Getting The Spirit
Spirit West Coast highlights the popularity of Christian music locally and nationally.
Thursday, July 30, 1998
This weekend will offer tangible evidence of Christian music''s rising popularity when an expected 25,000 people descend on Laguna Seca for the Spirit West Coast music festival. In just its second year, the festival is already at the point where it is outgrowing Laguna Seca--a site that the much-vaunted Bill Graham Presents was unable to fill even halfway for its Laguna Seca Daze festivals a couple years ago.
"In a way," says Jon Robberson, the festival''s executive producer, "we''ve outgrown the property. We''re taking every single camping space that''s available and we''re using overflow campsites at Toro Park."
While the numbers may flabbergast some members of MoCo''s secular community, local Christian musicians and producers are not surprised. They say contemporary Christian music is filling a spiritual void that''s been empty for years.
Music is integral to the lives of Bard and Barbara Sherman from Carmel Valley. Barbara books shows for the Higher Ground Christian Coffeehouse in Marina and for the annual gospel festival in Carmel Valley while Bard is a Christian musician who performs frequently to both religious and secular audiences in Monterey County.
"I think one thing that makes the music more popular today is that it talks somewhat about good and bad, about sin," says Bard. "We''re living in a time where there are so many gray zones, so much immorality, kids getting abducted off the streets; bad being called good and good being called bad. The principles of the Bible are falling away. We are now living in a society that''s functioning outside of God''s way and people are feeling the necessity to have a framework. They''re hopefully finding a haven, a structure in the Bible and the words that God has laid down for us to live by."
Barbara says the popularity of contemporary Christian music is part of the changing church.
"I think maybe 10 or 15 years ago, there was a problem [with churches accepting rock-based Christian music]," says Barbara, "but pastors are beginning to realize kids want to hear their kind of music. The whole Spirit West Coast is all about the kids. The kids are digging the music and they''re coming to the concerts by the thousands; it''s just the lyrics that are different."
"There has been tremendous change in the churches in the last 25 years," says Bard. "I watched with great fascination, first going into the hippie movement in the late ''60s and then coming into the Christian realm around ''71. The ''Jesus Freak'' music was coming out of the hippie movement and it was like folk music with a rock leaning. And thousands of young people were getting saved. And they carried their music with them. Now here we are 25 years later, and you find it coming into the church."
Still, it isn''t always easy to find acceptance. Regardless of the quality of the music, some secular audiences shy away from Bard''s message. And regardless of the quality of the message, some Christian audiences shy away from the music.
"There have been times when I have been treated with a prejudice very similar to racial prejudice," says Bard. "But I just shake the dust off when the receptivity is low, the Bible even talks about that, and keep on going."
Bard prefers to avoid the label ''Contemporary Christian,'' feeling that it''s more appropriate to call the music "gospel."
"The word ''gospel'' itself means good news, when you translate it into English. And the gospel we take into the world is that Jesus died for our sins. The gospel is specifically pointed to Jesus as the way, the truth, the life. That''s what gospel music is, the words," says Bard. "My musical style is very eclectic: turn-of-the-century, classical, jazz...But the lyrics are what makes it gospel. And today there is all kinds of gospel. There''s everything from head-banging metal to softer, more pop gospel."
Robberson says with all the varying styles of music, there''s an ongoing debate about what constitutes ''Christian'' music. He says the discussion is basically divided into two camps, those who feel bands must be very up-front about conveying the message of their spirituality and those who believe that Christian music can be defined as what''s in the musician''s heart. He points to Amy Grant as an example of a musician who has found her greatest success while soft-pedaling her spirituality.
"Most musicians just want their music to be heard," says Robberson, "but because this lifestyle and spiritual commitment is in their heart, this is what they write about. In the context of that, a lot of people just say ''I love you'' and the ''y'' could be a lower-case or an upper-case ''y.'' When the message is a little more vague and the music is real good, you have the potential for a really big hit. You have some of that with Amy Grant."
Robberson says Spirit West Coast tends more toward the camp that prefers a more blatant approach to proclaiming spirituality. Not only is the festival program filled with more than 50 musical performers and groups over the three days, it also boasts a dozen religious speakers who will lead daily lectures and seminars, and begins with a devotional worship service each day.
"I sometimes refer to this as a modern-day camp meeting," says Robberson. "We use the music as a method and a means to accomplish the message goal. We''re not just about entertainment."
Obviously, the festival benefits from its proximity to the cultural and environmental attractions offered by Monterey County. It''s also the only contemporary Christian music festival of its size in California. But Robberson credits its success to more than entertainment and pretty scenery.
"The people who come to this get so lifted by the experience," Robberson says. "It''s a trip, a vacation; they get a spiritual recharge. Most people don''t connect vacation with religion; this is a chance to put it all together. This is a chance for the kids to get reinforced positively."
Robberson says that family groups make up the greatest portion of the festival''s attendees and estimates that about 10 percent of the audience is elementary school age, a whopping 60 percent is between the age of 12 and 25, and the remainder are older parents.
The festival is designed to be almost totally self-contained with several food vendors and even a small store set up on the Laguna Seca site where campers can purchase food and sundry items. Once festival-goers arrive, they will have little reason to leave Laguna Seca. For most, it will be an intense weekend of shared belief and joy.
As Bard Sherman puts it, "It says in the Bible that God is love in the presence of love. People like to be in the environment and feel the presence of love." cw
Performers during the three-day Spirit West Coast festival include headliners Carman, Steven Curtis Chapman and DC Talk, as well as mainstage acts Audio Adrenaline, Jaci Velasquez, 4 Him, The Supertones, Big Tent Revival and Out of Eden. Mainstage speakers include Dr. Luis Palau, Ron Luce and Greg Laurie. Throughout all three days, the Koinonia Pavilion features unsigned bands from around California, including Bard Sherman, Bo Capebianco, Good News Blues, Bev Rivers and Wishes Were Fishes (all of whom have previously played at Higher Ground.) A limited number of day tickets are still available: $30/day adults; $15/kids ages 4-11; free/3 and under. For more info: (408) 443-5399.