It was 1995. “Shout to the Lord” had just been released by a growing church in Australia called Hillsong. Worship events featuring contemporary praise music backed by guitars, keyboards and drums were popping up across the country and around the world. Hamilton was no exception with higher education institutions holding them in unique spaces.
A group of Redeemer students decided to check out one of these services on a nearby university campus.
“I’d never experienced anything like that before,” said Val deVries, a second-year biology student at the time. “I thought, ‘We need to have that at Redeemer!’ It was sort of a divine selfishness because I wanted to experience more of that. I really felt God’s presence.”
DeVries took a simple step and put a small ad in the Redeemer newsletter that, at the time, was delivered to the dorms each week. She turned up at the appointed time, in the appointed room and waited. The meeting time came and went. A few more minutes passed. Then in walked a student named Mike with his guitar. One by one, talented and accomplished musicians with every instrument they would need to form a worship band arrived.
“I’d never experienced anything like that before … I thought, ‘We need to have that at Redeemer!’ ”
After consulting with Redeemer staff (not without some skepticism about the idea), deVries and the team got to work planning the first event. They chose a theme, songs and a guest speaker. Without knowing how many students would attend, they planned to keep it cozy by using the Black Box – the small studio theatre beside the auditorium.
“Thus the name Church in the Box,” said deVries. Despite using various locations on campus, that name would stick for 25 years, changing to Rooted Worship in 2019, with the intent of clarifying its purpose to remain rooted in Christ and committed to God’s mission for his people, and clarifying that it wasn’t intended to replace local church membership.
Nerves were high as the doors to the Black Box opened for the first time. DeVries estimates that about 50 students attended the first evening.
By the second service, students were sitting on the floor. Then it was standing room only. Eventually students were filling the hall outside the Black Box.
“That’s when we knew we would need a bigger space,” said deVries. Various venues around the school were tested out – the gym, the dining hall and even the Commons – all with various challenges, particularly difficulties with acoustics, she explained. The team was reluctant to move the service into the auditorium because it would lose the cozy, community-oriented feel. Several services were held facing the back of the stage in the auditorium, which maintained that intimate feeling they were hoping for. But the last service of the year, with an attendance of several hundred students from Redeemer and beyond, was moved into the main auditorium seating.
“We got together after the last one,” deVries recalled. “We were all sobbing. We just couldn’t believe the growth we’d experienced in one year. We were all overwhelmed.”
As she reflects back on that year, deVries now sees that she was hearing and answering God’s voice. “I didn’t really play an instrument and I wasn’t a great singer. Pretty much every time I tried to sing I would just get emotional because every time there were more people. People were just thirsty for his presence.”
“As Christians, we should expect God to move in us and through us. He shouldn’t be put in a box. He’s creative and he wants to partner with us.”
She reflects on how her own personal faith grew through the experience. “We spent so much time with God, asking him what he wanted us to do.” She feels blessed to have had a solid group of Christians around her and to have been used by God to start an important tradition of worship at Redeemer.
Many years later, Val and her husband, Scott, also a Redeemer alumnus and a youth leader, brought their youth group to campus to participate in the tradition they were a part of starting. “I was blown away by the number of people that were coming,” she said.
“As Christians, we should expect God to move in us and through us. He shouldn’t be put in a box. He’s creative and he wants to partner with us. Sometimes we might not be qualified and that’s okay. If you have a willing heart and desire to know him more, he will respond to that.”
Visit the 40th Anniversary website to view a historical timeline and a special video presentation celebrating 40 years of Redeemer.