I will never forget the first time I visited the Axis service at Willow Creek Community Church. It was a cold Saturday night in January of 1996, and as fate would have it, this was the first ever preview service (as an aside, this is a continuation of a series I’m doing on how I felt “called” into ministry. Check out part 1 and part 2 for context). A few months earlier someone made an announcement at the main Willow service that there were plans being made to launch a “GenX” service (does anyone actually remember that term? It was a big deal back then lol)
The response was greater than anticipated. A couple hundred 20-somethings came out of the woodwork to meet with Dieter Zander and to learn about the vision of what would come to be known as Axis (the name didn’t have any particular meaning – the core group tried to think of an edgy name, and when they couldn’t think of one they just started going through a dictionary until they found one they liked – Axis it was). The service I was now attending was the result of their months of planning. They decided they would launch a preview service, invite their friends, and see what the response was like.
This was also my first time visiting Willow Creek, and it was quite intimidating. I had driven by the campus a number of times, but I mistook it for a community college. The facility is massive, and sits on an even larger parcel of land. I came to discover that the Axis service was taking place in the Willow Creek gymnasium, simultaneously to the adult service (what I learned was called “the big house”).
It didn’t look like a gym once you got in though. It was dark, and had a variety of stage lights shining in different directions. You couldn’t see a thing, except for the altar at the front, which was filled with candles. It looked like some kind of an unusual combination of a night club and séance. We were immediately ushered in to find our seats, and that was good, because I would have never been able to find one in the dark.
The service order quickly flowed through a variety of elements. “What if God is one of us” had been a top hit during that time, and that was the main song that we sang during worship. Dieter gave a message based on the song, and the whole thing was over in less than an hour.
When the service finished and the lights came up I gasped – I hadn’t realized how many people were in attendance until then. It was a shocking sight to see so many young adults in one church building. I grew up all my life in church, but had never known more than a handful of people my own age. And every one of them had fallen away from church by the time college was over, so I literally did not know a single 20-something Christian. Now there were 200+ of them in church, and by choice! Though the elements of the service hadn’t done much to stir me spiritually (just being honest), the social potential of Axis was undeniable. Within time I would become hooked.
I very much enjoyed the social element of Axis, but I was quickly becoming frustrated with myself. At first I was unsure why, but eventually it became clear. Growing up I had been forced to go to church, so the fact that my lifestyle failed to match up with my church involvement didn’t strike me as hypocritical. But now that was changing. I was voluntarily coming to church, but my lifestyle was drifting even further and further away from that of an authentic Christ follower. For the sake of integrity something needed to give – I either needed to stop going to church or I needed to take faith seriously.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to solve this dilemma, but it turned out I didn’t need to figure it out. God brought it all to a head one random Saturday night in spring of 1996. I hadn’t missed a single Axis service since they launched in January, and I was beginning to feel like I knew the lay of the land. I had already become an influencer there, but not in a good way. At that point in my life I went to a different night club every night from Wednesday through Saturday: Wednesday was Excalibur (don’t judge), Thursday was Kaboom, Friday was El Jardin’s, and Saturday was The Drink. It hadn’t taken me long to recruit a whole throng of people to join me each Saturday night at the Drink. The timing was perfect – we’d go to church at Axis from 7 to whenever we were done socializing, go grab dinner, and then head to the city for part 2 of the night.
But something happened on this particular night.
The service was almost over, and I was standing at the back of the room (I had begun making this my custom so that I could better survey the room and determine who I wanted to talk to when service concluded). The worship team was leading us in a song in response to the message, as they did each week. I don’t actually remember what the song was or the sermon from that night, and I don’t know that those were the actual catalysts for what happened next.
As I stood there waiting for the service to end, I had what I can only now call a “visitation” from God (this is the term that many of the mystics would use to describe the presence of God coming on them in a way that exceeded the normal experience). It felt like something straight out of the story of Isaiah. He describes a vision he had of God (chapter 6) where the holiness and power of God became so real to him that he literally collapsed. Isaiah was an obedient man who loved and served God, but when he came fully into his presence he became “undone” by his own sin and shortcomings.
I was no Isaiah, but I had the exact same thing happen to me. In a way that had never happened before, and has never happened since, the presence of God came on me in an incredibly tactile way. I felt like I could see right through the invisible curtain that had so often shielded my vision, and that I was looking right into the eyes of God. Actually, it was more like God looking directly at me. It was so startling that I even had a physical reaction. I began to shake and quiver uncontrollably and I had no idea what to do.
I didn’t hear an audible voice, and yet I felt as though I could hear God in such a clear way. It was a very personalized message. If I could put words to it, it sounded something like this: “Daniel, you have rode the fence for your entire life. You kind of believe in me, and you kind of don’t. You kind of obey me, and you kind of don’t. You are kind of good, and you are kind of bad. Well, tonight that ends. In my grace and mercy I have let you live on the fence, but that is no longer an option for you. You must now make a choice. From this day forward, you are either with me, or you are not. You are either for me, or you are not. Tonight you will decide.”
I was completely shaken by this experience. I felt like I had caught a genuine glimpse of the holiness of God, and I was certain that I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of this challenge. I immediately walked out of Axis, abandoning my social plans for the night, and headed back to my apartment.
By the time I got home I was no longer shaking the way I had been at Axis, but the presence of God still felt near. It felt holy, but loving; firm, but invitational. I didn’t know how to best respond, so I simply fell on my knees and began to pray.
Searching for words, I went back to the “sinner’s prayer” that I had prayed hundreds of times over the course of my life. If you are unfamiliar with it, the sinner’s prayer is a basic script that you are taught to pray where you ask God to forgive your sins, come into your life, and become your lord/leader. I had always feared going to hell, so I would pray the sinner’s prayer every chance I got. My secret hope was that if I repeated it enough times, it would actually take at some point.
But as I kneeled at my bed praying on this night, something became obvious to me. Though I had prayed that prayer a hundred times before, I had never fully meant it. I actually did want to be saved from my sins – by this point the fact that I was a sinner was plainly obvious to me. But I didn’t actually want God to be the Lord of my life – that sounded terrifying. I was certain that wherever God led me would be in direct opposition to where I wanted to go, so I conveniently left that part out.
As I sat there reflecting on what I felt like God had communicated to me an hour earlier at Axis, I realized that “being on the fence” was directly tied to accepting the call to let Jesus become the leader of my life. I was so scared to pray those words, but now I was more scared not to. I wasn’t scared in a “you’re going to hell” way. That wasn’t what this felt like at all. It was more like, “I am God, and you know that, and you must decide this day whom you will serve.” I felt it deep in my bones – I had to make a decision as to who would be the Lord of my life. Me, or Jesus?
Needless to say, I chose Jesus.
After praying those words… praying that Jesus would become the lord of my life… a deep calm came over me. There was no supernatural sign to seal what had happened. There was no behavior that I immediately stopped doing. There was no amazing gift that I suddenly had to share with the world.
But there was a settledness in my spirit. There would still be a long journey ahead, but I could tell that everything was going to be different from this point forward. How could it not? My fundamental allegiance had just shifted.