Around 20,000 mostly Christian youth will be praising to the sounds of more than 111 bands on 7 stages this week, continuing an annual tradition that started in 1970 as a Christian reply and alternative to the 1969 Woodstock festival of upstate New York.
Since Wednesday, young believers from around the nation have been gathering and camping out on the 111-acre Ichthus Farm in Wilmore, Ky., where they will be joined by Christian music artists including Delirious?, Skillet, Israel Houghton, Kutless, Sanctus Real, Hawk Nelson, Fireflight, Stellar Kart, and more.
On Saturday, when the Ichthus Festival concludes, attendants will be celebrating the festival's 40th anniversary with a look back at its founders, including the late Dr. Bob Lyon, who was given the vision for the festival in 1969 as a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.
"What 40 years has provided us is a great springboard to the future," says festival director Jeff James.
When the ministry behind the festival, Ichthus Ministries, began in 1970 through the insight and creativity of Lyon and a group of concerned students at Asbury Theological Seminary, its intent was to offer the youth of America an alternative to the lifestyle and music choices which surrounded them in secular society.
"Woodstock was kind of a counter-culture movement, and Ichthus was kind of the counter-counter-culture movement," James recalled recently to a reporter for The Jessamine Journal.
And while the festival has grown and evolved much over the past four decades, much remains the same.
"Some of the manifestations of that have stuck with us over the years in that we've actually become good at not just critiquing culture – because that's not good enough – and we don't condemn culture, but we're talking about the value of culture and God's value on human culture," James said.
"So we kind of become a culture creator, if you will, in some ways," he added.
Furthermore, according to organizers, Ichthus is today more than just music. Part of the movement is "Mission Ichthus," which has established opportunities for young believers to engage in the heart of Jesus' mission – to do "to the least of these." The three-day outreach invites participants to be "others focused" and expand the Ichthus experience by being "doers of the Word and not hearers only."
"So much of the church has been about either criticizing or condemning the existing culture rather than being a positive influence," James noted in the recent interview.
The festival director said one of his goals is to create a generation of young people who see themselves and their creativity as a value added in everyday American culture.
The stated mission of Ichthus, which means "fish" in Greek, is to provide students with life changing experiences of truth through life changing encounters with Jesus Christ.
The festival's vision is to present worship, performance, and teaching events to propel students' spiritual quest; to partner with other ministries to reach and mentor students; and to promote communities of faith to grow and invest in youth ministry.
This year, festival sponsors include Christian organizations such as SkyAngel, K-Love, Air1 and Compassion as well as secular companies such as Pepsi and Scion.
In addition to having its own permanent stage, the Ichthus Farm has two 22 head shower houses equipped with 14 sinks each that are available for use throughout the week.
Speakers this year include Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, Eric Samuel Timm of No One Underground, best-selling author Justin Lookadoo, and Pete Hise, founding and lead pastor of Quest Community Church in Lexington, Ky.
The festival officially kicks off at 1 p.m. Thursday.