By Gary Johnson
The Meadville Tribune
VERNON TOWNSHIP —
What do you get when you mix a small church, a big idea, lots of music and a touch of inspiration?
About 6,000 people.
That’s what organizers of The Ignite Festival expect this weekend, when the fifth-annual Christian music extravaganza kicks off today at the Vernon Township property of Brandon Hough.
Hough is the worship pastor of Watson Run Church, just down the road from the Brown Hill Road festival grounds. The event, now known across the state and region, began as a way to grow the church.
“Our church is very small and nobody knows it’s there,” Hough said, so as an outreach effort, they started a yearly “revival” event about 10 years ago, inviting the public to attend. “We had a three-day weekend under the tent, like an old school tent revival,” he said. Programming featured quartets, gospel groups and speakers.
“But there was nothing for the youth,” he said. “I just got online and started searching for youth events.”
He set up a concert by Christian band Bread of Stone. It was an immediate success.
“We’d get a couple hundred people each night (during the revivals),” Hough said, “but then when we did the youth event, we’d see 500 people, 600 people.” But there was still room to grow.
“We decided to pray about this and decide what to do differently to expand,” he said. So in 2009, they moved to Hough’s property. “We thought if we could get 500 people it would be great. I think we had 2,500 people. Now this is our fifth year and we’re expecting 6,000 to 8,000 people. God was showing us we were going in the right direction.”
That’s despite the weather. “It’s rained every year,” he said, which he contends is a blessing. “God’s been making it rain to help us ramp up slowly. Otherwise, logistically we may have been overwhelmed,” a potential victim of its own success. Needless to say, the festival will go on rain or shine.
The first year, advertising consisted of emails, releases, posters and any other way they could think of. Now, word is spread mainly through the website, social media and outreach with churches and youth pastors.
“Each year we do less advertising,” he said. “Churches will just promote it themselves.” And promote it they do. Attendees hail from Maryland, New Jersey, Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
The grounds used for the stage, audience area, backstage, tents, camping and parking now encompass 40 acres and the three-day event costs $40,000 to run.
In addition to the music and speakers, there will also be food and merchandise vendors, booths for colleges and nonprofits, a children’s area and prayer tent.
All of this is offered at no cost to attendees. Instead of selling general admission tickets, organizers rely on sponsorships and donations from churches, businesses and individuals.
“We just didn’t want the cost to be something that youth groups or churches had to worry about,” he said. “We don’t want there to be a barrier.”
To help pay for it, the festival accepts sponsorships and donations. Also, new this year are VIP tickets allowing ticketholders on-stage seating, backstage access and other perks.
“Any (cost) not covered is paid for by our church,” which he said is fine, as growing the church and God’s message is the point, not making money. “We feel if we do it, people are going to come.”
Ideally, he’d like to have the event bring the community together. The vision is that “everyone knows about it, supports it. The world in general tries to keep the church as its own thing. We’re trying to show people what you have in your mind isn’t accurate. People who don’t go to church can come and say, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ Young people are having a tough time. There’s been a breakdown in the family. We’re getting the kids here.”
But he won’t take the credit for himself or even Watson Run Church for the success of Ignite.
“God gave us the vision,” he said. “He obviously knew what He wanted. We were just obedient to where we felt He wanted us to go.”
You can go
The Ignite Festival runs today from 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and offers a Christian service on Sunday at 10 a.m. The event is at 14849 Brown Hill Road in Vernon Township.
You can help
You can donate to the festival online at theignitefestival.com or by calling 337-2886.