Festivals are an increasingly prominent venue for spirituality and worship among Christians, but are they becoming a substitute for church involvement?
In the U.S., Christian rock concerts have become religious festivals, filled with pageantry, camaraderie, teaching, worship, not to mention music. The evangelical magazine Prism (May/June) reports on the mushrooming variety of Christian music festivals that bloom every summer. The premier event is the Cornerstone festival, launched 17 years ago by the Chicago-based community Jesus People USA.
Last summer the festival gathered the largest crowd in history, as 25,000 crammed onto an Illinois farm to listen to over 200 bands. Cornerstone blurs the lines between secular and Christian artists, as well as hosts an array of seminars (on everything from cults to popular culture), a film festival, art gallery, opportunities for social action, and debates about art and politics.
A new national event, called One Fest (http://www.onefest.org), is seeking to parallel Cornerstone, with a bent toward creating community and deeper faith among participants. John J. Thompson writes that these festivals’ “blend of seminars, impromptu experiences, main stages and body painting can suck even the most unfamiliar into the slipstream of joyful, culturally relevant fellowship. They can reinvigorate the faith and action of a long-time believer while providing unbelievers with an intimate glimpse into the true body of Christ.”
There does not seem to be much of a connection between the large crowds at these events and church attendance and membership, at least in Europe. For instance, Germany’s widely popular Kirchentag draws mostly the unchurched, judging by the low church attendance rates in Germany. The large numbers that attend church festivals and conferences in Britain over the summer likewise give the impression of religious vitality.
Religion Today.com (June 5) reports that last year’s festival-goers could not help but notice the discrepancy between prospering festivals and sharply falling attendance in many churches. British church attendance has fallen from just over 19 percent in 1975 to less than 8 percent today. “The festivals prosper, while the church is bleeding,” according to the original article in the Guardian.
The report says that the real beneficiaries of these gatherings are the growing number of para-church organizations and Christian companies. The involvement of parachurches may be why these successful events have failed to make an impact on the church. The existence of so many parachurch organizations, “going where the church is not going, doing what the church is not doing, only reinforces the notion that the church is irrelevant, out-of-date.” The “festival circuit” provides excitement and may well be in danger of becoming an escape from the realities of local church life, adds the Guardian.