Organ music and wine are making way for rock ’n’ roll and beer as churches turn to music festivals to raise money and recruit the next generation of potential parishioners.
Inspired by the success of the Basilica of St. Mary’s Block Party — which has raised nearly $4.5 million in its 19 years of existence — other congregation leaders are trying their luck despite some concerns about a music festival’s suitability as a church function.
At Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth last week, crowds sipped foamy brews, munched barbecued pulled pork and listened to a live blues set at the congregation’s second annual music festival.
In Oakdale, featured acts for the Sept. 7 festival at Transfiguration Catholic Church include two performers from NBC’s popular TV show “The Voice.”
On Sept. 21 in St. Michael, some eight musical acts are lined up for Rock the Land music festival at Alleluia! Lutheran Church.
“Churches are struggling to maintain membership, maintain a future and looking for a lot of ways to do that — recognizing that all of it doesn’t happen in the sanctuary,” said Lee Kanten, a member of Mount Olivet who attended the Blues, Brews N’ BBQs music festival. “If we can bring [young] people into the community, it takes hold.”
Mount Olivet raised close to $21,000 at its first festival last year and donated the money to Habitat for Humanity and a local nonprofit. This year, local blues band Lamont Cranston was among the half-dozen acts that drew more than 1,000 people, and the church hopes to give more to charity.
Congregation leaders tried a music festival because they thought it would appeal to a wider, youth-oriented audience and generate interest in the church, said minister Kirsten Kessel.
“If we’re participating in God’s mission to the world, then we’re sharing love with the world,” said Kessel. “So an event like this, you ask, ‘How do we be good neighbors? How do we provide an event that is hopeful? That is a break for people. That people can feel good about coming together for a purpose.’ ”
Alleluia! Lutheran Church also held its first music festival last year, on a 22-acre lot owned by the church. It featured about a dozen acts — from country to polka to an AC/DC cover band. The event drew about 1,000 people and raised close to $7,000, which was divided between helping a local food shelf and helping the church hire more staff, said Rachel Krueger, an organizer.
They served beer and had no problems with rowdy behavior — though they did ask the AC/DC cover band not to play “Hells Bells” and other songs not deemed appropriate for a church event, she said.
“It actually brought younger people in,” Krueger said. “I was a little bit concerned about [beer]. But I mean, as of last year, it went really good. I didn’t have anybody get excessively drunk.”
Festivalgoers ‘see themselves’
Considered one of the largest music festivals in Minnesota with about 25,000 annual concertgoers, the Basilica Block Party has been a model for church music festivals.
Terri Ashmore, managing director of the basilica, said the event has helped to boost church attendance to nearly 6,600 households over the past two decades, with many newcomers joining the church after attending the block party.
“I do think it’s a way to get young adults in,” said Ashmore. “Often when they walk into a church community what they see are either older people or families with kids and they don’t always see themselves there. I think if you get a critical mass, I think it draws others, and that’s certainly been our experience.”
Looking to raise money to pay the high costs of preserving its historic building, the basilica got the idea for a music festival from the one held in Chicago to benefit Old St. Patrick’s Church. Even though everyone may not deem the music or the beer-drinking appropriate, Ashmore said the festival has benefited the church.
“We have 1,600 volunteers. … We’ve got really strong support from within our parish,” she said. “If we didn’t have something that people felt good about and were excited about, it wouldn’t have lasted this long. For us, it’s become part of the fabric of our parish community.”
Making churches seem hip
Churches in many denominations have been spurred to action after watching their attendance fall year after year, particularly among young people. Surveys show that about a third of U.S. adults under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated, and churches are constantly searching for ways to get them into the pews.
“They’re scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get young people because young people aren’t nearly as churched as they used to be,” said Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University and author of “All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion.”
A growing number of primarily Catholic and mainline Protestant churches are holding these types of musical festivals as a way to spark interest in their congregations, he said.
“That’s precisely the point, to try to make churches that didn’t seem hip, seem hip to younger people. They often can’t change the architecture because it’s been there 100 years or the doctrine or the Sunday preaching. … [A music festival] gives a different image.”
For Transfiguration’s annual festival, church leaders decided this year to put more resources into a line of musical acts, said organizer Rebecca Minogue. Performers will include Mark Andrew and Tim Mahoney, from NBC’s “The Voice.”
“We decided to have more of a music festival, with live music from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Minogue said. “We have bands lined up for that whole time.
“It’s something people in this area enjoy, so why not try to tap into that?”
Rose French 612-673-4352