Over the 4th of July weekend, I spoke at the Audio Feed Festival in Champaign, Illinois. I was invited last year and was excited to speak again this year. The fact that I agreed to come back shows what I think about the festival. Yeah, it pretty much rocks.
The festival is only two years old, but its roots have a rich history. AudioFeed was born out of the widely popular Cornerstone Music Festival started by the Jesus People USA in 1984. In 2012, Cornerstone announced that this would be the last year of the festival, and AudioFeed said lets keep rocking! So for the last two years AudioFeed has been hosting a music festival where dozens of bands and several speakers come together to enjoy God’s gifts of creativity lavishly poured out on his image bearers.
Yes, it’s a “Christian” music festival—but don’t think CMA. This stuff is different. And in my mind, refreshing.
Artists from several musical genres rock out (or scream out or rap out, or whatever) in a way that might not seem “Christian”—that is, you won’t hear most of these bands on K-Love. The Homeless Gospel Choir is a one-man band who writes satirical songs about nationalistic Christianity. Justin Driggers has tats and dreads and sings emotionally dark, yet real and redemptive, country songs. Timbre shreds on a harp. Sean Michel, whose signature beard puts Phil Robertson to shame, lights
up the stage with deafening guitar riffs, powerful lyrics, and rich sermons between his songs. My Epic, Listener, Flatfoot 56, and several other popular bands drew some loyal crowds. Noah James—a largely unknown Christian artist—sent my heart to heaven and my knees to the cross as he left me spiritually dazed after proclaiming the gospel through some of the best “Christian” music I’ve ever heard. His song “Heaven Is Far” punched through my chest, ripped out my heart, and slammed it at the foot of the cross. Joy collided with frustration over the fact that Noah will probably never break through the political and consumer-driven walls of CMA, which is unfortunate for those who love theology, the cross, and unpredictable music.
Although I rarely visited the “Black Sheep” stage, I could hear the screaming from across the fairgrounds, which freaked out my daughter at first. One band screamed out David Crowder’s “How He Loves Us” just after the lead singer gave his testimony about how Christ rescued his soul from hell. I can’t say I love the hard-core screamo stuff, but I can appreciate someone screaming for Jesus. If we meditated on what we’ve been rescued from, I think we’d probably scream too. Grave Robber, a “horror punk” band, showers the audience with blood launched
from cannons in celebration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But it’s not real blood, which means Grave Robber is tamer than the freak show Moses and Aaron put on in Exodus 24. That was real blood.
AudioFeed is one of those places you’d never bring your grandma—though I saw quite a few grey-haired enthusiasts dancing around with ear plugs—but you’d do well to bring your non-churched, de-churched, or overly churched neighbor. Why? Because the music is simply outstanding. It’s fresh. It’s real. It’s unpredictable (blood from cannons, folks). And the musicians are real people who don’t think much of themselves. I don’t want to overly sanctify the musicians—they’re just as screwed up as you and I—but humility seemed to glow from these artists who don’t carry the stage with them when they finish playing. Casual conversations between rock stars and fans is a regular sight at AudioFeed. I met Peter Furler (former lead singer of the Newsboys) in passing, and when he saw me just seconds after his set, he remembered my name. Shane Claiborne, the keynote speaker, defies Christian fame by going out of his way to turn Christian celebriolatry on its head. He talks to people, looks them in the eye, remembers their name, and doesn’t ask to be put up in a hotel. He’d rather stay at the home of people in an effort to obey Jesus’s second greatest command. Shane is one of the most authentic, humble, passionate Christians I’ve ever met. What you read in his books is what you get in the flesh. And that’s pretty rare.
The thing that encouraged me the most was the intellect and passion among the participants. It’s a counter-cultural crowd, but you only become counter-cultural by thinking outside the box, asking hard questions, and not being satisfied by recycled answers. It’s not uncommon, as a speaker, to get questions about apocalyptic readings of Revelation, reader-response hermeneutics, or various theories of the atonement from a dude wearing black eye shadow and spikes. This is why I came back to AudioFeed this year. The festival reminds me that the kingdom of God is pushing forward through all types of people who live out their faith in nontraditional ways. And most of the people who attend this festival have a massive, cross-shaped heart for people. Yes, it’s true. Many of them have problems with patriotism, militarism, capitalism, suits and ties, combs, and the traditional evangelical church. But walk around and talk to them. Get to know their stories. Have a 5 minute conversation with a stranger and he’s likely to give you the shirt off his back. Even if you’re a suit-and-tie wearing CEO of a large company that served in Desert Storm. Disagreement doesn’t interrupt love.
At AudioFeed, everyone is accepted. Rainbow hair, painted faces, spiked Mohawks, and tattoo-less dorks from California (er, Idaho) wearing flip flops and a sun visor. If you want to wear a black trench coat on a hot July day. That’s cool. What matters is whether you love Jesus and people. You want to walk around hoisting a log on your shoulder, no one’s going to bat an eye as long as you don’t smack anyone with it. (These are all true scenes, by the way.) For one of my talks, I wore a black Harley Davidson shirt and I felt like people were thinking, “you don’t need to dress up here, bro. It’s AudioFeed.”
And this is why I love this festival. Jesus was all about the marginalized, and his followers would have raised a few eyebrows if they entered most of our churches today. Our New Testament was written by a terrorist named Saul, a slave named Luke, a treasonous extortionist named Matthew, and other marginalized ruffians with variegated shades of a shady past. But God loves people unloved by the
religious elite. And God loves diversity. Middle class, white, suburban Christianity only reflects a small sliver of God’s image in the world. AudioFeed reminds us that we serve a beautifully complex and diverse God who loves all types of musical genres and doesn’t have a favorite hair-style. Suits and ties, khakis and blue blazers, boots and 10 gallon hats, black leather and trench coats—they’re all woven from a creation blessed and enjoyed by God.
AudioFeed: A festival that celebrates and magnifies our Triune God who defies singularity.