After 29 years, the Cornerstone Festival, being held this week in Bushnell, Illinois, is calling it quits. Sad news for those who believe in the transformative power of faith and art, and particularly for those dissatisfied with sanitized, safe-for-the-whole family, Christian entertainment. This week's smaller gathering is really a post-script to the event that I believe will be recognized by future generations as one of the most significant happenings in the American church in the last century.
Grandiose? Probably. Objective? Probably not. But I'm right anyway.
Crowd shot at the 25th anniversary event in 2008
I've been at every single Cornerstone Festival, starting with the 1984 debut when I was just 13. It shaped my concept of ministry and my understanding of important theological concepts. It also introduced me to a world of music that was way too "Christian" for the world of mainstream rock 'n' roll, and way too rock 'n' roll for the mainstream church. Through music, drama, speakers, poetry readings, comedy troupes, film screenings, dance, paintings, and photography, Cornerstone broke open the possibilities for redeeming the arts, both for the purposes of drawing unbelievers and challenging believers.
This annual experience sparked a dream in my heart, and I have been following it ever since. Every aspect of my life has been touched by this community, and after this week, it's as if my hometown is being wiped from the map or my native language is being officially retired. I fully believe the church is witnessing the end of a very important era.
Cornerstone should not be dismissed as merely a contemporary Christian music festival; such events abound from coast to coast, and even on cruise ships, attracting millions of CCM fans. But there has only ever been one Cornerstone, where much of what is heard and said would curl the hair of the average Christian radio fan. And I'm not even talking about the music yet!
There's nothing wrong with Christian music festivals. But when one closes, like Spirit West Coast did this year, others will fill the void. Fans of those events have plenty to choose from. But when Cornerstone closes up shop, nothing will fill its shoes. Many of the surface level fruits of Cornerstone are being replicated elsewhere, but the heart and passion behind the festivalare unlikely to be repeated unless done so by Jesus People USA (the Chicago folks who run the event), or a group of like-minded Christians.
JPUSA, a rag-tag community of spiritually passionate, culturally engaged disciples, has redefined the concept of contemporary Christianity for thousands in the U.S. and around the world. With roots planted firmly in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s, these converted hippies and counter-culture types took the account of the early church prescriptively, selling whatever they had and throwing in together for the Kingdom. They spoke the language of their day—which in their case involved lots of hair, electric guitars, an old school bus, and bell-bottom jeans—and went from town to town setting up what they called "Jesus Rallies." Public parks, church parking lots, high schools … nowhere was safe from these radically saved Jesus freaks. They used music, drama and anything else at their disposal to draw a crowd. Then they got out their Bibles. While most communes—Christian and secular—have faded into history, JPUSA is alive and well and now a part of the Evangelical Covenant denomination.
Glenn Kaiser performing in 2011
The musical centerpiece of the JPUSA community was Resurrection Band, one of the earliest examples of real Jesus rock. Frontman Glenn Kaiser, almost as passionate about blues-based rock as he was about the gospel, became one of JPUSA's pastors even as his band flourished. Rez Band performed at many of the early Christian festivals. Often relegated to afternoon side-stages, the members of the band, and JPUSA in general, started wondering what it would be like to host their own festival.
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