PARADISE, Kan. (BP)–What in the world was a grown man doing in the middle of an empty field in Kansas? Alone on this sunny day last October, tears of praise to God were evident on his face over the thought of thousands of young people from across the country gathering there to focus on Jesus Christ not just as their Savior and friend but as their sovereign King on the eternal throne.
For Richard Ross, who teaches student ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, his journey to Paradise, Kan., started months before in his private, early morning devotions.
Morning after morning as he read Scripture and prayed, he said his mind’s eye began seeing a mile-square field with a large dais, or platform for a throne, erected in the center. Around it were thousands of college and high school students. But Ross could not see anyone or anything actually visible on the dais. Young people of every race were worshipping, singing, contemplating, sharing Scripture all around, but only Jesus Christ was exalted among them.
“I am not very mystical; I don’t live in the world of visions,” Ross recounted. “For a few mornings, I thought God was giving me a little blessing … allowing me just to visualize what is very much the focus of my life, and that is calling a generation to intimacy with Christ and awakening the land to Him.
“But after awhile, I began to think, ‘Wait a minute. What if this isn’t just a morning blessing for me? … What if I’m seeing something that will not just happen in glory someday, or not just a representation of what might happen to young people on earth? What if this really is something that is to be?'”
If this gathering was actually to take place, Ross envisioned it happening at the very center of the nation. “I suppose this is to symbolize the possibility that an awakening to Christ might begin there and move out to every corner of the country.” When he consulted some geography resources, Ross saw that the center of the continental United States is near a little town in Kansas called Paradise.
With that discovery, he said he wept with a sense of realization that God may be urging him on to action. But he wanted to test his vision for the young people worshipping around the dais in the field near Paradise, so he shared it with 18 ethnically diverse Christian leaders in different parts of the country representing various groups focused on youth or collegiate ministries.
“I told them not to e-mail each other, not to communicate, just pray for two weeks,” Ross said. After a couple of weeks, Ross said each one of the prayer partners thought the idea was “of God, not of human invention, and bears conversation with the body of Christ.”
At Ross’ invitation, each of the 18 prayer partners bought their own tickets for an impromptu daylong conference with Ross in Fort Worth, Texas, resulting in the launch of PARADISE, a spiritual movement that will physically convene with a mass gathering of young people, their ministers and parents on Sunday, May 25, 2008, during the Memorial Day weekend around a massive dais in the middle of a one-square-mile field near Paradise, Kan. Its organizers and advocates think PARADISE has the potential to bring about a “Christ-awakening” among young people, the effects of which could reverberate for years to come.
One such advocate is T.W. Hunt, author of “The Mind of Christ” discipleship resources who was a much-respected professor of missions, discipleship and music at Southwestern Seminary for 24 years. When Ross approached Hunt at his home in Spring, Texas, early on for guidance on the vision for PARADISE, Hunt encouraged him to move forward.
“I got very, very excited about every aspect of it,” Hunt said. “One thing that really excited me is that it is not being based on things or personalities, but strictly on the centrality of Christ. I think that had to come from God.”
PARADISE, MINUS PERSONALITIES
David Bryant, president of Proclaim Hope and former chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee, has agreed to chair the effort. Bryant, who lives in metro New York City, ministers among a wide range of churches and denominations, as he puts it, toward fostering “a nationwide Christ-awakening movement” through prayer and a focus on Christ as sovereign King.
“I have been into every part of the body of Christ, and yet,” Bryant said, “I have never been a part of anything that is as pure in its exclusive focus on the exaltation of the Son of God the way PARADISE is.”
The PARADISE mission statement is: “PARADISE is a journey to awaken students from every part of the body of Christ to the supremacy of God’s Son, to call them to adore Him as King, and to inspire them to arise to bravely join Him in accelerating His kingdom purposes for this generation, converging in a national worship gathering, convened at the geographic center of the nation.”
Bryant explained that the purity of PARADISE comes from what it isn’t as much as what it is. “What is missing [from PARADISE] is we are not promoting programs, we are not promoting products and we are not promoting personalities,” he said. “We refuse to let that happen…. When the students get to the gathering in the field, they are not going to look at any person other than Christ Himself.”
Noting that PARADISE won’t be just a one-time event, Bryant described it as a “journey” that in some ways already has begun. “The three leading verbs in our mission statement are awake, adore and arise. If any one of those is missing, you do not have a holistic, pure response,” he said.
Youth, ministers, parents or anyone else who wants to be involved begin by registering at www.paradise08.com and paying a $20 fee for access to various PARADISE resources. “There has never been a curriculum either on the Web or in published form that in any way duplicates these nine study guides,” Bryant said. “The focus is on … giving participants a larger vision of the supremacy of God’s Son. I don’t know of anything that has that as its only focus.”
Although they can be downloaded and worked on paper, the study guides are designed for online use, Bryant said. There are study guides specifically for youth or collegians, ministers and volunteers in youth or collegiate outreach or for parents to track along at the same time with their children.
Ross said funding for the PARADISE movement will be through the $20 registration fees. “It is pretty obvious that there is just no fluff here,” Ross said. “Every one of us preparing for the event is working volunteer.”
Collaboration and online community-building are important benefits of the studies, Bryant said, noting that the PARADISE study guides have been developed keeping in mind the Internet and “wiki” functionality of websites such as Facebook.com, MySpace.com or Wikipedia.com.
“We are providing a way for students who are on fire to be in touch with others with the same heart and passion to know they are not alone, and to share ideas and experiences and pray together,” Bryant said.
“About the study guides: there is no person’s name as author, there is no production or publishing company behind it; it is all given away for the registration fee of $20 for the whole journey plus the event … and any money left over goes back [to the participants],” Bryant said. “We will not endorse anything. If you go through the lessons, they are done inductively into the Scriptures. That is a way of saying, ‘You’re not coming to these study guides to learn from the so-called experts; you’re coming to these study guides for them to be a helpful tool for you to dig in for yourself and find out who Christ is all on your own. Then, you go online and share your new discoveries with your peers.'”
Bryant said there are three month-long studies from which to choose. Two of them can be done any time of the year. The other one is a 28-day study designed for next spring in preparation for the PARADISE gathering. “Even if you don’t ever get to the field in Kansas, your life could still be radically transformed just simply by getting into that wiki site,” Bryant said.
PARADISE TO COUNTER CRISIS
Ross and Bryant share similar concerns about the Christology -— views and beliefs about Christ -— among Christians of all ages today. Both men refer to a crisis in the church.
Ross said a recent study through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about religious views of churched young people termed it “Moral Therapeutic Deism”; Ross calls the crisis “Jesus in my pocket” and said he gets quick confirmation from youth and collegiate ministers when he describes this concept.
“For many students, Jesus is my little buddy who goes with me through the day, and if I run into a little difficulty, I pull Jesus out of my pocket and He ‘poofs’ my problems away. Then I put him back in my pocket and basically live my life as I choose to until I need Him again,” Ross said.
The idea of undistracted worship is an important part of PARADISE but is not the most important part, Ross said. “People are intrigued with ‘nobody on stage, nothing for sale,’ but that is not the primary issue,” he said. “The primary issue is this: We in the church are in a crisis in Christology, especially with young people, and I think young people are not so different from their parents.”
Bryant is praying that PARADISE is used by God to address this crisis of Christology not only among young people but among the body of Christ around the world.
“In a recent study pastors reported that their most troubling emotion … is melancholy,” Bryant said. “Why is that? It is because of a lack of hope that things cannot be changed. Is that a crisis of psychology or emotion? No. It is a theological crisis, and more specifically a Christological crisis. There is a major shortfall in how God’s people see, seek and speak about God’s Son for all that He is, so that there is a shortfall in how they savor, serve and share Him.”
Virginia Ward, director of Black Campus Ministries New England for Inter-Varsity and member of the PARADISE Board described PARADISE as “a reflection of the Kingdom of God. Through Christ every tribe, every tongue and every nation worships the majestic King of kings. In May of 2008, youth from the city to the country have the privilege of being a mirror of heaven in Paradise, Kan.”
David Butts, current chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee and president of Harvest Prayer Ministries in Terre Haute, Ind., was enlisted for the PARADISE “counsel of advocates” by Bryant. Butts said he was drawn by how it is focused in a unique way on Jesus Christ and not on any big names in Christian circles.
“I am not knocking Christian celebrities at all. Often these are people whom God has used and continues to use in significant ways,” Butts said. “It is just sometimes difficult for the church in general to separate a celebrity’s status from the real purpose. With PARADISE … Jesus Christ really becomes the only One who is the focus and receives the honor and glory. I believe that the revival the Lord is preparing for His people will be all about Jesus.”
PARADISE WITH NO COMMERCIALISM
Early on in the process of thinking through the logistics and implications of the PARADISE vision, Ross was confronted by his prayer partners and other national ministers with what he called “powerful questions.” He said they wanted to know all about who was behind it and who ultimately might reap a financial windfall. Ross said they grilled him about who owned the trademark on the name; after the Memorial Day event, who would control the registration list, the donor list and the marketing rights; and who would get proceeds from T-shirt or DVD sales or anything left over from registration fees.
“I said, ‘We refund anything that’s left over from registration fees. We shred the registration list when the event is over. We shred the donor list when the event is over. The trademark and the name cease to exist after the event; and let’s don’t sell anything. Let’s don’t sell one T-shirt, not one product,'” Ross said.
“They got excited thinking that for one day we don’t do any of that,” Ross said. “In fact, a phrase that cropped up over and over was, ‘Not this time.'”
These promises were written into the bylaws of a new, free-standing, 501(c)(3) nonprofit Kansas corporation named PARADISE, Inc. Ross said it is now the law of PARADISE, Inc., that when the event is over, all residual assets are either returned to the registrants or destroyed.
Butts counts himself as one among many who is amazed at the lack of commercialism associated with PARADISE. “I have been in youth ministry, I have been a pastor for some 20 years and then for the last 15 years I have been in para-church ministry, so I have seen all sorts of things … I have never really seen anything like PARADISE. It is so unique that I believe it will capture the attention of the church,” he said.
From the beginning, Ross said it was clear to him that the young people worshipping in the field would be gathered around a raised dais that was empty, nothing more or less than the representation of the foundation of Christ’s throne. No human being would be leading worship, making announcements or speaking on the platform. On it there would not be any props, any logos, nor any promotions or tents.
“I have seen this scene of young people in undistracted worship of the King of kings, and I have seen them doing this without human people in front of them, and without people’s faces distracting them and with nothing for sale,” Ross said. He listed “statesmen” of missions and youth ministry in the United States who have become advocates for PARADISE in part because of this purity of intention and focus on worshipping Christ as King. Names of almost 90 national leaders who are advocating PARADISE can be seen at www.paradise08.com/advocates.
Ross acknowledged that many participants will be from churches with ministers who stand on a platform and lead worship, and they might have difficulty imagining how thousands of people could gather and worship with no one moving the program along. Ross noted that there will be an orchestra, band, vocalists and powerful sound systems. Jumbotrons distributed around the field will supply the words for music and the proclamation of Scripture. The music will be live, but the musicians will be out of sight. One collegian already has submitted an original song for PARADISE and others are expected to follow.
“I’m going to be standing out there with everyone else, worshipping beside my son and my wife,” Ross said. “And it’s just Scripture, songs, quiet contemplation, personal prayer, group prayer and worship. That’s all it is.”
Brent Thompson is a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Texas.