The Non-Believer’s Guide to Creation Festival: 8 Things You Need to Know

The biggest Christian music festival in the country is going on now. TIME has your top questions answered

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Courtesy Creation Festival

The traditional candle-lighting during the Friday evening Creation Festival concert.

There is a unilateral purpose to the Creation Festival. It falls somewhere beyond 60,000 youth-dominated fans rocking to hip-hop, electronic and top-40 tunes during a four-day outdoor event. TobyMac, one of the biggest names in Christian music, calls this purpose the “deeper side of what we are doing, pointing people to our Creator.”

The “grandfather” of all Christian music festivals, Creation opened June 27 in Mount Union, Penn., running four full days, drawing in around 60,000 visitors, most of whom camp at the Agape Farm site, eager to see some of most popular names in the tight-knit Christian music scene.

Once things settle down in Pennsylvania, the festival hits the road, traveling to Enumclaw, Wash., (it recently moved from The Gorge Amphitheater nearby after the venue had a change in management) for four days in late July, playing to an additional 20,000 fans—with a slightly different musical lineup—easily making it the largest and longest running Christian music festival in the U.S.

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Who is headlining this year?

For the acts, the allure is obvious. “To a lot of bands, it is the biggest audience they will stand in front of all year,” says TobyMac, who has been rehearsing a new show just for Creation that includes new music from his upcoming album, Eye On It. “It is a big stage and to stand in front of all those people, it is a little different. For those artists playing clubs and churches, to get on the grand stage looking at 60,000 people is an amazing experience.”

In the Northeast, expect plenty of praise and worship from David Crowder and Chris Tomlin on Wednesday; a more mainstream sound from Tenth Avenue North just prior to the rock/hip-hop/pop sound of TobyMac on Thursday; Friday gets a bit more out of the mainstream with a mix of crunk rock from Family Force 5 and rock from Thousand Foot Krutch; and Saturday will see some top-40 Newsboys with crossover rockers Switchfoot.

In the Northwest a month later, the feel is much the same—with RED, MercyMe and Relient K replacing some acts in the lineup.

Why all the camping?

The rural Pennsylvania location and the tendency of church youth groups to travel together makes camping at the Northeast site nearly a necessity. While camping is still a major theme in the Northwest, the proximity to Seattle makes it a little less of a requirement.

Billy Wheeler, who lives north of Seattle and has taken church groups to both Washington State locations says that kids get jazzed about seeing their favorite bands and having the camping experience with fellow believers. “Camping out is fun, but not quite as exciting as camping out together while intermittently walking over to see your favorite bands perform,” he says. “That is exhilarating.”

As shown by the heavy preregistration for the event, festival attendees don’t worry about who is headlining. “The question is not who is playing at Creation, but are you going to Creation and I wonder who is playing,” Thomas says. “It is a big difference. It is an experience, not a concert.”

What else goes on throughout the grounds?

While the main stage still provides variety—last year new pop star Jamie Grace came on stage following a straight rap group—the variety of fringe stages and other events keeps Creation Festival going throughout the day and well into the night.

The festival includes fringe, heavy metal, worship, kids, late night and indie stages. Expect to see everything from electronic to traditional Christian worship music, all timed throughout the day and night to keep people engaged.

“Our primary goal is to give tribute to our Creator and glorify God together,” Thomas says. “We don’t want people saying ‘I’m bored.’ We want people busy doing things.”

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How did Creation start?

Harry Thomas, a pastor who partnered with Tim Landis (who is no longer involved) to launch Creation in 1979 in Lancaster, Penn., says the purpose of the festival for the last 30-plus years has always been the same: connect youth to Jesus through music.

The vision took plenty of hard work, and wasn’t without hiccups, of course, as the festival’s initial site was pulled from them at the last minute. In a scramble, the festival was saved by the Philadelphia Electric Company, which offered up Muddy Run Park for the event. Of course, forgetting to secure trash collection and the lack of showers made for an interesting year, but the festival continued to grow after that. It eventually outgrew Muddy Run and moved to the larger Agape Farm in 1984.

Oh, the weather

Twice the Northeast event has had to move to Hershey Park because Agape Farm has become so muddy. Even in the Muddy Run Park days the park turned out to be more than just a clever name, as there were years there that the rain deluged the entire festival, which continued despite the downpours. In 1981 a tornado even swung close to the site. In 2003, in the second sudden move to Hershey Park, the festival was given last-second approval to use a military installation at Fort Indian Town Gap to stage campers.

This Woodstock-minus-the-drugs-experience shows up strong in the weather. TobyMac says he remembers signing autographs for kids caked in dirt and playing to crowds unable to jump or dance because they are standing in six inches of mud. “It is raw,” he says. “I think there is something about all that. It is like going to camp when you are a kid.”

Communion gets served to the entire crowd

The festival’s uniquely Christian worship stance comes out not only in the God-glorifying lyrics, but also during communion served to the entire crowd on Thursday evening (mass for Roman Catholics is on Saturday). The tradition started in 1984, when the festival was smaller at about 20,000 people, and has turned into a regular tradition.

How did the candle lighting start?

Now a regular Friday night tradition, where the entire crowd lights a candle to signify each person as a light for Christ in the world, the candle lighting had a much more necessary start. Just prior to Amy Grant taking the stage in 1983, a transformer blew and the entire lighting system went dark. Grant still climbed on stage and led worship songs (with the entire crowd singing) as people in the crowd shone flashlights toward the stage. At that point, Thomas remembered he had 10,000 candles stored in a trailer on site, which were quickly found and handed to the crowd.

What would a non-believer expect the event to feel like?

For non-believers walking into the Creation environment, Wheeler says he thinks they see the seriousness of a believer’s experience. TobyMac wants them to see love. “I sure hope they feel a part of a community almost immediately and welcomed into it,” he says. “I would hope they don’t feel proselytized to, but feel loved. You can go to lots of festivals and feel loved, mainstream or Christian or whatever, but I hope they would sense the music is inviting them into worshiping our Creator. There is something very deep about that, much deeper than rock and roll.”

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