Walking the muddy footpaths through the concert and camping grounds of the Cornerstone Music Festival can be intimidating at first.

The festival, held by Chicago-based Jesus People U.S.A., attracts approximately 25,000 people each year to Bushnell, Illinois. And it seems as if the attendees have almost as many different styles, backgrounds and even hair colors.

A bright sun-dressed young girl strolls hand-in-hand with a tall man in a dog collar and three-foot pink spikes of hair. A two-year boy sports a mohawk. Not far away, an older man in Khakis thumbs through CDs for sale.

At the stages, a crowd at the acoustic Kendall Payne concert lift their arms in worship to the simple one-guitar music while a walking distance away (everything here is a walking distance away—although at times a long walk), young dancers cram the Stretch Armstong tent to slam against each other to the hardcore music.

This is the pride of Cornerstone and a trait often discussed at the July 3-7 festival. No matter the shape or size, these people come together as Christians.

"They're all unique in their own ways," said Kelly Wootton of Elburn, Illinois. "I guess no one cares what others think here. They are just expressing themselves."

Diversity is seen in the dress and appearance of attendees but also in their campsites that litter the expansive acreage of the middle-of-nowhere southern Illinois grounds. They come as youth groups, as friends and as whole families.

Tents and a surprising amount of VW vans take up every available piece of dirt or grass—on hillsides, against trees and along Lake Wildwood. Some have signs inviting folks to drop by, others have pink flamingoes and wading pools. License plates range from California to Saskatchewan to Georgia.

"People are accepting of however people come to Cornerstone because God created them that way," said Andy Hanson from Clearwater, Kansas.

Since the 18-year-old Cornerstone moved to Bushnell, nearby residents Charlie and Debbie Schade have brought their whole family. They have learned to embrace the diversity.

"When it first started here, we heard all about these different, scary people who would come, " said Debbie. "But it's really great. It is such an accepting, loving atmosphere."

Charlie—who warns that he and his wife do not always wear green and purple streaks through their hair—said the diversity comes from the variety of musical offerings.

As the festival boasts, it offers a "smorgasbord" of Christian artists. Over 300 diverse bands play over the five-day event. For instance, only tent walls separate hardcore heavy metal and worship music. On Saturday, the festival ends with southern rock band Third Day opening for '80s hair-metal band Stryper.

One thing unites the diverse musical types—the worship of Jesus.

"These bands draw the crowds, drive them with their music and preach the love of God," said Hanson, experiencing his first year at the festival.

On every stage, the music—no matter what kind—is accompanied by strong messages of living the gospel and as a Christian. As the DJ of the dance tent tells 2 a.m. dancers, "There are so many ways we have to praise God."

More than music offers opportunities to worship including art, lectures, prayer tents, and even sports.

Charlie says worship finds a way to reach concert attendees in a variety of ways and at any time. "You may not be ready at one show but there are enough worship opportunities here that Cornerstone will minister to you at some point," he said.

Debbie Schade says the Christian attitude goes beyond acceptance and worship to an everyday positive feeling.

Unlike Woodstock '99, where minor inconveniences like long lines and expensive water bottles were blamed by attendees for riots and violence, the Cornerstone composure is more understanding even in times of heavy rain on July 3 and lack of electricity on the Fourth.

"The power has been out for four hours and yet everybody stays calm and are hanging out," Debbie said. "It's all okay with people."

Meanwhile, despite the brown out which rendered much of the grounds powerless, Cornerstone continues. In fact, such overtaxing of the local power company's capabilities is expected, as it happens nearly every year.

Two small boys play at the beach building a cross in the sand bigger than either of them.

A group from Tennessee asks passersby for change to help them buy gas to go home while a family strums on guitars and sings. Other fans with power generators put on their own rock shows for crowds.

Wooton, 16, just sits on a hay bale along the road calling out hellos and starting conversations.

"I just meet so many people," she says about her three years of experience. "I just sit here and give high fives to everybody coming by. This is the best part."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

The official Cornerstone site has live coverage from the festival as well as the schedule, band bios, and other information.

Christianity Today's earlier articles on Jesus People U.S.A., which sponsors the festival, includes:

Jesus' People | Lessons for living in the "we" decade. (Sept. 14, 1992)

Conflict Divides Countercult Leaders | A 1994 Christianity Today article reports on the conflict between sociologist Ronald Enroth and JPUSA. (July 18, 1994)

Weblog: ChicagoTribune Investigates Jesus People USA (Apr. 3, 2001)