Dispatches from SoulFest 2009


This is SoulFest.

For several years now a group of youth from our church have gone up to Gilford, New Hampshire to be a part of it. Last year (SoulFest 2008) was my first time at the event, my introduction to this giant, whirling evangelical extravaganza. As a group, we go all the way with SoulFest, arriving when they open the gates for campers and leaving the morning after the final concert. This means we get the full SoulFest experience, which for starters, involves camping on a field for five days with a pack of teenagers. It means baking in the sun, simmering in the August heat and humidity. It means huddling under tents, taking shelter from the perennial thunderous downpours. It means begin surrounded by crowds, made up people of all ages (though largely of the younger demographic) that are stylishly dressed and surprisingly polite; crowds that are everywhere present, in lines for sandy showers and sweaty bathroom stalls, filling the sides of the roads and the fields across the mountain with tents and campers, and crowding in close to the stage and spilling up the mountainside for the various concerts. Because, oh yeah, SoulFest means taking in lots of music and bombast and social justice appeals from the stages and glowing white tents that line the paths winding up the side of the mountain.

I was surprised to find just how overwhelming an event and how ambitious an endeavor SoulFest is, attempting to be a whole lot more than just a  series of concerts or a Christian music festival. Oh no, SoulFest is (as they now bill it) “New England’s Premier Music and Social Justice Event.” And beyond the music and the worthy causes, there are lectures and workshops, an art gallery, a climbing wall, skate-boarding demonstrations, worship services, prayer tents, bonfires, and lots of opportunities for consumption. In addition to the expected cds and t-shirts of the featured artists, at SoulFest you can buy a huge dog-feed-bowl of greasy carnival cheese fries, a “Virginity Rocks” t-shirt, a hand-carved wooden ring with a Jesus fish engraved on the top, or a Scofield reference bible, leather-bound.

In short, SoulFest is overwhelming. And as one who grew up in evangelicalism, who graduated from an evangelical seminary, and who pastors in an evangelical church (with youth, many of whom are brand new in the faith, attending the event), I am bound to experience this evangelical carnival emotionally. It makes me angry. It makes me hopeful. It makes me sad. And in the end, it refocuses me on what is most important.

Because this is my bottom line when it comes to SoulFest. SoulFest is as accommodated and as radical, as uncertain and as contradictory, as the greater American evangelicalism out of which it grows. Thankfully, it is not the whore of Babylon that some part of me feared when I first went up. There are surprising signs of life, and indeed that this massive event could even happen – in New England – demonstrates the continued surprising vitality (if not spiritual health) of the evangelical movement. But there is also, as anyone knows who looks critically at the evanglical branch of the Church in America, much that is vacuous and much that is foreboading for both the present and future life of the movement. SoulFest is a picture of the movement that spawned it, and it will live and die based on the vitality of the Christians that support it. Looking forward, if it is to remain and remain in any way distinctively Christian, it will do so only to the extent that the church produces genuine disiciples, rooted in the Gospel and the Word. And looking around at SoulFest as a current picture of how well the Church is doing at producing these kinds of disciples…well, it’s hard to say.

As always, there is the extreme disconnect between a band onstage, rocking out with pyrotechnics, flashing lights, and hydrolic lifts that raise them above the crowd while they thrash their guitars and – the cross.


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