Festival One isn’t your typical Christian music festival. It began in the summer of 2015 after the Parachute festival was cancelled and is now in its 6th year.
Every January thousands of people from all over New Zealand and overseas gather at Mystery Creek, pitch their tents and prepare to be astounded.
This year the event is headlined by Lauren Daigle with Propaganda, Rapture Ruckus and Mary Bielski all performing.
We caught up with the man behind Festival One – ‘G’ (Graham Burt) to find out why he’s so excited about the project…
Graham, you’re involved in a lot of different things in your life so why did you decide to put the time and energy in to organising a music festival?
I didn’t really! A group of us had been discussing the fact that Parachute was not going to continue to run a festival. One of my best mates said “How do you feel about Parachute Festival not being there anymore?” I replied “gutted”. He said “If I found a way to fund it would you run it?” I said “yes”. That’s the whole conversation! That conversation was, of course, part of a greater context. We’d been talking about our concern for the lack of large events that brought Christians of all ages and denominations together, and how valuable we had each found that growing up. So that was at least part of it. And … that conversation was, of course, part of a larger context. For me, it is the lack of confidence that so many people have in the Christian faith. Most of our church attendees, especially our youth, are struggling to find the common ground between what they learn from science, the everyday standards of morality they see around them, and what they think the Bible teaches. They are simply confused, and often not confident in the God that the Bible reveals. All of us working on Festival One see it as an opportunity to gently help restore confidence in the magnificent God of the Bible.
You’ve said that the event ‘doesn’t push the Christian faith down people’s throats, but the Truth of the Gospel will always be there subtly in the background’. How do you keep the balance between being open and accepting without compromising on faith and values?
At Festival One the teachings and message of Jesus are both right on top and also woven into every single piece of activity. We turn ourselves inside out interrogating everything we do to ensure that we are not just talking a Christian story, but living one as well. This can be hard at times – especially where there are areas of conflict or disagreement. Again, we try to handle these with grace, and at times have allowed ourselves to be misrepresented to endeavour to take a gracious path.
Last year you wrote, ‘We are continually being told how important Festival One is for this generation and future generations’. In what ways do you think that Festival One is important for young Christians in New Zealand?
New Zealand has less than 35% of the population identifying as Christian, in other words a minority. It is really important that as Christians we get over the things that divide us, and concentrate on working together. Festival One is an amazing opportunity to meet and work alongside people from other sectors of the Christian tradition. This will always be vital. Just as important is the opportunity that it provides to come together as a group of thousands, having a great time together. That really mattered to me when I was young. I was part of a small church, and to get to go to huge events like these where there were thousands of other people that thought and believed the same as me gave me huge confidence. I felt way less weird!
I’ve heard you talk about the festival as a big family – have you kept the same team together from day one and how do you cope with being apart for most of the year?
For the most part the team remains the same – although every year we both lose and gain a few people. How do we keep it together? Every management meeting starts with a meal. I cook the main, and Jayne is the dessert master. We talk. We laugh and cry together. We pray together. Then we meet. Simply put, that is why the whole of Festival One stops at lunch and dinner time – to give everybody the chance to eat together. The simple practice of the daily rhythms of life, writ large! Easy!
Although most people would refer to Festival One as a music festival, you said that you want to show people what the Christian faith looks like, not just sing about it. How does Festival One do that?
Most of the feedback we get – and we get heaps – is about how the festival “feels”. People feed back about having incredible times with God and with their friends. About feeling at peace. About encountering God in unexpected ways. As a management team we talk endlessly about building a really solid backbone before the event begins – good design, good communications, good planning, good systems – and then once gates open and the thing takes off, trusting that backbone to work. It’s no different to running a good dinner party. You plan where you will sit, where you will eat. What the table decor will be, what food and drink will be. What music to play and so on. You then prepare all that, so that when your guests arrive you can welcome them to an exquisitely prepared evening, and then relax along with them, and join in conversations. Same really.
Have there been times along this journey when you’ve thought, ‘Stuff this – it’s too hard!’?
All the time. This is an incredibly hard thing to put together. There are so many moving parts. The risk is high from year to year. There are a huge number of uncontrollable variables. My hat is off to Mark and Chris De Jong who did this for 24 years! However, beyond all the risks and frustrations is the underlying delight and privilege of being part of a team that gets to put on something as thrilling as this.
We’re coming up to the 6th year of Festival One. How have you kept the standard and quality of the event so high?
Again, real simple. Surround yourself with a team of passionate and exceptionally talented people. But … and here’s the kicker, don’t take on people just because they are talented. Take them on because of their hearts. Every single one of the management team and group heads is motivated first and foremost by a passion for Jesus Christ, and for seeing others get to know Him too. For all of us Festival One is not ‘the thing’. It is the thing where we can let our passions for the Gospel and the talents that God has given us gain full expression. So … it is always being made new!
Is there any one artist that has eluded you or that you’ve really found difficult to attract?
Of course. Can’t say! Still working on it. Never give up!
My buddy Propaganda is coming this year. He’s been wanting to visit NZ for years. You know he’s only coming to see Hobbiton, right?
I heard he really wanted to only come to visit you! Can’t wait to have this elegant crafter of the English language letting loose his passion for Jesus onstage.
You’ve also been involved with the Long Story Short project (an awesome set of videos explaining the Christian faith). Tell us where the idea came from and what did you hope to achieve through it?
This is the brainchild of Torrey Hilton and Geoff Smith, a passionate evangelist and a gifted theologian respectively. I got dragged in late in the piece and fell in love with both the people and the project. Torrey has just achieved amazing distribution worldwide via satellite and terrestrial TV – hundreds of millions in the reach of these channels. The project taught me a huge life lesson. We filmed the story of the Bible, often on location where the original story took place. Something changed in me. My confidence in the story of the Bible grew immensely. Being where things happened, we didn’t feel the need to justify, or even overly explain. Each place spoke its own story, in its own way. Our job was not to defend the story, but rather let the story speak for itself, and tell the bits that needed telling as elegantly as possible. That explains a lot about the way we organise Festival!
As a leader in business and ministry, what tips do you have for Christian men that are trying to find the balance between all their responsibilities?
There is no balance. You are either walking with God or you are not. You are either doing everything – absolutely everything that you do – for God’s glory, or you are not. Work is then worship. Family is worship. Friends are worship. There is no separation. You might think this is simplistic, but it is rooted in the contrast between an ancient Jewish world view, and world views subsequent to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who were the most powerful thought leaders around adding other pieces to the God, People, Place world view (sounds very familiar to residents of Aotearoa and what I believe is a gift to us as a nation).
So, what do you do to unwind?
Hang out with friends. Go off-road driving and camping with a bunch of mates. Cooking and entertaining. Reading. Holidays. Hanging with my family. Our son and his family are living with us currently which also gives us the gift of a 3 year old and a 7 week old. Absolutely wonderful.
Will we ever see you up on stage doing a bit of Karaoke?
Thanks Graham, we will be praying for you and the team as you prepare for this year’s event
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About the author
Dave Firth is the editor of Authentic Magazine, a Bible teacher, speaker husband, father and follower of Jesus Christ.
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