Quest Community Church assistant pastor Justin McCarty was on stage at the second edition of the Questapalooza music festival.
One of the crane-mounted cameras was scanning the crowd before Christian hip-hop star TobyMac played. McCarty looked up at the giant video screen and was astonished.
"It looked like all of Lexington showed up," McCarty said Tuesday afternoon in a conference room at the church overlooking the field and parking lot that would soon be transformed for the fifth edition of Questapalooza.
Some churches start the fall with covered-dish picnics, maybe some games of cornhole. Quest throws one of the biggest Christian rock events in Central Kentucky outside of the Ichthus Festival. The top two bands on this year's bill — Switchfoot and Newsboys — were Ichthus headliners in June.
Questapalooza started in 2006 with the somewhat bizarre idea that one church could put on an event featuring three national Christian pop recording artists, extreme sports demonstrations, rides and other attractions.
Manwell Reyes, one-third of the hip-hop act Group 1 Crew, which opened Questapalooza last year and will be back this year, said it's not typical for a church to present a concert on the scale of Questapalooza.
"Not a lot of churches can do that," Reyes said. "It takes a lot to get a church behind an event like that. A lot of people probably say, 'Why do it? why go to the expense and why take the chance?' Few people can see the benefits of that."
McCarty said the idea came to Quest's senior pastor, Pete Hise, when Hise was off on a study break.
"Pete came back with this vision: What if we had this big, gigantic party for the city?" McCarty said. "From the beginning, it was about loving people. There was no ulterior motive. You didn't have to do anything. It was just come out and experience the love of God through people."
McCarty and other Quest staff said a few hundred people who have come to the event ended up returning to the church's services and even joining the church.
"We like to keep track of that because it sort of helps quantify why we do this," says Sharon Clements Quest's worship and arts pastor and the executive director of Questapalooza.
The first Questapalooza came together in a matter of months, with some hair-raising moments. For instance, the company that was supposed to bring rides to the event pulled out just a few days before.
Now, the event attracts thousands of visitors and takes about 1,000 volunteers working almost from the day after Questapalooza ends to pull together the next year's event.
Katie Docherty, Questapalooza team leader, supervises four divisions of volunteers: the field team, which oversees activities and vendors on the main festival grounds, next to the church; the stage crew, which manages the main stage and a secondary stage for kids' entertainment and rounds of the singing competition called The Fame; connections, which oversees hospitality for festival-goers and others; and the support committee, which works to procure infrastructure needs, such as portable generators.
Some volunteers come in just to work the event, but Docherty said the majority are at work well before the event week.
Asked how many volunteer hours go into Questapalooza, Docherty said, "We've never asked them to count them up. I'm sure they would if we asked, but really, I don't think they are counting."
That's partly because in deploying volunteers, Clements said, Quest tries to play to volunteers' strengths.
"It's 'What are you good at, and what do you like?'" she said. "It's not just, 'Where do we need a person to fill a slot?' It's 'What brings you to life and fulfills a passion in you?' So people are able to do something they love and are interested in, not just meet a need."
Ultimately, the intention of the event is to give people a glimpse of the church without making them come to church. That's particularly relevant this year: Questapalooza is the culmination of Quest's fall kickoff, and the theme this year is "Come See for Yourself."
McCarty said, "Everybody ends up with preconceptions about God, about who Jesus is and a lot about the church. Rather than just relying on secondhand information, what if you came and just see this for yourself?"
McCarty said that at last year's Questapalooza, a member of Third Day said, "If I was in Lexington, I'd be coming here."
Who'd be the rock star in that equation?