Jeff Elbel attended his first Cornerstone Festival in 1991 while he was living in Champaign, Illinois. The event was 150 miles away in the small Illinois town of Bushnell, and was such a formative experience, he made sure to carve space in his schedule to make the trip for the next two years. Then he relocated to California in 1994 and decided against traveling half way across the country to attend the event—the distance proved more than he could bear.

"The entire week that Cornerstone was going on, I was looking at my watch," Elbel recalls. He kept track of when his favorite bands were performing, as well as the seminars whose subjects most attracted his attention. The obsession took its toll on his work productivity, and tensions developed at home. "I basically made my wife miserable, so she finally just told me to go from now on." He hasn't missed a festival since.

Cornerstone is perhaps best known as the premier alternative rock festival of Christian music, with performance opportunities for a mind-bending range of genres that span punk, folk, metal, jazz, and bluegrass. The event often draws attention for the freedom that many attendees feel concerning their fashion sense, sporting multiple piercings and tattoos while shaping their hair into strange configurations. But those who travel by plane, train, and automobile to spend their July 4 holidays in Bushnell are attracted to something more that what outsiders first notice.

Crazy haircuts are common at Cornerstone—among all age groups. (Photo by Megan Sontag)

Crazy haircuts are common at Cornerstone—among all age groups. (Photo by Megan Sontag)

"They're not coming to see a particular band; they're coming to be part of the community," says John Herrin, the festival's director. Over the years they have shared campsites, the love of music, the notoriously cruel weather, and most of all, a passion for Jesus. The 2008 Cornerstone reunion—from June 30 thru July 5—is extra special for attendees; the festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Building the Foundation

The idea for Cornerstone originated with Herrin in the 1980s when he was the drummer for Resurrection Band (often called REZ or Rez Band), whose members live in the inner-city commune Jesus People USA. While on tour, the band played at the few large Christian festivals that existed at the time, even though they didn't always fit in. The hard rockers drew their sound more from Led Zeppelin than Pat Boone, with lyrics that went beyond inspirational themes to cover ground that other Christian artists often feared to tread, like the pain of divorce and the injustice of apartheid.

"We were the odd man out," recalls Herrin. Turns out that was something they shared in common with many of the young people who also attended such festivals, often dragged by their parents. The band was relegated to playing mid-day while acts such as Dallas Holm and The Imperials were the featured evening acts.

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Herrin began to envision a new kind of Christian music festival—part church conference, part Woodstock. To the joy of some and the consternation of others, JPUSA succeeded.

Cornerstone was first staged in Grayslake, Illinois from 1984 to 1990. In 1991, JPUSA moved the festival to Bushnell, where they had purchased 570 acres of property—mostly pasture and including a 44-acre lake. As many as 25,000 people have camped there in any given year since.

Some changes will be made to celebrate Cornerstone's 25th anniversary. On Friday night, for only the second time in the history of the festival, all but the Main Stage will be closed for a combined evening of worship. More than a dozen bands will play during the service, entitled "Worship God with Dirty Hands," and singer/songwriter/producer/pastor Charlie Peacock will lead communion.

Both Resurrection Band and DeGarmo & Key—another one of Christian music's leading acts in the 1980s—are reuniting for the occasion. Because of his fondness for the festival, Eddie DeGarmo himself contacted Herrin to see what he thought about the act playing at Cornerstone. "Last year, we were awarded the prestigious Visionary Award by ASCAP. We reunited there and played three songs at the awards ceremony. I must say we can still rock, so we decided to play for the fans again at Cornerstone."

A Cornerstone for Christian Music

Herrin says the success of Cornerstone stems from JPUSA's commitment to being authentically diverse. "Cornerstone has the freedom to say we're not going to try to be everything to all people," Ironically, it's that very freedom that enables the festival to do just that.

Underoath is just one of many popular bands that have graced Cornerstone's Main Stage. (Photo by Scott Stahnke)

Underoath is just one of many popular bands that have graced Cornerstone's Main Stage. (Photo by Scott Stahnke)

Cornerstone's reputation was built in large part on the music. More than 650 bands are scheduled to play on ten festival-sponsored stages in 2008, as well as other stages on site sponsored by groups like Compassion International. Many of Christian music's biggest groups—as well as some popular mainstream bands—got their start playing at the festival's new band showcase. P.O.D., Switchfoot, Third Day, Sixpence None the Richer, Mute Math, Underoath—all were relatively unknown when they first played in Bushnell. Many of them have since made repeated trips to play the bigger stages.

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Linda LaFianza, co-publisher of the e-zine Phantom Tollbooth, says the event is the most important Christian festival of the year. "The most interesting and authentic music is coming through Cornerstone. MuteMath and Switchfoot won't play other Christian festivals for fear of being labeled as Christian bands, but are eager to appear at Cornerstone."

For other bands, Cornerstone is a must-stop destination. Elbel and his band Ping have no expectations of their group hitting it big, but they are perennial performers because they enjoy the bonds formed between artists and audience. "We always feel like we're part of the community, even when we're on stage," Elbel says. "We're just a couple feet above others, but we know most of the people who come to our shows."

Beyond the Bands

In addition to the music, the festival has since become known for its seminars and creative outlets for the entire family. That was intentional. Herrin had been as dismayed by the selection of speakers as he was frustrated about the lack of musical diversity. He recalls attending a festival in which one of the speakers on the main stage told the audience that healing was possible for all who have enough faith. "A couple speakers later, Joni Eareckson Tada comes out on stage in her wheelchair. What are people supposed to think?"

Attendees also had no opportunity to ask questions of the speakers. So Cornerstone organizers decided to reserve entire days for multi-session seminars that allowed for interaction between presenters and attendees. The seminars and other educational offerings are as diverse as the music. This year, more than 200 hours of seminars are scheduled. Attendees can sit under a tent and listen to one of the world's leading theologians, Yale professor Miroslav Volf speak on "Us vs. Them: Identity, Otherness & Reconciliation," or listen to JPUSA Pastor Wendi Kaiser speak on "Sex, Love, and Dating: Connecting the Dots."

Every year, Cornerstone brings in a wide array of speakers to inform and inspire during the daytime sessions. (Photo by Zoltan Foxx)

Every year, Cornerstone brings in a wide array of speakers to inform and inspire during the daytime sessions. (Photo by Zoltan Foxx)

In past years, attendees also have had the opportunity to hear such varied presenters as Jean Vanier, John Perkins, Stanley Grenz, and Brian McLaren. "We get the best speakers and seminars for this event," says Glenn Kaiser, best known by many for his solo work and as frontman for Rez Band, also serving as one of the JPUSA pastors. "They're more important than the music."

Kaiser laughs as he shares how a speakers sometimes returned to their trailers in disbelief, saying "I can't believe a guy with a huge Mohawk is taking notes from my seminar." The fashion styles have been known to initially disorient a presenter.

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Years ago, Vernon Grounds, the chancellor of Denver Seminary, quipped, "I feel like I've crossed a cultural divide."

Cornerstone also offers plenty for those who revel in the esoteric. In The Imaginarium, participants can delve into pop-culture themed seminars like "The God Who Loves Monsters," "Dorothy Sayers vs. C.S. Lewis," and "Hail Britannia." Audiences at the Flickerings film showcase muse over the canon of Ingmar Bergman and discuss the merits of  "What Would Jesus Buy?" a documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock, best known for his film Super Size Me.

Community for All Kinds of Christians

The festival's willingness to traverse traditional evangelical boundaries has drawn some harsh criticism and occasional protests. According to Kaiser, some churches won't bring their youth groups because so many "pre-believers" and "fringe Christians" attend Cornerstone. But just as some adults fear the environment, others bring young people specifically for it. "Parents bring kids who won't listen to the gospel in any other venue," Kaiser says.

People come for all kinds of reasons, however, and some have baffled even the organizers. "We've had a lot of honeymoons at the festival, which I think is crazy," Kaiser says laughing. "We've even had weddings at the festival!"

Others come because they want to help. The festival is heavily dependent on the volunteers, who help with everything from picking up the trash to managing the events. Elbel runs the Gallery Stage, while LaFianza and her co-editor Shari Lloyd supervise the press tent, where artists stop for interviews.

Cornerstone would not be possible without assistance every year from a small army of volunteers. (Photo by Scott Stahnke)

Cornerstone would not be possible without assistance every year from a small army of volunteers. (Photo by Scott Stahnke)

Organizers need six hundred attendees to volunteer their time to supplement the 300 from the Jesus People community. "There's no way we could do it without the volunteers," Herrin says. The festival costs $1.6 million to produce but generally breaks even on the operating costs. "I'm surprised we've been able to hang in there financially," says Kaiser. "There have been plenty of ups and downs, but has God ever been faithful."

The proliferation of festivals has made putting on Cornerstone more difficult. "There are hundreds of events this year—easily," Herrin says. As a result, people don't have to travel as far to hear their favorite artists. Booking the most popular artists can require too much money. In its early days, artists would remain at the festival for days and spend time talking with fans. Tight schedules now necessitate that bands arrive, perform, and leave immediately for the next festival. By helping launch so many artists, says Herrin, "We've been our own worst enemy."

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Herrin now notices a gap in the ages of the people who attend. "They come when they're teenagers. They stop when they're in the early twenties and starting their families. Later, when their kids are older, they start coming back again." It is not uncommon for grandparents to bring their grandchildren.

When the gates open, new communities are formed as people renew friendships and make fresh ones. Tents are placed alongside one another and common dining tents might be erected. An annual barbecue brings together roughly one hundred people, some of whom have previously only met online. Bible studies often are held within the communities that are as diverse as the rest of the festival. "You'll see people coming from the most straight-laced conservative church spending time with the Goth kids," Elbel says.

Lainie Petersen, who first attended Cornerstone in 1987 and has returned seven times, says the various communities also have a practical purpose. "Camping is tougher than it seems. When you pool resources and support with other people, you make everything that much easier."

That includes surviving the elements. When veterans talk about the weather, the conversation is closer to the stuff of legends than idle chatter. "There are two kinds of weather at Cornerstone: muddy and dusty," says LaFianza.

Anyone who has camped at least twice has their own survival story to tell. In 2005, when temperatures soared to 100 degrees, campers resorted to wearing bandanas over their mouths to keep out the dust. Storms that have battered tents and turned the field to mud are not uncommon. One of Elbel's favorite pair of shoes was a casualty. "My feet had sunk so far in the mud, they got left behind."

Storms kept Petersen awake way past 3 a.m. one year when she was camping and had no car. "My tiny tent flooded and there was nothing I could do about it. All I could do was stick my head out the tent to keep from drowning and giggle maniacally for the next two hours until the rain stopped." Having learned lessons the hard way over the years, Petersen wants to make sure others don't have to do the same. She has put together the website cstonesurvival, which provides all the tips someone might need in order to prepare for the event.

Petersen says she knows high fuel prices may keep some people away, but adds such obstacles can be overcome. "Really the best way to deal with that is to get creative and share resources. Share a car, share camping equipment, share food—it's easy when you think about it."

It's not just easy, but a way of life for the first 25 years of this legendary festival, and for many years to come in the community of Cornerstone.

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