"We certainly didn't know back in 2001 that it would become not only an annual event, but one of the largest Christian festivals in the U.S.," said Newton, Unity director and part of Alive on the Lakeshore, the umbrella organization sponsoring the four-day event.
The festival draws tens of thousands of fans each year and showcases today's top Christian music artists, as well as offers various other faith-related opportunities.
"When families and churches begin to plan their summer around Unity, you know something special is happening," he added.
Award-winning Christian artists such as Casting Crowns and TobyMac – and perennial Unity favorite Matthew West - are among the 2017 main stage headliners for the Aug. 9-12 event at Muskegon's Heritage Landing. They're joined by some "newcomer" artists as well as youth-oriented acts on the separate Spotlight Stage, sponsored by Youth For Christ.
A UNITY TRACK RECORD
Back in August of 2001 the first Unity Festival bravely opened using a Friday through Sunday schedule, with worship Sunday morning led by the Latin-flavored band Salvador.
Among the Friday stage artists were Avalon, Clay Crosse, Commissioned, Smalltown Poets, Tammy Trent and The Elms.
Saturday included Tait (Michael Tait's post-dcTalk band), Zoegirl and headliners 4Him.
This reporter attended Unity's debut. I will always recall a backstage conversation with singer Tammy Trent and her husband-manager Trent Lenderink. Tragically, he died in a diving accident the following month.
Having laid a foundation, the festival came back the following year with Michael W. Smith. The legacy has been building ever since.
Favorite band headliners through the years include Third Day, Newsboys and Casting Crowns. Solo acts headlining several times include Steven Curtis Chapman and TobyMac.
MORE THAN MUSIC
Much of the festival's growth has come in child and youth activities – free to ticketed customers. A Family Fun Zone (for kids under 13) includes a mysterious "walking on water" attraction, which Newton hints "you have to see to believe and experience to explain."
A Camp Unity area, hosted by Grace Adventures, has teen-friendly fare such as a climbing tower, archery, and gaga pits.
Some extreme games come courtesy of Cran-Hill Ranch. Offered are various inflatable games, a "guitar praise" attraction and wacky photo booth.
Returning this year is a "Master Piece" painting class in which art instructor Deb Yonker guides students in a one-hour, hands-on session. Students will emerge with a completed painting of their own depicting a faith-based theme. (Class size is limited, cost is $25 in addition to Unity ticket. Reserve a spot online.
And there are numerous Christian schools and other non-profit groups with information displays and some free promotional materials.
All of these options are fueled by the 700 or so volunteers the festival relies on annually to help keep things running.
MORE MUSIC POSSIBILITIES
The Spotlight Stage is out on the point at Heritage Landing closest to the water's edge. It has a great mix of youth-oriented artists beginning Thursday with We Are Messengers. Saturday is an all-rap line-up with KB, Aaron Cole and the West Michigan-based Beacon Light. There's also a youth lounge, speaker sessions, artist Q&As and even a film presentation.
Over on the main stage several artists will be performing for the first time at Unity: Zach Williams ("Chain Breaker") and The Gray Havens.
A late note: The husband & wife duo Love & The Outcome has canceled its Day Zero Unity appearance. Singer Jodi King is in the final stages of pregnancy and doctors have advised her to suspend travel. Filling in at 7:30pm Wed. is singer-songwriter Holly Starr.
A LARGE SCALE GATHERING
Newton said the last three or four years have been a high-water mark for festival attendance. More than 15,000 can pack the Unity grounds over the course of a single day, with weather conditions affecting the numbers. This year's reserved seating and family membership passes are already sold out, a sign that interest is strong once again.
"We ask for and receive tons of guest feedback after the event each year and that is a key factor in making improvements and trying new things," according to the director.
17th Annual Unity Christian Music Festival
Aug. 9-12, at Heritage Landing, downtown Muskegon
Featuring music on two stages and various child/youth/family activities, display booths and more.
Wed. Aug 9 – Day Zero - Free admission (but no family activities);
Gates open at 4 p.m. musical headliners Tenth Avenue North at 9pm
Thurs.-Sat. Gates open at 1pm, music begins at 2pm
Thurs. Aug. 10 – headliners at 8:45pm Casting Crowns
Fri. Aug. 11 - headliner at 9pm TobyMac
Sat. Aug. 12 – headliner at 8:45pm Matthew West
For the full line-up: visit http://www.unitymusicfestival.com (artist times are approximate)
Tickets: one-day pass $32.50, two and three day passes also available, prices slightly higher on and after Aug. 8
(kids 5 and under free) purchase tickets at the gate or online.
- Next Article: Evangelicals Must Adopt Christian View of Leisure to Influence Culture, Says Scholar
- Prev. Article: Terry’s Picks: August 2017