The following article first appeared in Mother Jones. Subscribe here for more great content from Mother Jones.
Deep in central Pennsylvania, the roads are usually quiet, but today Route 747 is gridlocked. Cars crawl towards the Agape Farm on Rapture Street, which is tucked away in a small woodsy valley outside of Mt. Union. Handwritten signs along the road read "Welcome Creation," beckoning each caravan toward a weekend of worship. Just past the intersection of Hallelujah Highway and Glory Lane, the sound of "The Star Spangled Banner"—performed by the band Audio Adrenaline—echoes across hundreds of tents. Like the firing of a gun, it announces the advent of Creation, America's largest Christian music festival.
Let there be rock.
On and off over a long weekend, tens of thousands of teens will pack the field in front of the main stage, clad in neon tank tops and cutoffs and shirts bearing religious slogans and band logos. They are here to worship and enjoy the spectacle on three stages and dozens of musical acts like Ark of the Covenant, the Seeking, Living Sacrifice, and Rapture Ruckus.
Just before dusk, Solomon Olds, 34-year-old frontman for the popular Family Force 5, hits the main stage wearing his signature giant foam hands, which he pumps in the air, riling up the kids.
Soon he'll be drenched in sweat, rolling around on top of his ecstatic fans in a large plastic bubble.
As the band hammers out its loud, energetic songs ("Crank It Like A Chainsaw," "Earthquake") drawing from rock, hip-hop, and club music, Olds—a.k.a. Soul Glow Activatur—prances and shimmies across the stage in a white tank top, tight jeans, and a flat brimmed hat. (Many of the fans are similarly dressed.) "We're going to shake our booties for Jesus Christ!" he shouts during an interlude. "Y'all ready to get turnt up?"
The crowd goes wild and the band launches into its hyperactive rave-style hit "Cray Button" (as in "crazy"), as the audience chants along with Olds: "U-S-Cray! U-S-Cray!" Listen to the song.
Family Force 5 resembles cartoonish, party-obsessed Top 40 acts like Ke$ha and LMFAO, except without the drugs, liquor, or sex. "We want it to sound as good as, if not better, than what pop music can do," Olds explained before the concert. "I feel the Christian music scene is a little weird at times."
He should know. Olds comes from a family of Christian musicians. His father is Jerome Olds, a Christian singer popular in the 1980s. His brothers Joshua and Jacob make up Family Force 5's rhythm section. Yet his band is less overtly religious than most of the acts at Creation. They only mention God between songs, and catch flak from some of the more traditional believers for this. "We just have fun music," Olds counters. "I think a conservative audience usually has a problem with having fun."
After the band wraps up its set, a recruiter from Liberty University, a Virginia evangelist college founded by the late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, comes onstage to tout the school's "free swag…T-shirts, shades—we will get you swagged out every night," he announces. Students need only fill out a questionnaire and they will be eligible to win an autographed guitar, a $16,000 scholarship, or a $50 iTunes gift card.
Not unlike secular festivals, swag is everywhere to be found, as dozens of vendors peddle schools, services, and all manner of religiously themed merchandise.
Up the hill from the main stage, in one of the spacious exhibitor tents, 13-year-old Nathaniel is wearing 11 rubber bracelets around his wrists, each with the name of a different Christian rock band. He first heard Family Force 5 at last year's Creation and is now a die-hard fan; he and his mom drove 150 miles from Exton, Pennsylvania, to attend.
Nathaniel, dressed almost identically to Solomon Olds, scrutinizes hats for sale at the Family Force 5 booth, trying to complete his look. "Which one did he wear yesterday?" he asks the merch guy, eventually settling on a black cap with CRAY emblazoned across the front in bright red.
Some of the vendors give passing teenagers the hard sell: "Do you guys want to go on a mission trip?" one asks. Others are more subtle, relying on mainstream pop culture to reel in the kids. There's the Redemption card game, a soul-saving twist on Magic: the Gathering; pro-life greeting cards that look like Etsy products; and stylish leather bracelets that read "Jesus Saves." Especially popular are T-shirts that put an evangelical spin on popular sayings: You Only Live Once is converted to: "You Only Live Forever"…"if you are in Christ!"
Tom Demitry, a muscular man in early middle age with close-cropped hair, is the founder ofSpiritDomes. His company makes hats—although "in honor of Him," Demitry doesn't like calling them that. The idea struck him in church one day. "I asked God at that time, 'Give me a sign if you really want me to do this for you.' And the Holy Spirit just attacked me," he recalls. "I had tears pouring down, my stomach was flipping, my arms had goose bumps." And then God planted the name SpiritDomes in his heart.
They look like ordinary baseball caps, but with a Gospel twist: Demitry prints Bible verses on the undervisors; his Crown of Thorns line features thorns inside the dome. His goal is to have young people carry around a reminder of their faith on their heads. SpiritDomes are now sold in 550 stores nationwide, according to Demitry. "Younger generations absolutely love these things…because they look hip and cool, 'cause it's relevant to today's times," he says. "It's a great ministering tool for their friends."
He thinks Christians need to reach out to youth through fashions that appeal to nonbelievers as well. "Not too many years ago you would see hats or shirts that would say 'Got Jesus?' or 'What Would Jesus Do?' and that was it. And it just wasn't working." Demitry aims to influence the kids "from bassinet to casket."
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the farm, next to a smaller stage that features Christian punk and metal, two dozen kids dressed in graphic tees and Vans coast up and down the ramp at the festival's skate park. Trevor Nichols and Dalen Stroh, both 19, are perched against the fence, watching the skaters attentively. They're chaperoning a youth group and have brought along one of their young charges.
In their free time, Nichols and Stroh are administrators forChristian Memes, a Facebook group with more than 140,000 likes. As the name implies, they invent religious memes or offer a different take on mainstream ones. ("Memes… But Christian. Pretty Basic," the slogan reads.) One image features Christ in front of a soccer net. Caption: "Jesus Saves."
"It's easy to connect with the kids now that are growing up with memes and stuff," says Nichols, who aspires to be a pastor one day. "We're just showing people that Christians aren't stuck up, and like, as sad as people seem—that we can have fun and make a culture laugh and connect with people."
Sometimes people leave comments calling their memes blasphemous, but this doesn't seem to faze Stroh. "We're trying to save people; we're trying to reach out to the generation that takes light of this stuff," he says. "And as they come closer, they start asking us questions. And that's when we can start making a difference in their lives and bringing them to Jesus."
Stroh, like many Christians who embrace alternative culture, says he rejects the drugs, sex, and sin associated with it. For Nichols, it's a matter of adopting the right perspective. Last night, at a dance party hosted by Family Force 5, he danced suggestively, he admits, but he considers it a part of his worship: "Whenever Daniel was praising God, he was like practically naked dancing in front of God. There's nothing wrong with that."
Although he doesn't skate himself, Stroh says being a Christian skater means not cursing if you miss a trick, and not smoking a "doobie" after a session.
"Can I say that?" He looks to Nichols for guidance, slightly embarrassed for having just made such a direct reference to the drug.
CREATION STAFF AND VOLUNTEERS speak of Harry Thomas in reverent tones. Thomas is the amiable, white-bearded preacher who founded Creation nearly 35 years ago out of "a desire to reach young people through a festival format." This year, he's put on three—the Sonshine Festival took place in Minnesota in July and a second Creation fest just wrapped up this past weekend in rural Washington state. In all, the three festivals attract around 100,000 people.
Thomas, who splits his time between Virginia and New Jersey, has been a pastor and Christian radio personality. He and a friend came up with the idea for a Christian rock festival at his kitchen table in 1978. His wife came up with the name Creation.
The Pennsylvania fest, his flagship, cost an estimated $3 million to stage and drew more than 50,000 people, according to Thomas. Camping is free, and tickets for young kids run as little as $55 for the four-day affair. Adults pay $120, barely half the price of a three-day Lollapalooza pass.
Creation "can be" profitable, Thomas says, but big secular revenue sources such as alcohol vendors are not allowed. The goal is not to make money, but to reach young Christians at an age when many decide to leave their churches, and secular music can be decisive. "I can't point to any one note that's evil, but I can point to a lot of lyrics that are," he explains. "Whether it's heavy rap, music that might be geared to violent thinking, or some of these heavily sexual videos—might tear away at their faith."
In Pennsylvania, 4,000 attendees "gave their lives to Christ" and about 250 were baptized: "This is the reason why we do the festival, and it's the most important thing," Thomas says.
Creation is also a venue where political causes—such as the anti-abortion nonprofit Save the Storks—and religious institutions get a chance to connect with teen believers.
Over at the Liberty University booth, recruiter Jason Lewis is handing out branded Ray-Ban knockoffs and matching red tees. Liberty is a major sponsor of the festival, and Lewis speaks reverently of the college's founder, whom he had the opportunity to meet before Falwell's death in 2007. If the New Testament were still being written today, Lewis says, "Jerry Falwell Sr. would be in the Bible."
In addition to being a Liberty alum, Lewis is a rapper. In the booth, his Liberty theme song, "LU Anthem," plays in a loop on the flatscreen behind him. His nom de rap is Humble Tip—"to increase praise." Sporting dreadlocks and his red Liberty frames, he energetically flags down all kids who enter his orbit: "Hold on, let me snatch these girls over there."
Lewis has made it his mission to visit cities and suburbs from Miami to New York, spreading the word about Liberty. "He called me to reach the inner city audience," he explains. "I'm able to infiltrate different demographics and regions that a typical Liberty recruiter isn't able to go into."
If the dozens of festival goers forking over their contact information are any indication, he's also doing pretty well with this largely white crowd—another Liberty recruiter estimated that the college connected with more than 5,000 students at Creation.
The teenagers listen intently as Lewis extols his university's academics, social scene, and religious services, although their eyes stray periodically to the screen over his shoulder, where Humble Tip is rapping:
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, that's my school
No drugs, sex, or drinking, we define what's cool
His track ends with a boast.
I hope they're ready/We're the new Moral Majority.
"We don't get saved to keep it to ourselves," Lewis explains during a rare break in the teen-wrangling. "Any sort of pop culture, that's going to be a dynamite promotional tool."