Brat Fest

The World's Largest Brat Fest on Memorial Day weekend will add a side of religion this year.

The World’s Largest Brat Fest, a secular staple in Madison since 1983, is expanding its focus this year and bringing in a religious element.

The event is adding a fifth stage that will offer Christian music and speakers. And for the first time, a communitywide worship service will be held.

The four-day event starts Friday and runs through Memorial Day on Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center. Admission and parking are free.

The festival’s turn toward faith mirrors that of Tim Metcalfe, a co-owner of the grocery stores that sponsor the event. Last year, he attended Lifest, the large Christian music festival in Oshkosh.

He went thinking he’d pick up some practical tips, like how to configure a sound system and where to park food trucks. Instead — or in addition to — he got religion.

“I think God was always in my heart, but I didn’t have a relationship with my faith,” he said. “I wasn’t attending church. This changed everything for me. It was my moment. Afterward, I drove home and said, ‘What do I do with this?’ ”

He struck up a partnership with Lifest officials. The Christian music area at Brat Fest will be called the Lifest Stage.

“Christian music has a huge following, so if you like it, it will be there for you,” Metcalfe said. “It’s a genre that appeals to some and maybe not others and that’s OK, just like hard rock doesn’t appeal to everyone. In Madison, we’re very inclusive to everyone.”

Mike Judge, director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the UW-Madison School of Business, said in many parts of the country, such as his hometown of Oklahoma City, residents greatly appreciate when businesses acknowledge their Christian underpinnings. Madison residents seem more wary of public displays of religion, he said.

“My gut tells me there might be a little bit of a social media flare-up over this,” Judge said. “But as long as religion doesn’t become an overwhelming presence at Brat Fest, I don’t think it will be a negative for the brand. And it could be good for business if it brings in a different segment of consumer.”

Bob Lenz, the founder of Lifest, is among those scheduled to speak at this year’s Brat Fest (5:30 p.m. Saturday). He is a former youth pastor who gives inspirational speeches across the country.

In an interview, Lenz described himself as an evangelical and said he attends a non-denominational church. His topics vary depending on the audience. At public schools, for instance, he includes no religious content, he said.

His Brat Fest talk will be faith-based, but “we’re not out there to judge people,” he said. “We’re not out there to say, ‘This is what you must believe.’ We work with a lot of denominations. We believe the most important thing is making God a part of your life.”

Lenz is closely linked to the “Stork Bus” movement, an effort based in Colorado Springs that parks buses outside abortion clinics and offers free ultrasound images to pregnant women. He just completed a 40-day tour on behalf of Stork Bus in which he spoke at 25 rallies.

However, abortion politics will not be part of his Brat Fest appearance, he said. “Our message will be calling people into a relationship with Jesus,” he said.

The Sunday morning of Brat Fest, the Rev. Harvey Carey, a Detroit pastor with a national reputation, will lead an 8:45 a.m. worship service. More details are at bratfest.com.

Now in its 32nd year, Brat Fest donates proceeds to the nonprofit organizations whose members volunteer to staff the booths. It has raised more than $1.3 million for local charities since its inception.

Brat Fest has been “100 percent secular” up to this point, Metcalfe said. He weighed the idea of a Christian stage carefully, he said, concluding it would be “a phenomenal addition.”

For those wanting the old secular experience, fear not. Bret Michaels, who rose to fame as the lead singer of the metal band Poison, will be among singers hitting the Ho-Chunk Grand Stage.

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You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.

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