When he was 5, John Cooper made a big mistake -- he sang Michael Jackson's "Beat It" in front of his mom.
Such pop or rock music was not allowed in his conservative Christian home.
Winter JamWhat: Performances by dozens of Christian rock artists, including Grammy Award-nominated bands Skillet and NewSong
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Road, Rosemont
Tickets: $10 at the door
Other info: Advance online tickets with perks, such as early admission and sitting in on Q&A sessions with the musicians, are available for $29.99-$49.99 each plus shipping and handling at 2015.jamtour.com/jam-nation.
"I got a pretty good whoopin' for singing the devil's music ... even Michael Jackson," Cooper recalled. "They really equated it to worshipping the devil."
Cooper, who now lives in Kenosha, Wis., kept on singing but took his music in a whole different direction. In fact, he is the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated band Skillet, one of the biggest Christian rock bands in the country.
The band will headline Winter Jam at the Allstate Arena Friday, Jan. 30, along with nine other big-name Christian music stars, many of whom also have Grammy nominations and GMA Dove Awards to their credit, including NewSong, Jeremy Camp and Francesca Battistelli.
"It's more than a concert, it's an event," said Cooper, now in his third year of performing at Winter Jam. "It's like a really awesome fair with a bunch of great bands. The feeling is electric, the crowd is amazing, and the message is great. It's hope and love that we found in Jesus."
Rather than sell tickets, Winter Jam charges a stunningly low $10 per person admission at the door -- roughly the cost of a movie.
Organizers have considered raising the price, but they don't really want to, said the show's founder, NewSong's Eddie Carswell.
"We're trying to make it so everyone can come. If you're a family, you can bring all your kids and invite the neighbors. We try to make it easily accessible so no one is left out," he said. "As long as we can make it work financially, we want to (keep it at $10)."
Carswell created Winter Jam 20 years ago after huge crowds turned out for his band's church and auditorium performances. He rounded up a few other Christian bands for an event called "January Jam" at a 6,500-seat venue in Greenville, South Carolina -- which, in 1995, was like Madison Square Garden for Christian rockers, Carswell said.
They charged $3 per person at the door, and the venue filled up immediately. They had to turn 2,000 people away.
"I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' We just started adding cities and cities," Carswell said. "This is God's idea. We just happened to be the guys standing around who were goofy enough to do it."
The show's popularity exploded, and it's now a national, 47-city, November-to-April tour featuring the genre's top bands playing huge venues like the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where they've had crowds of more than 30,000.
Locally, Winter Jam had been held at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, but after two years of at-capacity shows, it's moving to the larger Allstate Arena where they'll have an extra 7,000 or so seats.
Winter Jam will feature a variety of musical styles, but most of it is Christian rock.
If you picture Kumbaya church music -- or a guitar player standing in a singular spotlight and playing wimpy music with no background activity -- you'd be mistaken. These bands rock like any other rock band, with laser, light and video shows going on behind them, shredding guitars and even occasional crowd-surfing.
There's just no cussing or alcohol served.
While early Christian rock was preachy and overtly religious, modern Christian rock is more subtle. Doing that has helped broaden the genre's appeal, said Skillet's Cooper.
He still talks about his faith in Christ between songs, but Jesus isn't named in many of their songs. He's just implied. Take this excerpt from the Skillet song "Awake and Alive":
I'm at war with the world and they
Try to pull me into the dark
I struggle to find my faith
As I'm slippin' from your arms
It's getting harder to stay awake
And my strength is fading fast
You breathe into me at last
"I enjoy art that has hidden meaning," Cooper said. "I don't enjoy film when it's preachy. So I try to create music so it's open to interpretation."
Cooper said Skillet's music appeals to a wide range of people, but especially teenage boys who might feel like outsiders and are searching for music to make them feel less alone.
The band has sold more than 2 million units in the U.S., racked up more than 160 million YouTube views and has more than 5 million Facebook fans.
"They all have the same love for the music and the 'we're all in this together' feeling," Skillet said.