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Welcome to Creation, the Christian Music Fest Where the Flock Rocks

Three stages, 50,000 believers, 4,000 altar calls—and plenty of merchandise.

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 5:30 AM EDT

Creation staff and volunteers speak of Harry Thomas in reverent tones. Thomas is the amiable, white-bearded preacher who founded Creation nearly 35 years ago out of "a desire to reach young people through a festival format." This year, he's put on three—the Sonshine Festival took place in Minnesota in July and a second Creation fest just wrapped up this past weekend in rural Washington state. In all, the three festivals attract around 100,000 people.

Thomas, who splits his time between Virginia and New Jersey, has been a pastor and Christian radio personality. He and a friend came up with the idea for a Christian rock festival at his kitchen table in 1978. His wife came up with the name Creation.

The Pennsylvania fest, his flagship, cost an estimated $3 million to stage and drew more than 50,000 people, according to Thomas. Camping is free, and tickets for young kids run as little as $55 for the four-day affair. Adults pay $120, barely half the price of a three-day Lollapalooza pass.

Plenty of younger kids attend Creation with their families. Alana Levinson

Creation "can be" profitable, Thomas says, but big secular revenue sources such as alcohol vendors are not allowed. The goal is not to make money, but to reach young Christians at an age when many decide to leave their churches, and secular music can be decisive. "I can't point to any one note that's evil, but I can point to a lot of lyrics that are," he explains. "Whether it's heavy rap, music that might be geared to violent thinking, or some of these heavily sexual videos—might tear away at their faith."

Four thousand attendees "gave their lives to Christ" and some 250 were baptized, says Creation's founder.

In Pennsylvania, 4,000 attendees "gave their lives to Christ" and about 250 were baptized: "This is the reason why we do the festival, and it's the most important thing," Thomas says.

Creation is also a venue where political causes—such as the anti-abortion nonprofit Save the Storks—and religious institutions get a chance to connect with teen believers.

Pro-life merch for sale Alana Levinson

Over at the Liberty University booth, recruiter Jason Lewis is handing out branded Ray-Ban knockoffs and matching red tees. Liberty is a major sponsor of the festival, and Lewis speaks reverently of the college's founder, whom he had the opportunity to meet before Falwell's death in 2007. If the New Testament were still being written today, Lewis says, "Jerry Falwell Sr. would be in the Bible."

In addition to being a Liberty alum, Lewis is a rapper. In the booth, his Liberty theme song, "LU Anthem," plays in a loop on the flatscreen behind him. His nom de rap is Humble Tip—"to increase praise." Sporting dreadlocks and his red Liberty frames, he energetically flags down all kids who enter his orbit: "Hold on, let me snatch these girls over there."

Recruiter Jason Lewis—a.k.a. rapper Humble Tip Aaron Mendelson

Lewis has made it his mission to visit cities and suburbs from Miami to New York, spreading the word about Liberty. "He called me to reach the inner city audience," he explains. "I'm able to infiltrate different demographics and regions that a typical Liberty recruiter isn't able to go into."

If the dozens of festival goers forking over their contact information are any indication, he's also doing pretty well with this largely white crowd—another Liberty recruiter estimated that the college connected with more than 5,000 students at Creation.

The teenagers listen intently as Lewis extols his university's academics, social scene, and religious services, although their eyes stray periodically to the screen over his shoulder, where Humble Tip is rapping:

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, that's my school
No drugs, sex, or drinking, we define what's cool

His track ends with a boast.

I hope they're ready/We're the new Moral Majority.

"We don't get saved to keep it to ourselves," Lewis explains during a rare break in the teen-wrangling. "Any sort of pop culture, that's going to be a dynamite promotional tool."

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