Front and Center

Ichthus Festival

Victoria Moon

The year was 1969, the year I was born. Woodstock, that seminal musical event that changed the face of popular music forever, was the concert to attend. Free love was in the air, as were musical experimentation, free-flowing drugs and a cultural shift so vast and powerful its effects are still being felt today. Nothing was safe from the far-reaching effects of the hippie generation, and no institution or organization was immune to the changes - not even that bastion of conservatism, the Church. When this weird, longhaired skinny guy named Larry Norman took his Christian faith and sang it out to the rhythms of the rock, pop and folk music that were filling the air, he started a religious revolution still felt to this day.

In 1969, he released Upon This Rock, considered by many to be the album that started the genre of contemporary Christian music. This album defined the generation gap in the church, drawing lines between the old guard and the new, young converts who longed to make their faith culturally accessible. These "Jesus People" were looking to fit in somewhere in the no-man's-land between free love and hymn sings. They had a voice in Larry Norman, and other new voices like Randy Stonehill, the Jeremiah People and Phil Keaggy, but they still lacked a visual sense of community.

A handful of these young Christians and Robert Lyon, a forward-thinking professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Asbury, Kentucky, began to talk about something that would be like Woodstock but celebrate their faith as well as their music. In their mission statement, they decided they wanted to use the medium that would best be understood by youth. They chose the Greek word and symbol for "fish" for their name and logo, a symbol used by the earliest Christians as a secret sign to fellow Christians of their radical (and at that time dangerous) decision to follow the teachings of Christ. And in the spring of 1970, they put on the very first Ichthus festival in Wilmore, Kentucky, and the first Christian music festival in the nation was born.

A list of performers at Ichthus throughout the past 29 years reads like a "Who's Who" of CCM history, including all the founders of the genre like Norman, Keaggy and the Jeremiah People and also other greats such as Andre Crouch & The Disciples, the Imperials, Rez Band, Mylon LeFevre & Broken Heart and Petra. According to Deb Tuttle, PR coordinator for the 1999 festival, Michael W. Smith - one of CCM's current superstars - was a spectator at one of the early festivals and still speaks of the festival as a powerful element in his early spiritual formation.

Though the festival has changed a bit throughout the years, such as incorporating as a non-profit organization separate from Asbury in 1975, a name change to Ichthus Ministries, Inc., and a reorganization in the mid-Eighties, their mission statement remains the same as it did back in 1970. Since 1991, Gary Baker has been the CEO of Ichthus Ministries, Inc. and he has watched the ministry expand into a year-round ministry that, despite its successes, remains relatively small in comparison to other Christian festivals that have sprung up around the country, such as Cornerstone in Illinois and Creation in Pennsylvania.

In a recent interview with Lexington-Herald reporter Rich Copley, Baker discussed the idea behind what may be Kentucky's most underrated festival: "We feel like we're called to minister to the kids who come to the festival and we don't want the festival to become so big we can't minister to each person personally. We watch how effective we are in ministry, and if we need to cut back, we'll cut back."

Apparently the need to cut back hasn't come up yet, since the last month's festival drew somewhere around 18,000 people, an increase of 6,500 since 1991. This year's lineup included headliner Michael W. Smith, as well as other industry heavy-hitters such as Burlap To Cashmere, Out of Eden, Bleach, Big Tent Revival, Newsboys and Charlie Peacock. The festival was also held at a new site just a short distance away from the original site. Their new facility boasts 111 acres near the horse farms of Lexington, a new stage and sound system, more space to camp out under the stars, a second stage area for alternative and indie artists and huge screens to give even those listening in the back of the main stage area the live-concert experience.

They have also expanded their ministry to include a record label, Electric Guppy, which has signed its first band, Fling Down Jezebel. Despite their growth, the festival attempts to keep its sense of community by putting youth who request it in touch with local area churches and continuing their 30-year tradition of sharing communion and prayer on Saturday night, the last night of the festival.

I missed Woodstock, obviously. But I attended the Ichthus festival in April, joining with several thousand other people in the rituals of tromping long distances over dusty, bumpy trails leading from the campsite to the stages, waiting in endlessly long lines at Port-O-Potties and eating fast food from vendors serving from their RV's. I spent the night trying to sleep on impossibly hard ground in a tiny tent with my husband, who had gotten a touch of food poisoning somewhere along the way. All in all, it was a pretty typical festival, about what I've experienced before at festivals both secular and Christian.

But then I began observing the audiences at the festival, listening to the stories of other participants who left the shared communion event shaken and moved, watching scores of young people pray together and dance to the music of the bands, obviously lost in their own rhythms. There weren't any drugs or alcohol, but there were a lot of bizarre-looking people with tattoos, oddly placed piercings and hairstyles copied straight from Ani DiFranco. There was something in the air, something that I don't see much in the every day world I live in - a vibe of peace and joy straight from all the best stories I've heard about the Generation of Love.

Ichthus may not be Woodstock in all its wild glory, but it definitely carries on its spirit as it moves into the next century.