Jonathan Slye's Positive Force How a teenager planned a massive Christian rock festival

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

For seven months, 17-year-old Jonathan Slye has been organizing a massive, all-ages rock festival on his own terms. The gathering has an overt message, ticket prices are low, and he’s doing most of the work himself. It sounds like the noble fruit of D.C.’s DIY punk scene, but Jonathan is no disciple of Ian MacKaye. “I just have this passion,” he says, “for Christian rock.”

The inaugural Spring Jam Fest takes place May 14 at Bull Run Park in Centreville, Va., and it features 19 Christian acts across different genres. That includes two major Christian metal headliners who’ve experienced mainstream, secular success: P.O.D. and Head, the former guitarist of Korn. Jonathan, the son of a pastor, has gotten the word out, gathered sponsors, and figured out the logistics of assembling a music festival for thousands of people all while balancing his studies and basketball practice. There have been bumps, but not many. It’s all come together pretty seamlessly—and perhaps divinely, to hear Jonathan tell it. “I thought it was crazy, but I just kept running into the right people,” says Jonathan.

Christian rock has much more in common with the culture of punk rock than the fact that some of its practictioners sport tattoos and piercings. For teens like Jonathan, it can bridge the gap between closely held religious beliefs and adolescent rebellion. And in the D.C. area, where the Christian rock scene isn’t huge, there might be just one way to do something on the scale of Spring Jam Fest: by yourself.

But organizing a festival, even a faith-fueled one, isn’t cheap. Spring Jam Fest will cost about $70,000, and Jonathan’s family is footing much of the bill. They’re selling 5,000 tickets at $15 a pop, but if they don’t get rid of enough, they’ll be in very serious trouble.

“I got a call from a concert promoter in West Virginia,” says John Slye, Jonathan’s father and pastor of the non-denominational Grace Community Church in Arlington. “He said, ‘I’ve never talked to you before, I’ve talked to Jonathan, but I want you to know he’s more organized than most concert promoters I’ve worked with—however, you need to be aware of the risks.’”

High stakes aren’t just the salvation of sinners. “We have to sell at least 3,000 tickets, or we’ll go into debt,” says Jonathan’s mother, Krista. With only a few days left before the big show, they’ve sold around 1,000, but they’re expecting many people will buy tickets at the door. “There is no turning back now,” she says.

The 600-member Grace Community Church, to hear John tell it, is “a church for people who don’t go to church.” This week, its website contained a peculiar proverb: “Chillax -God.”

John founded it in 2000, when Jonathan was 7, following years running a window-washing company while also attending seminary (he only sold the business a few years ago). The Slyes have two kids and a dog; their home is warmly evangelical, adorned with Bible verses on windows and a large family portrait in the living room. It’s a nice life that the Slyes worked hard for—so why put it at risk for a rock festival?

Because Jonathan isn’t just precocious. He’s seen the light.

The seed for Spring Jam Fest was planted last summer, when Jonathan attended a camp hosted by the hugely successful Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac, formerly of the rock trio dc Talk. “It started when I was shown a verse, Romans 8:28, that talks about God’s purpose for your life,” says Jonathan. “I started praying over that verse every night, and I felt God was tugging at my heart to start a small Christian music festival.”

After returning from camp, Jonathan won tickets to several different Christian rock concerts in a short span of time—a fact he attributes to divine guidance. At the shows, he met several big players in the Christian-rock world, and he conceived Spring Jam Fest. Early on, Brian “Head” Welch—who left Korn in 2005 to play Christian music—was a supporter.

“[Head] heard about the event and was blown away,” says Jonathan. “He gave us a huge discount and said he was going to come play.” It was a huge boon; even without Korn, Head is still a big draw.

But finding an appropriate venue was problematic. After contacting several high schools and local theaters—none of which could accommodate the event—Jonathan asked his father to call up Bull Run Park, which is run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. They turned him down. Then, according to the Slyes, Jonathan called back, poured out his vision to the events specialist, and landed a date.

Several weeks into planning, Jonathan asked Head’s agent, Ember Tanksley, about another band on his roster, P.O.D. Tanksley, who works for the powerful firm William Morris Endeavor, explained that P.O.D. typically charged around $20,000 for a show like this; Jonathan says he responded, “What about $11,000?” The offer made its way to the band, who ultimately agreed. “I believe in this kid,” says P.O.D. frontman Sonny Sandoval, who has never met Jonathan. “He’s got a heart like mine, and sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.”

All the while, the Slyes were unaware of the large scope of the event—and the large cost. In April, “I finally asked him to show me everything he’d done,” says John, “and I realized it was huge.” After looking at the contracts, it looked like it was going to cost about $55,000. “Now the total’s closer to $70,000,” says John. On a Monday morning, after looking at the contracts and riders in question, John gave Jonathan an ultimatum. “I told him he had to have $25,000 in the bank by Friday,” he says. It was the minimum necessary to put down contractual deposits. “I knew he couldn’t do it,” John says.

But by that Wednesday night, Jonathan told his father the money was in the bank. John could hardly believe it. Jonathan began reaching out to businesses and potential donors, sharing his ambition and his concern for the salvation of non-believing rockers. “One woman just gave us $10,000 because she was blown away by the story,” he says. (The big donor preferred to remain anonymous.)

There have been some hiccups promoting the event. Or, as Jonathan puts it: “There were tons of valleys while there were many mountains along the path.”

Their publicity budget is marginal—a few church volunteers have sent out emails, but there’s no money for a media blitz. So Jonathan reached out to radio stations. “It’s either too Christian [for secular stations] or it’s too hard for Christian stations.” Jonathan says DC 101 declined to promote the event—even through paid advertisements—because its annual chili cook-off takes place the following weekend. Jonathan reached out to Christian station WGTS-FM: “‘Can I do a short interview, do a promo ad, give you tickets to give away, anything?’…They wouldn’t even put it on their community calendar.” Calls to both stations were not returned.

An independent producer who works for CNN picked up on the story, and stopped by the Slyes’ house in Dunn Loring on a recent afternoon. Jonathan had just gotten home from school. “We could’ve paid for PR,” Jonathan told CNN’s Eric Marrapodi, “but we would’ve had to charge more for tickets, and that’s just something I didn’t want to do…I just want to bring in as many people as possible.”

Christian rock may seem corny to secular audiences, but it directly solves a social dilemma for a niche market. “For young evangelicals growing up in the church, you have two sets of peers: church friends and school friends. You get fed up with binary between goodness and coolness,” says Kevin Erickson, who studied religion and is now the director of the All Ages Movement Project, a network of DIY organizers. “All the middle and high school existential drama is heightened by wanting to be good and wanting to be cool at the same time.” While Jonathan attends a Christian high school, he says many of his friends are not evangelical.

Hard-edged rock bands that readily make their religious loyalties known can function as a bridge between virtue and pop culture. And it turns out the religious impulse isn’t so different from its punk parallel. “There’s an age for Christian music fans—and there was a similar thing going on at hardcore shows—where kids are trying to draw a line between their community and the community at large. People want to be on a team,”says Andrew Beaujon, the arts editor of (and a former Washington City Paper staffer) who wrote the book Body Piercing Saved My Life, about the culture of Christian rock.

In a sense, Christian rock mimics punk’s opportunity for exploring a counter-cultural identity. “Evangelical culture has tried to tap into that social anti-establishment sentiment by making broader society the target of its critique,” says Erickson. That’s all well and good, but the conservative theology and politics beneath the music tend to complicate matters. “P.O.D. is a good band to look at; this is a band that has moved between the two worlds,” Beaujon says. “They were actually surprised when I interviewed them and asked about their song ‘Abortion is Murder,’ off their first record.”

But when it comes to evangelizing on stage, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says P.O.D.’s Sandoval. “I’m not ashamed of the things I believe in, but I’m not going to be tasteless either.”

The crowds at Christian rock shows tend to be young, and are mostly populated by the already-converted. The flavor isn’t necessarily evangelical. “I’ve always found there to be a lot more proselytizing at Fugazi shows than at Christian rock shows,” says Beaujon.

Although some of the acts at Spring Jam Fest are known for abrasive, pummeling sounds, Jonathan says the vibe will be rather blissful. “All the bands will likely say something about Christ,” says Jonathan. “And my Dad will be speaking for about 15 minutes.” While Christian shows primarily appeal to, well, Christians, Jonathan is fired up about reaching the lost; this is his earnest attempt to reach kids where they’re at. “We’re not going to be shoving Christ down anyone’s throat; I’m just trying to ignite interest,” he says. “I’m just hoping to rock with a purpose.”

VIDEO: P.O.D. - Live Rock'n Roll Hall of Fame

Our Readers Say

This young MAN is awesome! His passion for others is obvious and we (FM Williams Band) look forward to being part of this amazing event!
Great article tho nothing beats the CNN photo of Jonathan!!
You couldn't find a better response than this story to the myth that teens don't care about anyone or anything but themselves and their latest e-toy. Jonathan's passion and faith are an inspiration to all of us that sometimes you just have to go for it and open yourself up full force to God's bigger plan. You go, Jonathan!

Matthew 24 - JESUS IS COMING
This is the 7th letter (e-mail) some of you have received since 10\29\09. God’s Messages have remained constant.
On 9\24\08 God’s message was to get out of the city by 10\10\08
On 10\10\08 God’s message was Ezekiel 24
Events that occurred on 10\10\08 - 1. Stock market crash 2. Personal 3. S.D.A. World division met in the Philippines and launched Bible going around the world.
God’s explanation of what happened on 10\10\08 is Ezekiel chapters 3 – 7
Operation Global Rain – a call for all S.D.A. Churches to pray for the Latter Rain during 2006 - 2008 was ordained of God for Revival and Reformation.
A series of CD’s on Matthew 24 released by Pastor Stephen Bohr from Secrets Unsealed Ministries revealed symbolically portrayed events paralleling my church’s experience from May 2006 through October 2009 [3 1\2 yr] period.
11\09 – The Shut Door – as it was in the days of Noah –Luke 19:42-44
6\15\10 God revealed that the Bible going around the world was the Abomination of Desolation
mentioned in Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11 and Matthew 24:15
1\22\10 Bible was in Haiti on the day of the devastating earthquake. God’s message was Isaiah chapters 24 & 25.
8\11\10 August Issue of Adventist World Magazine pg.3 confirmed the abomination. The Bible was
desecrated and idolized. More information
On 6\26\10 God revealed more light on Ezekiel 24, God’s message given on 10\10\08. Vs. 1,2 interprets Jan Paulson’s 9th year of his reign as SDA General Conference President was in 2008, the year the Bible was launched going around the world. The 11th year of his reign ended in 2010, the year the travelling Bible was completed. Other scriptures to consider, 2Kings 25:1,2; Jer. 52:4,5.
On 9\28\10 God revealed light on Daniel to confirm the abomination and the outcome. Daniel 12:9-13
9\28\10 God’s confirmation to send this message. Devotional Book “Ye Shall Receive Power” 9\28 pg.280
A Dual Representation Daniel 2:37-42, and Rev.2:1 read the E.G. White quotation from the Study Bible. Also “This Day With God”12\18 pg.361 and “Ye Shall Receive Power”8\13 pg. 234. Quote – “If the student of the Word would take the truths which God has revealed in the leadings of His people and appropriate these truths, digest them and bring them into their PRACTICAL LIFE, they would then be living channels of light.
As Nebuchadnezzar, God has raised up the Seventh Day Adventist Church, called His people to be faithful as Daniel and the three Hebrews, gave them brilliant minds if they remain faithful to be a testimony and a light to the world. God blessed the Church with marvelous light, The Spirit of Prophecy, revealing to the Church the future and everything we need to be ready for Jesus’ Second Coming. DANIEL 2:28,29. God raised up the Church and made it the head to be a light to all the other Denominations. DANIEL 2:37&38. The Church has departed from her high calling and rejected light and allowed all sorts of creeping compromises, lowering her standards and has become like the heathen religions. Jesus will now step in and bring to an end the Great Controversy between good and evil. DANIEL 2:31-35. Read Daniel 2:-47 – “A Reflection of Light” [notes from the EG White Study Bible]
DANIEL chapter 3 - Bible going around the world from the Philippines [the plain of Dura] The image of gold was set up. Papal and pagan customs have infiltrated the church, Dan.3:8 with counterfeit and heathen style worship. The virgin Mary [Fatima] going around the world. God still has a faithful few who upholds the high standard of the Church.
DANIEL 4 God still has a faithful few who have not bowed their knees to baal. Read all the EG White notes on chapters 4. It will appear like the Church is about to fall, it will not. “Maranatha” 7\14 pg. 203
DANIEL 5 - God’s Word is His Love Letter to us. It is not a toy to be played with or worshipped as an idol, taking sacred things and making it profane – celebrating the Bible going around the world. Daniel 5:1-4. God described the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Revelation 3:14-21. Because of your unfaithfulness, God has pronounced sentence upon you. Daniel 5:22-28.
DANIEL 6 THE DECREE – Church and State will now pass a Sunday Law to destroy God’s people. Dan.6:12. Many unfaithful ones will leave the church. A few [144,000] not a literal number, will be found faithful.
DANIEL 7&8 Description of world events, past, present future, as understood by the church, leading to the Sunday Law. Sunday is the false Sabbath. Saturday is the Sabbath Day 7th day. Exodus 20:10,11; Rev.1:10.
DANIEL 9&10 To the faithful God reveals secrets. Amos chapters 3&4.
DANIEL 11& 12 Events leading to and during the Sunday Law. A TIME OF TROUBLE UPON US.
On 9\15\10 God’s call to quit my job to do Medical Missionary Work and telling people JESUS IS COMING AND A TIME OF TROUBLE IS UPON THE WORLD. Now that I won’t have enough money to purchase all the materials needed going door to door, I put together 4 daily readings on one sheet of paper from the Book Maranatha – Salvation and the Sunday Law – to give out. I went to the Staples store to make copies. There was a prepaid card in the machine. I ejected it and placed mine. For now I copied 100 totaling $9.13. I took the prepaid card I found to the cashier and told her it was in the machine. She spoke to the manager and took the card back to me and said I have it. $13.45.
9\30\10 As of today I am officially out of my job. I will follow God’s leading to be a Medical Missionary. God will provide. He will use the simple method to finish the work as He demonstrated at Staples. “The Upward Look” 9\30 pg.287 Getting Ready for the Latter Rain. “Gifts For God’s People” 9\30 pg. 281. “Reflecting Christ” 9\30 pg. 287
This message is to go to all the world. Pass it on. “Ye Shall Receive Power” 9\28 pg. 280. “This Day With God” 9\30 pg. 282.
9\30\10 Matthew 24:15-21; Daniel 12:1; Revelation 7:14.On 2\9\11 - God’s Message Genesis chapters 18 & 19 Jesus coming to save the righteous and destroy the wicked. Confirmation in devotional “Christ Triumphant” 2\9 pg. 46 & “My Life Today” 2\9 pg. 44.
On 2\10\11 – God’s Message Ezekiel chapters 28-32 Judgment on Egypt - present situation fulfilling as predicted in scriptures.
e.g. Ezekiel 29:4 – his people turn against him
29:16 – Treaty with Israel? Will end
30:12,13 – military rule, no leader
31:11 – President forced out of office 31:12 America and other nations alienation and call for resignation. 32:9&10 - surrounding nations fearful of same situation occurring in their country.
On 2\12\11 -God’s revelation Matthew 25:1-10 represents Operation Global Rain. General Conference President’s call for Revival and Reformation is referred to as in Matthew 25:11,12. It is too late. A greater measure of God’s Spirit will fall on those who have already receive it. It is falling on hearts all around you but you can’t see it. There will be false revivals.
On 2\13\11 - God’s call to give this message. Ezekiel chapters 1-3. God’s first call to give the last 7
messages began on 9\24\08. On 10\10\08 God’s message began with Ezekiel chapters 3-7.
God is now bringing to a conclusion the fulfillment of the messages. Why the judgment? Ezekiel chapters 6. The desolation was foretold Ezekiel chapters 7.
On 2\13\11 - Dream - Court in session, time for a verdict. God’s answer for meaning of dream? Isaiah chapters 37-40. Read all E.G. White notes from the Study Bible.
Sabbath School lesson for this quarter. JESUS WEEPING. Luke 19:41-44.
On 2/14/11 - Daniel chapters 11&12. Egypt – Dan.11:8,42. Heb.11:7 & Gen.9:10 –Noah. Heb.11:30.

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