LA CYGNE, Kan. (BP)–In the fast-paced world of youth culture, student ministers are eager for their high school and college students to experience worship free of distractions -– something they’re expecting at “Paradise,” May 25 in an open field in Kansas.
All the attention will be on Jesus, the only name promoted at the gathering. Nothing will be sold or advertised, no one will make money, and no agenda will be advanced.
“We love and respect all Christian students, [some of whom] need famous singers and famous speakers to be excited about an event,” said Richard Ross, a student ministry professor who set forth the vision for Paradise. “We’re thrilled to discover, though, that there are other students who don’t need star power to attract them. They just desire Jesus…. [T]hose are the students who will join us on May 25.”
Early on that Sunday morning, thousands of students from across the nation will gather just outside Kansas City for a day of worship through music, Scripture and prayer. Sixty members of Christian bands and worship teams will lead the music, but they’ll be out of sight so they won’t be a distraction, Ross said. Instead of a stage, the worshipers will gather around a symbolic “foundation of the throne” as described in the Book of Revelation.
“The students we talk to are anxious to attend,” J.D. Simpson, executive director of First Priority of South Mississippi, told Baptist Press. “They can’t wait to see the body of Christ covering a field in one accord. Students have never seen or participated in anything of this magnitude.”
Simpson said students are starving for truth and authenticity, and a gathering with a focus purely on Jesus is the draw to Paradise. As a youth leader, Simpson said he is praying for thousands of students to return to their cities with a purpose and mission after the gathering, “not settling for mediocrity but pursuing excellence in the name of Jesus.”
“We are praying that their worldview will be changed and challenged, that students will see how Jesus longs to be part of every aspect of their life,” Simpson said.
In his 24 years of student ministry, Simpson said he has seen plenty of fads. What is unique is how God moves when organizers don’t focus on numbers, agendas or their own egos, he said. Having participated in the national True Love Waits rally in Washington in 1994, Simpson said he expects Paradise to be broader in scope and purpose than the gathering that ignited an abstinence movement.
“I truly believe that we will point back to Paradise and see it as a spiritual marker in our youth culture,” Simpson said.
Phil Newberry, minister to students at the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, told Baptist Press that Paradise is unlike anything that has ever been available to the youth he leads. Students are asking questions such as “What? We’re going where? Doing what? Who’s the band? Who’s speaking?
“I love the fact that this is so out of the norm for us and is pushing our youth group out of its comfort zone,” Newberry said.
Ross said he has heard many stories indicating that when students believe Christ has called them to worship, they are willing to overcome obstacles to attend Paradise. Some are traveling thousands of miles; others are boarding buses immediately after graduation ceremonies.
“I heard of a youth group that already had been promised a senior trip on the beach, but when the seniors found the Paradise website, they went to their youth minister to say, ‘We’re not to be on the beach. We’re to be worshiping before the King,'” Ross, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, told Baptist Press.
Among the reports from youth leaders who e-mailed comments to Baptist Press:
— “The students are excited about what could come from the event,” Clay Carter, a youth minister at First Baptist Church in Perryton, Texas, wrote. “I believe many of them are still trying to wrap their hands around what really is going to be taking place since none of them have ever done anything like this before.”
— “This day is about Him. Not a band. Not a speaker. Not anyone else,” Jerome Smith of Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, wrote. “The focus of the day is on the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
— “Every event is always tainted with the question of who is going to be there and what will I get out of it,” Bill Burnett, a father from Benbrook, Texas, wrote. “Paradise is simply about worshiping without those distractions. In some ways it’s more like worshiping in your car or with your iPod plugged in than it is going to a ‘worship concert.’ By that I mean you are carried by word or song (from your heart) into the presence of the King and worship Him. No one else matters right then.”
— “The most common attitude among students can be summed up in a quote: ‘I’m not missing this for nothing!'” Frank Teat, minister to students at First Baptist Church in Henderson, Texas, wrote. “There is a sense of awe and expectation, even the unknown about Paradise. Students don’t want to miss it.”
— “I think when students can gather with other students and worship together, that is exciting,” a parent from LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Ky., said. “They can look around and realize that there are lots of other teenage believers just like them. With that also comes the realization that other students are going through similar spiritual battles that they are. Our spiritual journey is not based on emotion, but I feel like a spiritual high — when done correctly — is a really big boost.”
— “We live in a nation with the greatest amount of Christian literature and learning resources in the history of the church,” Walter Norvell, assistant professor of Christian ministries at Williams Baptist College in Arkansas, wrote. “We can deliver the Gospel and Christian teaching in more media than ever before. You cannot surf the Web, cable TV or your car radio without realizing the presence of such Christian influences.
“Yet, the church has never before been so biblically illiterate. Christianity may have never been so popularly cultural. Just knowing God has not been enough,” Norvell said, adding that he is believes Paradise can help more students fall in love with Jesus.
Ross said he has been surprised by the way Paradise has struck a chord with adults.
“I hear from adults who, like Simeon and Anna, seem to believe that they are about to see the full glory of Christ before they die,” Ross said. “They honestly believe that Paradise may spark something wonderful among students that will have implications for all ages of believers.
“We are hearing of increasing numbers of parents who plan to bring their high school students rather than send their high school students to Paradise,” Ross added. “We are hearing of senior adults in the church who are coming to Kansas to pray over and intercede for young people as the young people stand before their King.”
To prepare their hearts for Paradise, many youth and some parents are working through Bible study material available on the Paradise website, and others are networking through an online community of students anticipating the pilgrimage to Paradise. Most will travel by van or bus, and some will stay in hotels while others will be hosted by churches in the vicinity of Paradise.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press. For more information about Paradise, visit www.paradise08.com.