The Birth Of The Encounter Moment

Ask anyone, even years after their Wonder Voyage trip, what they recall about their journey, and chances are their answer will be an encounter moment. If not the most endearing quality of Wonder Voyage, Encounter Moments are unquestionably the most memorable.

Combining various elements such as a unique location, storytelling or journaling, and encounter moment employs the full senses of the traveler. Sometimes planned but more often spontaneous, encounter moments define memorable events that illustrate to our voyagers that God is present and active in their lives. Often, these moments become face-to-face encounters with Christ that leave life-long transformation in their wake. Anyone who leads a Wonder Voyage has a multitude of encounter moment stories that keep them encouraged. But when was Wonder Voyage’s original encounter?

Ireland was the location of our first trips starting in 2000. Teams from the U.S. joined us throughout the summer, exploring the beauty of South Ireland, serving a local church in the town of New Ross, and learning about Celtic Christianity. Our first team from Dallas First Assembly arrived in Eire, and we were a bit nervous. As the director of the organization, I knew we had to introduce the Wonder Voyage experience in an unexpected and dramatic manner. A split-second idea spurred on by a piece of local history changed everything.

The Old Train Tunnel That Started It All

The hidden entrance to the old Mount Elliot train tunnel was close to where we housed the team. The bare limestone passageway ran a mile underground, ending at a red bridge over the brisk River Barrow. It had been in disuse since 1963. The tracks were long ago stripped away, making it appear like the dark cavern of a mammoth troll. As the small group of students gathered at the entrance of the passageway, a curious hush descended. A musty smell like old wet clothes crept out of a hollow of darkness loosely covered by years of creeping vines. The gaggle of teens, chattering like a murder of crows just seconds before, felt a wave of excitement and fear. Quite suddenly, the unknown sat just ahead.

I explained that we would walk the tunnel in absolute darkness and complete silence.

As we staggered down that pitch-black warren, the lack of sight enhanced every sound: a steady drip of water from the cavern ceiling, unsure echoed steps, the quickening breathing as fears of the unseen built in the group. In three minutes, all vestiges of the afternoon sunlight disappeared. We were totally blind to our surroundings. By the time we reached the middle of the tunnel, now a half mile under the earth, most of the group was unnerved. But they trusted that there was a purpose to this odd exercise.

Stopping the group in the dark, I spoke about the power of unhindered worship. What would a song of praise be like without the distractions that normally barrage us?

Unhindered Worship

Many on the team with beautiful voices started to sing in the darkness, unfettered. With no sight of another, all inhibitions were consumed, leaving every person free to sing with their whole heart. Voices bounced off the yawning walls and echoed in angelic tones. For the next half an hour, the singing and praying continued unbroken, spontaneous, and rapt with a fullness of joy impossible to describe. As our time of worship ended and the flashlights burst on, showing us the way to the Barrow Bridge, the group remained hushed, sheltered in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Michael Fleming, the pastor of the group, whispered in my ear, “That is what I call a genuine encounter with God.”

That conversation convinced me that moments like this should be commonplace on all our journeys. Although we cannot orchestrate God’s presence, we can surely invite Him to meet us any way He pleases. If we provide the opportunity, He might just show up. That day, in a dark, musty Irish tunnel, the encounter moment was born, and the little team from Texas realized that their trip would be unlike anything they had imagined.

After a decade working in parish youth ministry Shawn started Wonder Voyage Missions. Over the last 15 years, WVM has led thousands of pilgrims to over forty countries. Shawn is a storyteller and an award winning filmmaker. He is an author who brings the gift of engaging narrative to our journeys. Shawn is dedicated to creating voyages that give people abundant opportunities to encounter God.

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