By Emily Sumners, Chattanooga, TN—While many students were studying or preparing for homecoming week Sunday night, about 20 sat in a circle in Heritage Plaza, singing worship songs and praying.
The group of Christians, led by Chattanooga senior Tyler Nichols, have met here every week since last fall.
“This is right in the very middle of campus,” Nichols said. “There is no association with any church or with any ministry. It’s just whoever wants to come out and worship.”
Nichols said the tradition began on Lookout Mountain and grew into a movement at the center of campus.
“I was part of a college ministry in the summer before last fall, and me and one of the guys felt that the worship didn’t feel real at all, and we didn’t have an opportunity to really worship,” he said. “So we started going up to the brow of Lookout Mountain. He would play drums, and I would play guitar, and we would sing and worship.”
Nichols said he kept the tradition going after his friend moved schools by gathering up a couple other musicians and worshipping on campus with them.
“It started with just like five people, I think, and by the fifth week or so we had 50 or 60 people coming regularly,” he said.
He said the numbers have not been quite so strong this year, but he expects things to pick up soon.
Cody Stubblefield, a Gallatin, Tenn., junior who plays guitar for the worship time, said, “This year we started small, and how we’ve grown is just by people walking by and hearing us and wanting to be a part of it.”
Stubblefield said he occasionally sees students who laugh at them or think they should not be there, but the worshippers are not impacted by it.
“I think everyone is comfortable,” he said. “Most everyone out here doesn’t care. They’re just praising their god.”
Nichols said last year the officer patrolling that area of campus would sing with them.
Jordan Grindell, a Knoxville senior, said, “People will walk by and see Christians singing, so they join in.”
Grindell said the worship is genuine and a good way to start his week centered on Christ.
“If you want to stand, stand. If you want to sit, sit. If you want to sit in the corner and read your Bible, do that,” he said. “It’s whatever you want. There’s no set curriculum or anything like that.”
Ally Young, a Chattanooga freshman who worshipped with the group for the first time Sunday, said she loves the idea of praising God in public.
“I think it is awesome to have a worship in the middle of campus where it is out and open and everybody can see us doing it, unlike when we’re secluded in a church,” she said. “It’s a fun way to come and share your faith with other people and be able to pray over the school community.”
Sean Bowling, a Cookeville, Tenn., sophomore who plays drums and guitar with the group, said worshipping in the middle of so much else going on allows for personal growth.
“I feel like it’s really powerful thing to come and worship and play, and those of us who are here all the time are a really tight-knit community,” he said.
Bowling said he also enjoys the added benefit of growing musically.
“I played in youth group in high school, and I kind of missed it,” he said. “It was cool to have another opportunity to do it and keep doing it throughout college.”
Nichols said sometimes there is less music and more sharing and prayer.
“Some nights you just feel a connection with it,” he said. “We will be playing a song, and I’ll stop singing and keep playing, and people will just start sharing stuff back and forth. It would take off, and everybody would share. It just really felt like everybody was connected.”
Stubblefield said he especially remembers that happening once last year.
“We had one service last year where we actually only played like two songs, and it turned into a circle of prayer the entire time,” he said. “Tyler played as a backdrop, and everybody was deep in prayer. There was just complete spiritual growth going on right here in the middle of campus.”
Grindell said sometimes students show up just to be a part of the prayer.
“One night there was a girl who was saying she really needed prayer, so we threw it up all over facebook and told everybody, and 60 or 70 people showed up just to pray,” he said.
Bowling said he remembers the week last year when the number of worshippers suddenly grew.
“We had 50 or 60 people and filled up this entire circle,” he said. “None of us really expected that. There was just this huge crowd, and everybody was like ‘what’s going on over here?’”
Grindell said he would like to see those kinds of numbers again.
“It’s so much more impactful when people walk by and see a big group singing their hearts out, ” he said. “It’s kinda hard to sing your hearts out when there’s only 10 other people singing.”
Bowling said they will be there playing music and praying no matter how many people show up.
“I guess it’s just in God’s hands,” he said. “We’ll work it out and see what we can do.”
Nichols said weather will not keep them from worshipping either.
He said when it rains, the group meets just inside the Lupton Library parking garage, and when it gets cold they meet in the Hub at 650 McCallie Ave.