Creating Conversation: The religious experience at a music festival

Rev. Jenn Geddes (left) with friends and former youth group members Larissa McCormick and Debra Skelhorne at their favourite festival.

Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), which gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue here on the Church for Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your small group, church staff, friends and your neighbours. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

On a warm September Sunday afternoon I was standing in Royal Athletic Park in Victoria, at Rifflandia, an eclectic music festival, surrounded by about 8,000 young adults.

Everyone was listening and dancing to TikTok star bbno$ when he said, “Okay, kids, it’s time to eat yah veggies” – and all of a sudden he began to play the theme song to Veggie Tales. My eyes grew wide and I turned to the girl beside me – a former church youth group member – and said, “Is this really happening?!”

We were shocked to hear this familiar song come over the speakers, having just listened to a song about smoking pot. Clearly many of the people around us knew he was using it to intro his hit song ‘Edamame.’ About two hours prior I had been in the middle of this same field watching bbno$ serve as a witness to a wedding taking place at the festival. Was God at work at Rifflandia?

Earlier that summer I attended Vancouver Island MusicFest in the Comox Valley. One of the biggest and best workshops of the whole festival is the ‘Gospel Hour,’ which takes place Sunday morning. It begins with a brief prayer, and then various artists lead the crowd in rollicking songs.

Yes, I took the Sunday morning off just so I could attend. Nearly 10,000 people sang along to ‘Down by the Riverside’ with New Orleans legend John Boutte. I was brought to tears by how moving it was. Was God at work at Vancouver Island MusicFest?

A few weeks later I was standing in a recreation hall in Port Alberni at their annual Five Acre Shaker, when reggae singer Caleb Hart began to get the whole crowd to sing, “Praise to the Most High King, He is the reason that I sing.” Imagine Generation X,Y and Z-ers being drawn into a moment of ‘worship’ while they waved their solo cups in the air. Was God at work at Five Acre Shaker?

God at work

Current church conversations, especially in a missional context, are constantly asking congregations to consider where is God already at work and how can we participate. Perhaps because I preach it most Sundays I am wired to see God at work in these places – though perhaps some of you see it all as a bit of a stretch.

However, after spending a sabbatical making the effort to attend festivals I have begun asking myself, if God is at work, what are we doing about it?

In their book Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age Jason Byassee and Andria Irwin investigate how to have relationships in the age of technology. They state – in a chapter titled Undistracted Friendship – that Christ’s command to love others as he loved us is “a call to friendship – a letting go of the self and joining another in the journey of their life.”1

If you want to see people engaging in relationships, go to a festival, where everyone is connecting with each other and the artists on stage.

Cultivating a festival culture

According to data collected by the ticketing platform Eventbrite, the average age of a festival goer (a festie) is 32. I am currently 10 years above that average but that still makes me a ‘young person’ in my congregation, where the average age is 72.

Yet, when I observe festies I see a similar sense of community, even fellowship, as I do among my congregation. It is expressed slightly differently, but the two are not dissimilar. Or rather, the culture at a festival is not dissimilar to the kind of culture I’d like to see cultivated in our congregations.

Among the festies is a sense of unity, hope and all-round acceptance. People are invited and even encouraged to be themselves, dressing in all kinds of outfits, making friends with everyone around them, supporting and watching out for those who may be having difficulty seeing the stage, standing alone or having a ‘bad trip.’ No one judges you, whether you know all the words to a song or not.

Festival fellowship

Hardcore festies attend five to six festivals a year – which means I can count myself as a hardcore festie. Yes, part of the appeal is the music. I go because I want to witness the legends, the current stars and the up-and-coming artists.

I also go because of the fellowship. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia and I like to interpret that word as an opportunity not just for social gathering but also to bear witness to the signs of God at work in the world.

Many festivals are grabbing on to this koinonia, knowingly or not. Any festival I have attended has a ‘harm reduction’ department. This can include a wellness team that hands out free water, offers a refuge tent for people who just need to be quiet or provides drug testing. Most festivals now also include tents, stations or workshops for meditation, yoga or contemplation.

The EDM music festival Shambhala has a wedding chapel where you can “tie the knot to your Shambhalove with the sounds of bass music echoing through the Kootenay Mountains.”

Joining in

So, is God at work at these festivals? There is an obvious desire for community and for something beyond ourselves. How can we participate?

My first recommendation is to attend some. Observe the loving and caring culture they are cultivating, connect with people and enjoy yourself! 
Then notice where a deeper relationship with Christ and embodied discipleship could enhance this experience. Acts 2:42 describes the holy habits of the early church. “They devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

At the recent Woodstove Festival in Cumberland, the local United Church was not only a venue, but also invited participants to a prayer service the next morning – and people came! Making connections with festival organizers as well as participants – allowing the church, congregation or pastor to be a resource – is a great way of joining in on God’s work.

I will admit, the biggest challenge is that many of these festivals include a culture of drug and alcohol use. I’d argue this is because users feel these substances are helping to fill a void.

So, how do we offer real substance? Volunteering to be a part of the wellness team is certainly one way to go about it. Prayer is powerful! Or, how do we participate in the holy habit of breaking bread? Festivals are having a hard time finding enough food trucks to feed people – so perhaps that’s another way of connecting!

At a recent lecture on Thomas Merton I heard the quote that “we are created for joy, especially as we awaken to God’s presence within ourselves and the world.”

I’ve moved my body to the deep bass of DJ Diesel aka Shaquille O’Neal. I’ve shouted along to The Arkells. I’ve squeezed the friends around me while being moved by William Prince. I’ve even danced like nobody is watching to Moby. Each and every time, I have felt I was having a religious experience – because God was already at work in those places.

1 Jason Byassee and Anria Irwin: Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 95.

Jenn Geddes is pastor at Comox Valley Presbyterian Church. She loves live music of nearly every genre, but also enjoys camping in her mini-van with husband, Mike, collecting tea and cooking vegan meals. You can often catch her just blurting out “God is good!” because it’s true.

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