BY JEFF FINLEY
Stormy weather cut short the opening-night performance of AgapeFest 2012 headliner TobyMac, but the Grammy-winning singer/rapper and his DiverseCity band later played an acoustic set for fans remaining at the 36th annual Greenville College student-run music festival.
When the May 4 thunderstorm caused an abrupt end to his main-stage performance in front of thousands of fans at the Bond County (Ill.) Fairgrounds, the artist formerly known as Toby McKeehan opted to perform a late-night show in front of hundreds of people in the metal building that served as the second stage. The AgapeFest veteran — who first performed at the festival with the groundbreaking group dcTalk —revealed to the diehard fans that he also visited Greenville College during the 1990s in an unsuccessful attempt to sign student band Jars of Clay to his Gotee Records label.
The sky was clear the next night for another Grammy-winning headliner, San Diego rockers Switchfoot whose popularity extends well beyond the contemporary Christian music industry that has been home to most AgapeFest performers since the festival’s 1977 founding.
The festival attracts approximately 5,000 people each year with a mix of well-known and up-and-coming performers. AgapeFest is in its mid-30s, but the festival crowd is predominately comprised of teenagers.
Several teens said they liked that AgapeFest 2012 offered different styles of music.
“Philmont is my favorite,” said Ben Coakley of Janesville, Wis. “It’s upbeat pop-rock music, but they still have the lyrical substance that I like.”
The festival’s parking area always includes a mix of church vans and buses bearing a variety of denominational labels, but the festival would not exist without Greenville College, a member of the Association of Free Methodist Educational Institutions.
“The fact that it’s Free Methodist and a music festival just makes it awesome to me,” Coakley said.
Willow Tolly and some fellow members of her youth group from the Bridge FMC in Glen Carbon, Ill., said they particularly enjoyed Philmont’s performance along with the concerts of TobyMac, Switchfoot, the Rocket Summer, Attaboy and Rush of Fools.
One Bridge youth group member, however, disagreed with some of his friends’ musical preferences.
“I was forced to listen to TobyMac against my will,” joked Ben Perry, who cited second-stage screamo band These Hearts as his favorite. “I like the moshical music.”
Seth Balla, the Bridge’s youth leader and a 2011 Greenville graduate, preferred the spoken word of Micah Bournes.
“He made a lot of poetry especially focusing on God,” Balla said. “It’s something you don’t hear that often.”
Balla appreciated the opportunity to hear interviews with AgapeFest performers and interact with them in the Youth Leaders Only area.
“We get to see what they’re doing in their ministry and how we can use them to impact our kids,” Balla said. “A lot of the musicians that get interviewed are really transparent.”
Ben Tolly, the Bridge’s lead pastor, led the early-morning May 5 Communion service that drew approximately 100 people to the second stage.
“Greenville College must be commended for the ability to put on such an event that is serving southern Illinois and presenting Jesus through music,” Pastor Tolly said.
Dan Forsberg, a 1997 Greenville College graduate who attends the Greenville FMC, estimated he has attended “13 or 14” festivals. Forsberg especially enjoyed the performances this year of the Letter Black, the Protest and These Hearts.
Forsberg said he appreciates the quality of the music each year and the “diverse lineup too with some of the hip-hop they bring in and some of the lighter bands — some of the indie rock stuff — and then touching on the metal stuff that I’m into.”
Performer Praises Crowd
In 10 years of making music, South Carolina band Eleventyseven has shifted genres from pop punk to electronic dance music to a forthcoming release of folk tunes.
“Every record we put out sounds different than the one before, because you want to grow,” drummer Jonathan Stephens said.
During Eleventyseven’s diverse decade as a band, AgapeFest has been a recurring presence.
“It’s one of my favorite crowds. They’re always so fun — full of energy, because you know a band vibes off the crowd” said Stephens, who estimated he has performed at AgapeFest five or six times. “We always love the crowd here.”
Reaching Potential Students
John Massena, Greenville College’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the festival is the largest event generating inquiries for the admissions staff.
“We meet more kids at this event than we do at any event during the year,” Massena said. “We matriculate more students that we meet at Agape than we do at any other fair or church event or youth group event.”
This year, AgapeFest partnered with anti-slavery organization Not For Sale. Along with an informational area promoting Not For Sale’s mission, a panel discussion about modern slavery took place May 5 on the main stage.
Participants included Free Methodist abolitionist Kevin Austin, the founder of the Set Free Movement that continues the Free Methodist Church’s legacy of fighting slavery. Austin did not limit his time in Greenville to the festival site. He held a two-hour workshop with Free Methodist pastors from the Gateway Conference, and he served as a guest speaker in six Greenville College classes.
“We want to work within the college and university setting to engage in ending modern day slavery,” Austin said in an interview.
While on the main stage, Austin discussed the importance of churches working to create new futures for people freed from slavery.
“Who better to do that than the faith community?” Austin asked the crowd. “You have an incredible amount of people with the passions and gifts and skills that are ready to go, and you’re living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and you’re living the resurrection life.”