The worship center was to be as unadorned as the savior being honored there. A simple setting, as minimalist as the message to be presented. About 150 acres of natural lawn surrounded by another 450 acres of grassland.
No Nashville-based musicians on display. No T-shirts available for sale in the lobby. No coffee barista brewing cafe lattes off to the side.
No coffee? What was Richard Ross thinking?
Answer: He wasn't. He was dreaming.
A little more than a year ago, Ross was deep into his morning praise and prayer time when he enjoyed a vision of a large, grassy field surrounding a throne. Scattered across the field were students praising and adoring the Son of God.
Ross initially thought the vision was simply a blessing from God, an encouragement for the 57-year-old Texan who had spent 30 years in youth ministry.
But when the vision occurred again and again during morning Bible studies, Ross had a new thought: what if the scene was not a snapshot of heaven but an imprint of what could – and should – happen here and now?
“What if this was not to be just in the age to come? What if it was to happen on earth?” he said.
After much prayer and much discussion with other Christian leaders, Ross and those leaders resolved to turn his vision into reality. The result will play itself out over 12 hours on May 25 in a grassy field in Kansas, about 30 miles south of Kansas City, in the form of the Paradise praise event for high school and college students from across the nation.
What makes the Paradise event unusual is not so much the emphasis on Christ – most praise events can claim that objective – but the de-emphasis on all things not directly to do with glorifying Jesus.
“There will be nothing for sale at Paradise, not one T-shirt or CD, not one pretzel,” Ross said emphatically. “No product tents and no ministry tents. No banners or signs for other causes.”
In essence, it will be a rarity in religion: “No agenda will be raised at all that day; just the undistracted worship of Jesus,” Ross said.
It’s not just lip service. By rule of the event’s constitution, nothing is to echo from the huge speaker boxes except music and scripture. No sales pitches. No sermons, as well-intentioned as they may be. Skilled musicians will be present, including some big names, but those names will not be revealed and they will not be in view.
Perhaps most surprising of all, in this day of bigger, better and best: no attendance figures will be projected or announced.
“We are completely comfortable with whatever number of true worshipers come to stand before the king,” Ross said. “Jesus could be lifted up before 100 young worshipers... or He may be pleased to assemble tens of thousands. We leave that entirely up to Him. We will simply make logistical preparations for the number who register (paradise08.com; and/or paradisethoughts.com).
Paradise is not only a one-day event but a journey that includes interactive curriculum that takes students on a 28-day journey to prepare them for the event itself.
“We don’t believe students can go zero- to-60 in only one day of worship at Paradise,” Ross said of the 28-day online study. “If they arrive thinking Jesus is their little buddy and pal and just a friend who will help them through the hard times then they cannot discover how to worship him as the reigning monarch in only a few hours. We need students to walk onto that field in Kansas having already made the transition from thinking of Christ as their mascot to Him as their monarch.”
So the plan is to awaken students to all that Christ is before they reach the worship site, then invite them to adore Him without distractions at the site, then embrace Him and arise to join Him in His kingdom purposes after the event ends, Ross said.
The event will include broadcasting scripture through speakers, while worshipers respond to the words they hear. Seven worship periods will run from sunrise to sunset. A special time – the sacred assembly – will run from noon to 4 p.m.
“They’re going to be saturated with his supremacy,” said David Bryant, 61, a co-organizer and ministry leader in New York City who helped supply the theological underpinnings for Paradise.
Bryant sees a crisis of sorts among Christians, especially among evangelicals, that limits the scope of who Christ is.
“There is a shortfall in how we see, seek and speak about Christ for all that He is,” Bryant said. “Which leads to a shortfall in how we savor Him, serve Him and how we share Him for all that He is.”
So Paradise is about filling in that shortfall by flinging away the modern method of “Jesus worship.”
“So much of evangelicalism is a form of idolatry,” Bryant said. “It’s not intentional, but we put programs and people and products in place of the person of Christ Himself. We want the church to be purpose driven, but it has to be passion driven first. But you can’t be passion driven unless you’re promise driven. But you’ll not get there unless you’re person driven – Jesus, who gets all the glory when the promises are fulfilled.”
When Christians speak of the centrality of Christ, too often they mean “He is at the center of who I am, where I’m headed, what I’m doing and how I get blessed,” Bryant said. “The supremacy of Christ is different. It’s me being at the center of where He is, what He’s doing and how He gets blessed. Christ is all.”
And Christ is all that will be on display on that grassy field, where about 150 acres of seating will surround a central structure that represents a throne.
“We have warped this thing so badly in the evangelical movement that (Paradise) is like being reintroduced to Jesus all over again,” Bryant said.
The event’s main message of Christ’s supremacy is aimed at students, but adults will be invited to listen in as well (though only on the periphery), Ross said. They can volunteer to help with first aid, parking and other logistics. But they also will be encouraged to form a ring of prayer around the edges of the field.
“We need praying people in constant prayer while the younger believers focus on worship,” Ross said.
Another twist to the usual worship event is that Paradise is primarily aimed at students who already have a relationship with Christ.
“The strong invitation to Paradise is to spiritually-sensitive college and high school students. This is a day for true worshipers to assemble,” Ross said. “But I do believe with a multitude present that there will be some who, when they are overwhelmed with the majesty of Christ, will discover they never have had a relationship with Him.
“The good news is at that moment they will be surrounded by others who easily could explain how to begin that relationship.”