Why would a small group of Orthodox clergy and lay people, college-aged and up, travel across the country to attend and attempt to minister at a rock music festival? The answer is somewhat complex. Was it an evangelistic work? Was it an enterprise geared simply toward Orthodox youth and young adults? Was it a recruiting effort for the seminaries that participated?
Before I reflect on our group’s experience and attempt to answer those questions, it might be best to first explain what Cornerstone Music Festival is. This festival was created in 1984 by an independent evangelical group known as Jesus People USA, and is now one of the largest Christian Music Festivals in the world. Some refer to it as a Christian version of Woodstock. Tens of thousands of people attend Cornerstone Farm in Bushnell, Illinois, each year and see over 300 bands play many styles of music, including rock, metal, punk, folk, hardcore and pop music. In addition to the many musicians, Cornerstone Festival also presents guest speakers, and features independent/foreign film screenings, writers’ seminars, and art workshops.
Cornerstone draws many Christians who are on the fringes of culture and are folks who are very hungry to learn more about their Christian faith. They don’t tend to be typical “suit and tie” Christians (one might find it more difficult to find a person without a tattoo there), but many exhibit an extreme fervor for Christ in their own way. Many who attend are seeking to understand God in a deeper way and this festival provides an opportunity for them to share ideas and meet other like-minded Christians from all over the world.
While Cornerstone is primarily attended by Evangelical Christians, in recent years both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians have become more involved at the festival. They rented a booth in one of the merchandise tents, which functioned as a central point of contact between them and the festival goers. They also set up a small tent apart from most of the noise, where daily services were offered.
Meanwhile, several students from both St. Tikhon’s Seminary and St. Vladimir’s Seminary (unbeknownst to each other) contemplated making a similar effort at Cornerstone. For some of us, Cornerstone was a Christian music “Mecca,” and played an intrinsic part in our developing lives as Christians. In the past, some of us performed in bands at the festival, while others were simply devoted festival attendees. However, in each case we came to share a common vision: Cornerstone Festival needed a committed Orthodox presence. During a missiology class presentation at SVOTS, I proposed the idea of taking a group of Orthodox clergy and laity to the festival.This was not an original idea, but one that has been shared by many students over the last few years. Much to my surprise, I was immediately inundated with volunteers, all of whom were motivated to share the Orthodox faith in this rather unusual setting. Apparently the time was right, and the idea took fruition through the efforts of some of my fellow students and by way of the OCA’s Department of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry. As the possibility of actually going to Cornerstone grew, the word got around. Our brothers at STOTS, who shared in the same vision, joined in and carried a large portion of the weight of this effort, opening the way for a unique chance for seminarians from both seminaries to work together. This, perhaps, was one of the greatest blessings to all of us.
It was amazing to reveal Orthodoxy in the midst of the festival atmosphere. If you’ve ever attended such an event, you might recall an overwhelming presence of noise all around you. Picture yourself attempting to sing “Gladsome Light” while surrounded by the not-so-distant noise of multiple rock bands, each playing a different song simultaneously, and you will get the idea. Our efforts to serve daily vespers in the evenings were countered by a wall of disharmonious noise, probably akin to serving vespers in a war zone. And yet, God was praised, and the Gospel was preached. Many who had never seen an Orthodox service attended and were moved by what they saw despite the noise and distractions. To our delight, we met several young Orthodox Christians at the festival, who were equally delighted to be able to attend services there, and to meet fellow Orthodox Christians in the “wilds” of this festival. It was a great joy to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the early morning quiet, providing a beautiful counterpoint to the noise and chaos of each day.
Between services, we manned a “vendor” booth, where we offered books and other literature to those who were curious to know more. We had a wonderful time of ministry and outreach there, while talking with folks. Through the generosity of Orthodox publishers and a few parishes and individuals, we were able to give out well over 300 books and pamphlets to those inquiring about the Orthodox faith. There was a constant stream of people walking past our table in the merchandise tent. Many would stop and begin to ask questions. Some folks knew a little something about Orthodoxy while others had no clue what we were and didn’t even know how to ask the question about who we were. We had many wonderful conversations and made many new friends. We had a number of people really taken by what they heard and came back multiple times asking more questions and really opening up their hearts to hear more about the fullness of the Church within the Orthodox Tradition. Incredibly, some even shed tears as we shared our faith with them. We were able to share Christ with them in a way that they had never before experienced Him. In all of this, it was clear to us that God was with us and was blessing our feeble attempt to serve Him.
Some might argue that the Orthodox Church has no place at such a festival; one frequented by edgy, often theologically challenged, tattoo-covered Evangelicals. But whom is Orthodox Christianity meant for? A select group of people? A particular demographic? Those who don’t offend our cultural preconceptions? What utter nonsense! Orthodoxy is simply Jesus Christ in His fullness. I am reminded of Isaiah 55:1, where it says, “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat.” When we limit sharing the Orthodox faith to a particular demographic, we have constructed a cult. It may be a beautiful cult, but it is still a cult, and one in direct opposition to Christ.
Why did we go? Because we all believe that Orthodoxy embodies and preserves the fullness of the Christian faith. How could we resist the desire to go to a place where Christians gather and are willing to experience Christ in a way that they have never experienced Him before? I truly believe that our willingness to participate in this project in whatever capacity—donor, facilitator, planner, hierarch, cajoler, sweaty booth person, et al— produced (and will produce) real fruit based on the fact that someone actually went and did something. The Lord will bless our efforts if we will only go and make the effort. After all, how can the Lord bless efforts that are not made? The Lord blesses such efforts in many ways. Seeing the light that came on in peoples’ eyes when they heard the Gospel presented in its fullness was a true blessing for me. We recognize this light because we remember those moments in our lives where the light came on and our hearts were changed. That “fullness” was made incarnate by real people looking into the eyes of other real people seeking that fullness, and by simply allowing Jesus Christ to speak to their hearts. In some cases, God had clearly prepared the hearts of certain people, and for others the door was opened by the words God gave us to give to them. We look forward to future opportunities to return to Cornerstone with larger groups of young adults and college students, giving them the opportunity to share their faith in this unique place, where they too will see their own faith in Christ grow stronger in the process of making this missionary effort.
Allow me to provide you with an image that endures with me, frozen in my mind’s eye: three of the members of our group stand behind the little table in our booth each talking to an individual about the Orthodox faith, while another stood in the walkway talking to yet another couple about the Orthodox Church. Two more of us were busy trying to gather together more books stored away in boxes, in order to re-supply the stacks that kept disappearing in the hands of inquirers. I wish I could have captured that moment on film. It truly amazed me to see the response that we received. At a music festival, the booths that garner the most attention are typically those representing a particular band or musician, or those selling food. And yet our booth, featuring neither band nor food, had a constant flow of visitors. Many stayed and talked at length with us about what it means to be Orthodox. Which is to say, we had the opportunity to offer Christ to each of these people. Truly, people are seeking something fuller than what they are finding in their Evangelical, seeker-sensitive churches. At the very least they are curious and have questions.
The challenge for us as Orthodox Christians is to shine our light in the world without fear, and with love for all men, so that they, too, may find Christ in His fullness.
By Deacon James Bozeman