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‘Experiencing God’ musical premiered by Calif. choir

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (BP)–When representatives of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention approached Henry Blackaby to ask if they could write a musical based on his discipleship course, “Experiencing God,” they got one question from him.

“I asked them to tell me how they came to that [idea],” Blackaby said. “As they described the process and the pilgrimage on which they sensed God was leading them, I felt a deep conviction of the heart that this was a work of God. I couldn’t argue with that, since God was at work.”

Hundreds of church musicians and worship leaders witnessed the product of that vision April 26 at the annual MUSICalifornia conference in San Diego when “Experiencing God … The Musical,” published under LifeWay’s Genevox imprint, premiered.

Written by Claire Cloninger and Gary Rhodes, the 70-minute work features original songs, along with some classic hymns, praise choruses and contemporary Christian songs made popular by current artists. An interweaving of narration brought it under the umbrella of the “seven realities” discussed in Blackaby’s work.

Premiering the musical was the “3Sixteen” choir from the People’s Church of Fresno, Calif., led by Doug Holck, executive pastor and minister through music.

“I had several people approaching me in the past seven years wanting us to do a musical based on Experiencing God, but we never felt right about it,” said Mark Blankenship, director of LifeWay’s music ministries department. “Last year we sat down with Henry and told him we felt the time had come for a musical on Experiencing God that could be a worship experience for the church.”

Earlier, a compact disc had been released by Sparrow Records and a LifeWay-produced book of songs inspired by the seven realities, but Blackaby said he could see the importance of another musical medium, as long as it was done sensitively.

“It needs to be expressed through a different medium to expose it to a new generation,” he said. “But when you sense the Lord has given you a message, you must be very sensitive in how you express it so it might not be changed.”

Blankenship said it was important that the musical have integrity because of Experiencing God’s biblical basis.

“Experiencing God is also Henry’s life message,” Blankenship said. “It’s the way he built his ministry in churches. Through the revelation of God’s message in him, some people at LifeWay convinced him to put it on paper 10 years ago.”

Therefore, the choice of musical writers was crucial, he said, and LifeWay selected Cloninger and Rhodes, two prominent Christian songwriters whose lives had been enhanced individually through Experiencing God and Blackaby’s ministry.

While a college student, Rhodes was a summer missionary at Faith Baptist Church, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where Blackaby was pastor for 12 years.

“He was preaching these principles every Sunday, and it was a life-changing thing for me and the other students to hear him,” Rhodes said.

Cloninger, who worked on the musical courtesy of Word Music, had studied Experiencing God at her church.

“It was the most instructive and practical help I’ve ever had in really hearing personally from God,” she said. “So often a message inspires in some nebulous way and gives you a warm feeling about God. But personal things happen with this one, and you could really hear God whisper in your ear.”

To begin the project, Cloninger and Rhodes gathered with LifeWay employees in summer 1999 to spend a morning with Blackaby and listen to him share from his heart.

“To sit in that room with him and hear him tell stories about his relationship with God, I found it most contagious to be around someone for whom faith is so real,” Cloninger said.

Rhodes said he and Cloninger had to wade prayerfully through a lot of possible material and they had to consult periodically with Blackaby, who said Cloninger and Rhodes’ product gets his stamp of approval.

“I was very pleased when I heard the soundtrack,” he said. “The lyrics and music matched the message, so the message isn’t changed.”

The next step was finding a choir to premiere the musical, and Greg Skipper, coordinator of the premiere for LifeWay’s music ministries department, called Holck. What LifeWay didn’t know was that the whole choir had already been through Experiencing God along with the church staff.

“With the impact it’s had on our church and music department, I don’t think our church will ever be the same,” said Holck, who conducts an orchestra and the 115-member 3Sixteen choir, named after Colossians 3:16.

Members of the choir and orchestra found both the Bible study and musical versions of Experiencing God challenging.

“It affected the whole church because the congregation could see what went on with us when we studied it as a choir,” said second soprano Kim Lichti. “I was raised in the church, and it’s easy to believe in obedience for its own sake, but this is God. It’s easy to do something because you’ve done it all your life, but we need to keep it fresh.”

“It’s hard to play when you’re choked up,” said Harry Spencer, who plays in the orchestra. “The premiere was the first time I actually felt the whole thing. It was very fulfilling.”

In its short 10-year history, Experiencing God has been translated into more than 45 languages, and the workbook has sold more than 3.4 million copies worldwide, crossing denominational boundaries.

Blankenship said he hopes the musical will not only lead to a revival of the workbook, but also usher in a Holy Spirit-led revival in churches.

“I see the musical used not only as a worship tool, encountering God and causing revival, but also as a catalyst to inspire churches to study the book,” he said. “We really feel this is anointed, and God has got his hand on it.”

Information on ordering “Experiencing God . . . The Musical” is available by calling 1-800-GENEVOX.

Garland is a freelance writer and a student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif.

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