned away when the air-conditioned arena reached a capacity of about 10,000.

While Josh McDowell, a longtime evangelical youth speaker, took his turn at the larger stadium on Friday night, the exhibit area was shut down until the music started again. His almost-hour on stage ended with hundreds coming forward to meet with prayer counselors about their new commitment to Christ.

“I don’t ask you to bow your heads,” he told some 30,000 in the stadium and more via screens in overflow seating at the center. “I don’t ask you to close your eyes ’cause God is more concerned about your heart than the position of your body.”

Thomas said the focus on the message is purposeful.

“We use the music as a way to get people to hear the word of God and respond to the word of God and to accept Christ,” he said.

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Thomas compared the array of music that draws youth in to the range of language translations of the Bible.

“Music is one of the major conveyers of the gospel through Christian church history,” he said. “And so if we can translate it into things that kids understand regardless whether they’re into rap or they’re into swing or whatever, we’re going to use it.”

tobyMac, who also is known as Toby McKeehan, thinks the multiple stages displaying the different types of music correct a stereotype about Christian music.

“I think too many times when people think about Christian music they think about a style of music, a specific style,” said McKeehan, who previously performed at the festival as a member of dc Talk. “Christian music _ you can have a hard-core band, a punk band, an R&B group, a rock band, a hip-hop group, straight rap … because your faith doesn’t dictate the style of music you love.”

McKeehan, like others, said the event is like a Christian version of Woodstock, the historic musical event of 1969. But people talk about religion rather than drugs being mixed with their music.

“It’s like a spiritual drug injection,” said Kristine Weiler, who attends an evangelical church in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and started coming in 1981 along with her sons, now 24, 20 and 18. “I owe Creation part of their upbringing as far as being young men of God.”

John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, said Creation is one of the oldest and largest of at least a dozen contemporary Christian music festivals held during the summer.

Although people come more for the entire experience, Styll said the music is the biggest draw.

“Relatively speaking, if you were to boil it down to cost per performance, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to hear a lot of acts,” he said.

One day _ with a dozen or more performances _ cost $33 in advance for participants age 12 and older; the four-day event fee for the same age group was $83.

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The atmosphere of shared faith, fun and fellowship is relished by the attendees. Many considered a candlelight service at the end of the day on Friday to be one of the highlights. Throughout the day, participants traded high-fives with those strolling through Hersheypark Stadium and “free hugs,” advertised on handwritten signs and T-shirts.

“It’s a really nice atmosphere,” said Sarah Chu, a 15-year-old Presbyterian with blue-streaked hair from Montclair, N.J. “Everybody’s friendly and … it’s not like in the real world where everybody’s not so friendly.”

But at least one attendee was concerned the event might be getting a little too touchy-feely.

“Embrace Jesus Not Strangers. No Free Hugs,” read a sign carried by Christopher Shaw, a 17-year-old Baptist from Dresher, Pa.

“The devil is always at work, even here,” he said.

And just as at any rock concert, some of the music was beyond some older ears. Berna Kline, a 72-year-old woman who came to cook for 70 members of a nondenominational youth ministry from Lebanon County, Pa., was relieved when Michael W. Smith took the stage because she could comprehend his words.

“They have wonderful speakers,” she said.“Most of the groups I don’t understand.”

Buccos, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell student, on the other hand, was there to hear _ and enjoy _ every band.

“I’ve been front row for all of ’em because I forced my way to the front,” she said.

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