BY TUCKER MASSEY / FOR THE OBSERVER
What started as an organized worship event in Neville Arena transformed into a life-changing experience for some in attendance Tuesday night.
Before the Sept. 12 event even started, hopes were high for those volunteering and those in attendance. Warren Johnston, junior in finance at Auburn University, said that he was ready to see how many students found their way to Neville Arena that night.
“I’m really excited to just see the amount of students that show up,” Johnston said, “and for them to experience the presence of God here in Auburn, in Neville Arena.”
Johnston also noted that he wanted people to leave the arena really reflecting on their faith and what it means to them and that he wanted people to get connected and involved in a local church.
Jack Eggleston, junior in economics at Auburn University, said he wanted to see people coming to the arena with a sense of curiosity about Christianity, while Mary Frances Springfield, freshman in biosystems engineering at Auburn, said she hoped people would leave feeling missional after having partaken in a night of fellowship.
Auburn University men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl said that after years of hosting a similar event called “Ignite,” he, his wife Brandy and Chad and Tonya Prewett met and decided they wanted to assist students in any way possible in starting up a large-scale worship event.
“Chad and Tonya Prewett are the ones who absolutely ran with this,” Pearl said. “The idea is simply to have a night of worship, to have two incredible speakers and to allow the students to want to have a closer connection both to God, as well as in the church community.”
Pearl said that he hoped people would leave knowing that God’s will for their lives is more fulfilling than anything they could concoct, a message that would be echoed later as lead pastor of Harris Creek Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, John Pokluda took the stage.
The night began with a crowd of about 4,000 people in Neville Arena ready to listen to Atlanta-based Christian worship group Passion Music and hear messages from Pokluda and Christian podcaster and bestselling author Jennie Allen.
Passion opened the night playing a nearly hour-long set made up of contemporary Christian worships songs written both by them and other popular Christian artists.
After the music, Pokluda made his way to the stage to give a message that he believed was relevant to the struggles and insecurities of university students.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an obvious movement of God in my life,” Pokluda said of Auburn.
Pokluda’s message centered around knowing and obeying the will of God. In fact, he said that through the Bible, people can discern the will of God for their lives. He read a passage from First Thessalonians as the anchor point for his sermon.
“If the will of God is revealed to you, and you see it clearly, you can’t dispute, ‘Oh yeah, that is God’s will for me in college,’ will you do it?” Pokluda asked the audience.
Pokluda continued by sharing his own testimony and his own struggles from his time in college. He said he grew up in church and in college, he often asked God for guidance in his life regarding marriage and his future job, yet he still lived a life overrun by sin.
“I stayed drunk. I smoked weed. Did coke. Messed with molly. I was so enslaved to pornography that I didn’t even know it was a struggle,” Pokluda said. “If I had any free time, I was sitting in front of my computer just looking at porn. And if I had the chance, I’d just go out and do the real thing.”
He said that during this time in his life, he felt as if one mistake made him comfortable making others until he went down a road that ruined him for a period in his life.
Following his story, he transitioned into the larger points of his message.
“Let me ask you a question: why is God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, going to reveal to me his mysterious, unknown will when I haven’t listened to anything his Word said?” Pokluda asked the crowd.
As Pokluda carried forward with his sermon, he transitioned his focus towards a struggle that he knew almost all college-aged people dealt with: sexual sin. While he said he would have loved to have spoken about going out and doing great things for God, he acknowledged that the younger generations were “enslaved” to sexual sin.
Pokluda used data about pornography addiction to highlight the need for his sermon, noting that 92% of men and 60% of women statistically were regularly consuming pornography. He said that the church in Thessalonica was also dealing with sexual sin when First Thessalonians was written to them and felt that it was fitting for current trends.
Pokluda said that the shame and regret most often associated with sexual sin was what made it so harmful. However, he said he knew there was a way to be free from the current wave of sexual sin, and that it was through the grace and will of God.
“I experienced the world – the money, the cars, the watches, the girls, the parties, the drugs, the alcohol,” Pokluda said. “I’m sober, I’m in my right mind and I am telling you I found something better in Jesus. I have found something greater in Jesus. Jesus Christ died for my sins.”
Following Pokluda, Allen made her way onto the stage where she gave a message about calling on the power of God to overcome sin and evil in the world.
“God is doing something on Auburn’s campus,” Allen said after admitting she was afraid Unite would not draw in the crowd it did. “This was a part of a bigger story that’s happening here.”
Allen went on to speak highly of stories she had heard about church parking lots filling up so quickly that people had to show up to their church much earlier than the starting time and about how Unite blew up despite having been just a vision mere weeks before.
“You are part of something special. What is happening here right now, you need to remember it,” Allen said. “You need to remember what you were wearing; you need to remember why you came; you need to remember this specific day.”
As the night progressed, Allen carried on about how God shows up where people long for him. As an example, she used the Asbury University revival that occurred in early 2023 where students slept in sleeping bags in the University’s chapel, which Allen saw as evidence that they did not want to leave the presence of God.
The overarching theme of her sermon called attendees to “take their place in the kingdom of God.” She encouraged the audience to call on God to fight off the presence of sin and evil in their lives.
“Where people want God, God shows up,” Allen said. “The question I have for you, Auburn students, is do you want God?”
At the end of her message, Allen asked the audience to take a couple of minutes to find someone of the same sex and tell them about a struggle they have dealt with. Allen felt there was power in naming the “dark, cosmic forces” at work trying to bring people down.
“[God] wants to set us free,” Allen said. “This is the story he wants for you; but it doesn’t end there. The authority he has given us began as he ascended to heaven. He was clear. I want you to imagine Jesus has been on earth 33 years now, and he has gotten to say many, many things to many, many people and now, he’s going to say the last thing, and this is what he says… ‘For all authority has been given to me on heaven and on earth, go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
Allen’s closed by commissioning the audience – particularly Christians – to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and to disciple others.
A time of invitation began as Passion made their way back to the stage. Up front, designated workers were there to pray with any who wanted someone to pray. However, it was after this that the night took an unexpected twist.
After several people expressed their desire to be baptized, the organizers rushed to accommodate their requests. When Passion finished their final set, between 1,500 to 2,000 people made their way to the Auburn University Ag Heritage Park to watch people be baptized in the pond.
People enclosed the west end of the pond and several trucks parked to shine a light down on the pond. Five people were in the water ready to baptize any who came forward, one of which was Rylee Thornton, senior in finance at Auburn University.
“I was saved the first time when I was seven-years-old. Then I got to college, even through high school, I fell back into sin,” said Thornton, who was one of what was believed to be nearly 200 people baptized. “Recently, a friend from high school, who I probably did a lot of things we shouldn’t have together, he gave his life to Christ, and it really inspired me to do the same. I felt like this was the next step to really solidify Christ being number one in my life.”
After two-and-a-half hours at Neville Arena, the 200 baptisms took another hour-and-a-half, turning an event that had started as a night of worship and fellowship into a night of renewal and redemption for so many.
“I felt like there was something in my life that was missing. I feel like I didn’t really have hope,” Thornton said. “Then I gave my life to Christ, and now there’s a sense of peace that I never felt before. If there’s anybody out there that feels the same way – depressed, anxious – I really recommend giving your life to Christ because he’ll change it in a big way.”