Cornerstone Festival's Approach To Ministry

The Phantom Tollbooth's discussion took a more serious turn when we explored the foundational beliefs of the festival with its executive director, Henry Huang.

Phantom - Do you have a musical background?

Henry - (Laughs) No, I don't, not really, but I've been involved in the Christian music world since the early seventies. I didn't really want to come back and do Cornerstone when they asked if I would. I didn't like the Christian music world. I thought there was a lot of shenanigans going on, even back then, but one of the pastors said, "Yeah, there is a lot of bologna going on, but isn't that all the more reason for us to be people of integrity?" Not that we're the greatest in the world--there are a lot of people with integrity in the Christian music world that are plugging away--but that's one more reason why we need to be involved, trying to do the right thing.

Linda - What is the right thing?

Henry - Underneath everything we do, we take a pastoral perspective to our programming and to the people that come. Ultimately, we feel like we're somewhat responsible, at least during that time that they're attending, for their well-being. We want to have a lot of exciting things for people to do, we want to have tons of options, and at the same time, we want to maintain the foundational vision of why Cornerstone was and what made it unique. 

Linda - Would you say that where this festival is now is what you had hoped it would be at the start of it? Is this where you wanted it to go?

Henry - (Laughs) I don't know if we had a really specific picture of what we wanted to do. All we really wanted was to produce an event that we felt we would enjoy. 

At that time, we were all ten or twelve years younger, and we had all come out of the Jesus Movement, had a good sense of music, and a concern for younger kids. Back then, most Christian events we went to didn't have real sensitivity to the fringe kids, even the church kids who were trying to relate their faith to a more contemporary culture. That's all we were trying to do, to create an event or venue for kids to be able to come and enjoy and, at the same time, hear some of the foundational teachings of the faith. We wanted it to deal with issues of discipleship, evangelism, and everyday living. We've slowly filled out those ideas, and every year we're growing with that. We started out with a lot of teaching and a lot of music, but we've also added a lot of elements: the arts, writing, the imagination, even the recreational elements. So hopefully, we're growing and expanding on those initial visions and ideas.

Linda - Are you concerned that much of the church is not aware of this event and what it represents?

Henry - For a long time, we simply promoted it as a big rock music festival. That was our sort of edge into the festival world, that we were willing to play edgier music, and more of it, than anybody else. For many, many years the event was thought of as too radical for Christian kids, maybe an evangelizing place to bring your blue-hair punk friend or something. That's a misperception. We're trying to reposition it so people perceive us for what it really is. 

It's a multifaceted event with a very, very diverse audience. If you don't like ska, then you can listen to blues; if you don't like blues, you can hear gospel; if you don't like gospel, you can hear acoustic folk. You don't want to hear theological issues, go to the art; if you don't like art, go to the family oriented issues. If you don't like music, you don't even have to hear music. You can go to the recreational stuff, you can go fish, you can sit around your campground. We have as diverse an audience as any event that I know of. You have the remnants of the chain-wrapped metalheads, the punkers, and the very normal suburban kids. Whatever an individual's interests or station in life, there's something there for them. Granted, there are high-profile audience members. You walk around, and the weirdoes and skateboard kids stand out more. But if you really look around the center(of the crowd), you see there's a lot of very center-looking people, not the extremes of either direction at all. I think more and more people are realizing that.

We see our outreach as being to three different worlds. Obviously, to the church youth groups and to the individual Christians, but there's also an outreach to a lot of people who are affiliated with the Christian music world that aren't connected to a body to provide pastoral accountability and care for them. Their only link to the Christian faith is through the music, and that's a precarious link. We hope that, through that link, we'll draw them into a deeper linkage with the historical faith. We don't really care what church they go to, but that slowly they'll be drawn into one. Finally, there's an outreach element to non-Christians, and that's one of my biggest concerns this year, that we have an actual spiritual impact on the local kids in the area. Any trouble we've had primarily has been with local kids. It starts out as a big party, a place you can pick up girls, but hopefully it eventually becomes a place of impact for them spiritually.

Linda - That sparks an important question for me. What is the role of your veteran attendees who appreciate what you're doing and want to support it. Give us some practical ideas on how to do that, how to reach out to our fellow festival-goers.

Henry - I think it starts with very simple things--just starting a conversation, saying hello, inviting them over, "Hey, I'm making sloppy joes."

Linda - Bring extra food.

Henry - It starts with conversation. It's a very ordinary step, it's not a dramatic step. You don't go and give them your big dramatic testimony and lightening bolts hit them, and they become Christians. It takes slow contact, to have a sense that they're real people with real needs. I think that starts to break down the walls a lot. Realize that the community of believers contains the full spectrum of the rainbow. Some of the people who claim to be Christians may not be exactly in your outfit, may not even understand the gospel fully at this point. To just say, "Oh, they claim to be Christians, yet they do this and this," shuts them off and builds the walls and eventually will drive them away from the church. It's better to say, "OK, they may be Christians, but they sure are big goof-offs. Let's embrace them." See if through your friendship, by being a mentor, you can be someone who will help them move on spiritually. That's the hope I have for the people who are regular attendees, who are solid Christians.

As Christians, if you see someone doing something you don't feel is really right, I think there's a responsibility on your part to speak up, gently. If they don't listen, that's one thing, but rather than expecting the festival staff to always be the police of the grounds, that's part of the community taking responsibility for each other. That's what we're hoping to develop--a sense of community on the grounds.

Linda - Does hosting a rock music festival pose any liabilities?

Henry - I guess anytime you have twenty thousand people gathered, there's always some liability. If someone jumps off a stage and doesn't get caught properly, whose fault is that? That's become a serious issue, even in the secular venues for the hard core shows, because of the liability issue involved. For us, though, it's how much control can we exert and still maintain the authenticity of what we're trying to do here? A lot of Christian rock hasn't been "rock" really, it's sanctified rock. (Laughs) We want to keep the authenticity, but at the same time not jeopardize anybody's well being. That's a hard line to draw.

Linda - Is it fixed in stone that this is going to go on forever?

Henry - Well, I don't think anything is ever fixed in stone. I don't know. The whole music scene has changed so much in the last twelve years. When we started out, there was still a little bit of the Jesus Music days, when people were doing it for the ministry. There wasn't the industry, there wasn't the business. Today, almost every (Christian) label is owned by a major secular label; it has become an industry. More and more, there's no pretense or bones about the ministry element. It's a business. It's an entertainment, just like country music, or classical music, or jazz is. We would like to continue to keep our footing in the ministry side of things.

Who knows what's going to happen five years down the road? Who knows if we're all going to be around five years down the road? Who knows what the music scene is going to be like? Who knows if this type of event will even be a viable way of reaching people anymore? I think we'll keep doing it. As long as the Lord blesses us and there's truth in the whole thing. We've carried it for probably ten of the twelve years, losing money.

We're able to do it because this is an outreach of a community. We could never do it on an individual basis. It's only because the community is willing to suck-up and tighten the belt a little that it works.

By Linda Stonehocker

Pictures courtesy of Cornerstone Festival

Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth