Folks who have attended previous Winter Jam concerts at Rupp Arena know it as a mammoth rock show, on par with almost any other major tour that rolls through town, complete with pyrotechnics and flying drum kits.
That was probably hard to conceive almost 20 years ago, when the event's first concert took place.
"It was just four guys singing to tracks," NewSong's Billy Goodwin says of the 1995 January Jam concert at Greenville Municipal Auditorium in South Carolina. The idea was to just put on a show as an evangelical effort and charge a flat $3 admission at the door.
They hoped they'd get a respectable audience — but they filled the house.
"We were totally taken aback," Goodwin says. "God put it in our lap, but it's not a big idea that came to us."
Since that January night in Greenville, Winter Jam has grown into an annual Christian rock show that crosses the country each year with a who's who of the genre's stars, including 1990s chart-toppers Steven Curtis Chapman and Bob Carlisle, of Butterfly Kisses fame, and current acts Skillet and Red.
The tour rolls into Rupp Arena on Saturday night with Newsboys and Lecrae topping the bill and the event's constant, NewSong, in the lineup.
"It's been exciting for us because we've had an opportunity to be a mentor for artists coming up," Goodwin says. "They're all committed to their craft. But to hang out with them backstage, you see that they have the same heart."
Being the hosts for the tour also keeps NewSong, a Christian music mainstay for more than three decades, in front of arena audiences every winter, when most of the band's contemporaries have pared down to smaller venues or retired.
"It's pretty humbling," Goodwin says. "We've been at this 33 years, and God still lets us stand on stage and be a voice. It's especially gratifying when people respond."
The way people respond has changed over these two decades, as the cellphone has grown from a luxury item for making remote phone calls to mini computers that almost everyone has in their pockets.
Goodwin says several times in a 15-minute interview that the point of Winter Jam is winning people over to Christianity. Earlier Winter Jams had altar calls, during which people who wanted to make new or renewed professions of faith came forward and spoke to counselors. But fire marshals were not wild about that move.
Now, people wanting to make professions text a specific number and receive information in return on their phones.
The aspect of Winter Jam that still amazes many people is the admission charge: Just $10 at the gate, far below the fee for pretty much any other arena act in the country.
"That's faith," Goodwin says. "We step out every night. It is tremendously expensive to put this show on the road, and even with $10 from everybody who comes through the door, we couldn't pay our bills."
He says tour underwriters and nightly offerings help bridge the difference and keep the tour on the road, and Goodwin says that's important. He closes the conversation with a story about a daughter who dragged her father to Winter Jam one year when he was on the verge of a divorce and breaking up the family. At Winter Jam, he says, the man turned his life around and now comes every year with groups of kids he's trying to win over to Christianity.
"That impacts my heart," he says. "That's why we do this."
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.