MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Once a month, more than 300 students from several different colleges and high schools gather in Saraland, Alabama, to spend their precious Friday night singing worship songs and praying until midnight. Students say they come for “something different, something real.” They come for Midnight Praise.
Moses Caesar, director of spiritual development at the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile, said the focus is to stir students to a deeper, more personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
“A lot of college students dump their Christianity when they get to college,” said Caesar. “Students have to find their own relationship with Christ; they can’t survive on their parents’ faith.” Caesar hopes Midnight Praise will encourage students to have a personal, real relationship with Christ.
How did a small prayer group explode into a 300-plus student gathering with students crossing state lines to participate? “It started out in October of 1998 with five guitar players having a prayer group,” Caesar said. “We would meet with guitars in hand to pray and play praise songs together. Then we had a desire to bring that experience to the whole student body, and that’s how Midnight Praise got started.”
“Word has gotten out about Midnight Praise,” said Brian Argo, one of the student directors of the event. “We’ve had high school and college students from Birmingham, Tallahassee and Mississippi.” Argo leads the worship band during Midnight Praise.
“Our mission is wrapped in our motto: An Individual Experience in a Corporate Setting,” said Caesar.
“It’s a chance for students to meet with God one-on-one without distraction,” said Melissa Smith, a student director of Midnight Praise.
In an intimate atmosphere with lights turned low and candles lit, each two-hour Midnight Praise is started with corporate worship — students sing, often with hands raised and eyes closed.
Organizers said Midnight Praise tries to create an atmosphere in which a student can have an individual encounter with God. “We wanted to give students an opportunity to hear God without preaching,” said Caesar. Without focusing on a single topic or sermon, every student can experience their own unique journey to God privately.
The candles are an important element, said Caesar, because they create an atmosphere of reflection, bring focus, and tangibly express light.
He said that this type of gathering could be effective on other college campuses as a means of encouraging students to draw closer to God.
The group has a theme scripture: Acts 16:25, which tells of Paul and Silas singing praises to God from prison at about midnight. Darden elaborated on the theme. “Just recently, God showed me something else about that passage: after Paul and Silas sang praises to God, the walls began to shake and the prisoners’ chains fell off (verse 26). In the same way, we want students to be set free spiritually and let their walls break down.”
One student did have such an experience. At a particularly unique Midnight Praise, students were asked to write their sins on a card with their name and address. Later, students threw the cards into a burning barrel outside the church. Ashes from a fire were put into a bucket, and students dipped their hands in the soot before going back into the church. During worship, students stood with their hands covered with the black ashes; it was meant to be a picture of their sins before God. During the time of silence, they came to the altar and washed their hands in an aquarium lit only by candles. Then a Midnight. Praise staff member dried their hands for them and whispered into their ears, “Go and sin no more.”
The close-knit group of student leaders also contributes to the spiritual focus of the event. Most of the Midnight Praise staff — about 10 UM students — were unsolicited volunteers who approached the student leaders to ask if there was anything they could do to help, said Darden.
Each staff member agreed that they have learned a lot about real spiritual leadership through working with Midnight Praise. “There’s no growth without sacrifice, and there’s no sacrifice without pain,” said Smith. “We fast and pray and ask God to move in Midnight Praise…and He does.”
“A lot of students have approached us to tell what they got out of the event,” said Smith. “Some of the students say that it was the first time they were ever given an opportunity to sit and be quiet before God; they say He spoke to them in an awesome way.”
Because many students coming from other schools may be unfamiliar with corporate worship or prayer, making sure that an unchurched or non-Christian person feels comfortable at the gathering is one aspect of Midnight Praise that the leaders are careful to include.
However, the staff is not interested in manipulating the event. When they meet weekly to discuss the next gathering, they don’t set goals or compare one Midnight Praise to another. They simply focus on the next one, believing that God is in control and that He has a plan for each gathering.
“We have no agenda for Midnight Praise,” said Argo. “Whatever God does, He does.”