WILMORE — Like many 40-year-olds, folks around the Ichthus Festival don’t talk about its age much.
It’s particularly understandable in the case of the Wilmore Christian music festival, which presents its 40th edition Thursday through Saturday. It is, after all, a bastion of Christian pop culture, and pop culture is always focused on the young.
But Ichthus executive director Jeff James and CEO Mark Vermilion aren’t avoiding age out
of vanity — the Bible has a few things to say about that. No. It’s just that at 40, Ichthus is sharpening its focus on missions and youth ministry.
“The best way you can pay homage to a legacy is by building on it,” said Vermilion, who recently moved to Wilmore to take over the CEO post after working with Kingdom Building Ministries in Colorado. “Looking forward is a part of looking back.”
James observed, “What 40 years has provided us is a great springboard to the future.”
The way the festival officials see it, this is where God brought them, or maybe blew them, would be the more appropriate term.
Ichthus started in 1970 when Asbury Theological Seminary professor Bob Lyon encouraged his students to develop a Christian answer to Woodstock, the 1969 New York rock festival that would never be confused with a Baptist church service.
Starting when it did, the “Christian folk” festival actually preceded the pop genre known as contemporary Christian music. A handful of artists such as Larry Norman were starting to record faith-based rock, saying they were bored by traditional church music. One of Norman’s hits was Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?
But it wasn’t until the early- to mid-1970s that contemporary Christian labels started popping up.
And Ichthus grew with the genre.
It started out as a small event but steadily grew into an outdoor festival held at the Wilmore campground and hosted some of the biggest names in Christian music such as Andre Crouch and Phil Keaggy.
There will be homages to the past this weekend.
James says Israel Houghton was booked in part with the Texas worship leader’s similarities to Crouch in mind. And Keaggy will be onstage, along with Christian rock legend Charlie Peacock, fronting the Ascenxion Band, Ichthus’ custom-made, all-star lineup of Nashville session musicians who are Christians.
But that will probably be the extent of rear-view mirror gazing, James said.
In a very real way, Ichthus was pushed to its current vision to the future by one of its defining characteristics: bad weather. (We should note that the forecast is for storms on Thursday, and sunny with highs in the low 80s Friday and Saturday.)
Ichthus had enough soggy, stormy weekends at its traditional calendar spot on the last full weekend of April that it earned nicknames such as Mudthus and Ickythus. In 2005, Ichthus had snow, which was a last straw for James, who decided to move the event to June, saying, “it’s better to be wet and warm than wet and cold.”
That move has ultimately changed Ichthus in more ways than just its place on the calendar.
The other factor in changing the festival’s character was a growing professionalism in the last decade. For 30 years, it was a mostly student-run festival, even while welcoming top-rate bands such as dc talk.
In 2000, Ichthus hired a professional festival director, and even though it still mostly runs on volunteer efforts, the organization has hired additional professional staff to make it more of a year-round ministry.
Those two moves — toward summer and professionalism — have focused Ichthus on youth ministry and mission work, increasingly involving local churches.
“Before, when you would have the leadership change every couple of years, churches couldn’t get to know anyone with the festival,” said James, who became Ichthus’ executive director in 2002, “because, after two years, there was someone new there.”
Now, Ichthus is involved with numerous local churches, including large contemporary worship congregations such as Southland Christian and Quest Community, and smaller ones such as The Vineyard on Winchester Road.
Quest pastor Pete Hise and transformation pastor Helen Musick are both main stage speakers at this year’s festival, and Southland pastor Jon Weece and former pastor Mike Breaux have been main stage speakers in recent years.
The Vineyard has been a Lexington launch pad for several Ichthus ministries, including mission projects related to the festival.
“We couldn’t do projects like that when we were in the school year,” James says.
Now that school’s out Ichthus week, church groups have been able to make a week of the festival, arriving in Central Kentucky early to work with groups such as the Catholic Action Center and Christian Appalachian Project, and then sticking around for the music.
At the festival, there is an increased emphasis on youth ministry and missions, including sessions for youth leaders during the festival’s teaching sessions.
It is not lost on James and Vermilion that chart-topping Christian rock acts are the main attraction at the festival. But James says that is increasingly part of what Ichthus ministries does, not the sole focus.
“The festival is a critical part of our identity,” Vermilion says. “But if the festival ceased to be an effective way of reaching youth, we would have to look at that.”
For now, the youth Ichthus is reaching are leading Ichthus in its revised focuses.
“I was brought up that I learned certain truths of God, and then I served,” Vermilion said. “The kids in this generation engage God and truth as they serve.”
Ichthus has seen several generations of Christian teens now, from ones that got soulful to Michael W. Smith to rocking out to Stryper to getting a little ’80s synth-y to DeGarmo & Key.
It’s an age that can make anyone, be it a person or an entity, get a little complacent.
But the new guy doesn’t sound inclined to let that happen.
“People can say it’s just sort of there and not appreciate it,” Vermilion saids. “The truth is, this is an amazing thing. That something this big happens in Wilmore is amazing.”