In the beginning was the camp meeting. Popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, the camp meeting was a gathering of Christians who camped for a period of days and enjoyed hymn singing and round-the-clock preaching.
The 1960s and ’70s built on that concept for large gatherings called “Jesus festivals.” In large, Woodstock-like encampments, there would be music and, finally, a headliner – a top musician, or another celebrity.
Kingdom Bound, the giant Christian festival starting Sunday at Darien Lake, draws a lot from these traditions.
It’s not your ancestors’ camp meeting. There is a Kingdom Bound app. What’s more, the Sunday headliner is a hip-hop artist, LeCrae. The addition of rap and hip-hop to the Christian music lineup is not new, but it is controversial, because of the aggressiveness associated with the genre.
“It is very divisive,” said Stephen Flick of the Christian Heritage Institute, an authority on camp meetings.
LeCrae could not be reached to comment. “His schedule is slammed,” an assistant apologized.
But with 40,000 people expected this year, Kingdom Bound must be doing something right. One person OK with the hip-hop is Russell Kingsbury, the head of Youth Advantage, a Buffalo sports outreach program. Every year, Kingsbury brings 50 to 60 inner-city kids to Kingdom Bound.
“The hip-hop’s not my style, but if you’re going to deal with kids these days, it’s got to be rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop or rap. The artists and messages are solid. I’m old,” laughed Kingsbury, 56. “It’s not music to me.” But he likes the message. “I wish they’d listen to it more. They listen to all the garbage out there, with questionable themes, and they memorize all that.”
Kingsbury admires the Kingdom Bound speakers. He was especially moved by Reggie Dabbs, an evangelist who used to play with the Miami Dolphins.
“He’s got a great story of how God changed his life,” he said. “We had 70 kids one year, almost all from the West Side or the Langfield projects. Tough kids. He spoke, and he asked if they would make a commitment to God. We had about 40 kids go up, crying. There was definitely something going on there, not just a kids’ gathering at Darien Lake.”
Jill Naples, a Lancaster registered nurse, goes to Kingdom Bound every year and camps with a group of girlfriends. One gathering especially hit home for her. It involved Matthew West’s song “Forgiveness.”
“They darkened the arena, and they handed out candles. Each person lit the other’s candle. It was like being in the sky with stars. The message was, we all have some sort of hard feelings for someone, bitter feelings, big or small. … You were challenged to get that one person in your mind you have struggled to let go of. There was a prayer. Everyone was weeping, I know that I was. There was such a freedom to releasing something that has a hold of your spirit.”
If you made the choice to forgive, Naples explained, you blew out your candle. “At the end, everyone’s candle was out,” she said. “I get chills talking about it. It was sort of a life-changing thing. It was like the Holy Spirit was there.”
‘The heavy duty guys’
So it is a camp meeting, right? Flick suggests that Kingdom Bound could be the grandchild of the old movement.
“When the camp meeting began to wane, at the end of the 19th century, it moved into what you will see that characterizes many camps today,” he said. “The shift moves from an intense spirituality to more of a social gathering.
“There are going to be elements of it that’s going to be different. That’s characteristic of how camp meetings changed from a tent, or a temporary shelter, to cottages, even houses, that were far more permanent, more substantial.” The Chautauqua Institution, he said, is an example of that.
Flick explained that the music began changing with the church growth movement, which occurred from 1960 to 1990. “One of the leaders, Bill Hybels, basically, he would knock on doors and ask if people didn’t go to church. I don’t think I’m profaning, but he would say, ‘We want to lower the expectations of anyone who comes to church, we look just like they do, we don’t look different from the unchurched.’ ”
That attitude led to popular Christian music – and the “Jesus festivals” of the ’70s.
Kingsbury went to them. “Woodstock was still fresh in everyone’s minds in the mid-’70s,” he said. “They had these rock concerts in a big pasture. They would attract 25,000, 30,000 people. It was Kingdom Bound without the amusement park. You lay on a blanket, listened to artist after artist, and at night they’d bring in Pat Robertson, or B.J. Thomas, the guy who sang ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.’ They’d bring in the heavy duty guys at night. Andrae Crouch. These are the guys who would do it. It was like a Woodstock concept. They took that concept at Kingdom Bound, said let’s do that, and have the amusement park to bring people in.”
At first, Kingsbury admitted, he worried the amusement park setting would be too much of a distraction. But he quickly came around.
“It’s another way of connecting with people,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who go there, and that’s their summer vacation. They’ve got a trailer, they’ll camp and welcome people in. One year, we met with a group from a Catholic church in West Seneca. They welcomed everyone in. I brought some food and fed everyone. We had a great time. They were there all week.”
You can almost hear, over the roar of the Predator, the hymns of the old camp meetings. That isn’t over-romanticizing things, Flick said.
Choosing his words carefully, he said: “I would say that for some of those who would attend this, I would be surprised if it were not camp meeting.”
Check it out
Here are some highlights of Kingdom Bound 2013:
• The Buffalo band Brothers McClurg is influenced by the two brothers’ grandfather, who led the McClurg Family Singers, a Southern gospel group. They play at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the PAC.
• LeCrae is respected in the hip-hop world as well as the Christian music world and won Best Gospel Album for “Gravity.” He is the Sunday headliner at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center (PAC) at 9:30 p.m.
• Matthew West performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the PAC, before LeCrae. With him will be the woman who inspired his song “Forgiveness.”
• Blues Counsel, a Buffalo band, has been, since 1987, the “jam band” of Kingdom Bound. On bass and vocals is Rick Cua, the president of Kingdom Bound. The band plays at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the PAC and 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Worship Experience.
• The Chicago pop/rock quartet We Are Leo has won a large grass-roots following with songs like “Supernova Sunrise” and “Live For Love.” It plays at 5 p.m. Monday at the PAC at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday on the Edge stage.
• Australian-born duo For King & Country used to be Joel & Luke, and chose their new name after the British battle cry. The duo’s song “Baby Boy” was a hit last Christmas. The band plays in the No. 3 spot at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on the PAC stage.
• Colton Dixon, a runner-up on “American Idol,” has been called powerful and an inspiration. He performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the PAC.
• The Newsboys, a very popular band from Australia, has performed at an astonishing 26 Kingdom Bound festivals. The group headlines at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on the PAC stage.
• Jill Kelly, wife of former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, shares her story Wednesday in the Worship Tent.
• Needtobreathe, originally from South Carolina, won the Dove Award for the song “Washed By the Water.” The band headlines at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on the PAC stage.