It’s already been six years since I graduated high school, which in some ways is hard to believe. Even so, I find that there are some events from my high school years that are hard to remember all the details, because they happened so long ago. There are others that are fondly etched into my memory and will be for years to come. Being in Highest Praise was one of them. It taught me more about music, friendship, and servanthood that I could have ever imagined. It did the same for my older sister and all our friends in it with us. It is doing the same thing for my little sister and her friends right now, as she is leaving on her 3rd Highest Praise tour as I am writing this. It was the highlight of my year each year I was in high school, and I think you will understand why by the end of this post. Although it would probably take me an entire book to recount all my memories, I want to tell you what Highest Praise does, and then I will share about the biggest lessons I learned from my four years on tour (2006 - 2009).
What is Highest Praise?
Before I go on describing the lessons I learned from Highest Praise, I probably need to explain what Highest Praise is for those that may not know. Highest Praise is an auditioned high school choir and small orchestra started by Ozark Christian College. All of us (we ran about 90 - 100 teens back in my day) would meet on the campus of OCC in mid-June and would have 6 days of intensive rehearsal to learn a full concert of 12 - 13 contemporary Christian songs in choral arrangements, sometimes with skits and/or narration parts. We would rehearse about 8 hrs a day during that week, mostly in the morning and evening. We would have some free time in the afternoon. We would end our day with a chapel service of great worship, a video message, and reflection time in our family groups. We would have a fun theme banquet toward the end of the week. On the 6th day, we had dress rehearsal on campus.
The next day, we would take off on tour. We used to have two tours (or groups) take off in opposite directions, but now they only have one. We would load up our charter buses and take off for an 11 day tour of churches all over the United States. Each day, we would travel to the church, be served wonderful meals by the church’s hospitality, do our concert, and then stay the night with host families from the church. The next morning, our host families would feed us breakfast, then we would load up the bus at the church and do it all over again. We occasionally had to spend a day traveling, and we also had fun days each tour at amusement parks and other attractions. After a week and a half on the road, we would return to OCC, where we would have our finale concert to end the tour, usually at the end of June or beginning of July. Since we had two tours back in my day (the Handley Tour and the Mahn Tour), this was the only time all of us performed the concert together. It was a total of 18 days we would spend in Highest Praise each year.
Each tour I went on was an incredible experience full of its own special memories and lessons learned. As I have been thinking back to all the time I spent rehearsing and on the road, I was amazed to realize how much the lessons I learned in HP shaped me into the person I am today. Three lessons stand out the most.
Being a Servant Is a Challenge
I think being on tour was one of the first times in my life when I remember specifically identifying what servanthood looks like and having the choice to live it out. You see, in order for everything to happen the way it’s supposed to on tour, every member is assigned a job on a crew. We had crews for luggage, equipment, ironing, bus clean-up, and everything else that needed to be done. We were self-sufficient went it came down to getting ready for a concert. We often didn’t even need the help of our adult sponsors! For me, I was always on the sound crew, which meant that I helped set up and tear down all the sound equipment we brought with us. My job usually boiled down to setting up the microphones and taping down their cords. It can be extremely time consuming if you don’t do it right, if you get distracted, or if you are running behind (which was very common). We also had to assist our sound technician with whatever he needed, which can be an extremely stressful job, especially if you are running behind.
All this being said, being on sound crew was a demanding job. We were often untangling cords, hauling around heavy mic stand bases, and even crawling on our hands and knees to tape the cords down to the floor so no one would trip. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any means. I was often late to dinner. I think I even completely missed dinner a few times. But as I became more used to the demand that this job required, I was amazed to discover how much I enjoyed it. In fact, I remember there was a few times when I was so caught up in getting the job done that the other sound crew members would have to remind me to go eat. I found that in doing the difficult but necessary job that I was also was able to put myself to the side, which is really what servanthood is about. Being in that state of mind when we performed I believed helped to make my worship more real and sincere. I had several friends that had similar things to say about their service informing the sincerity of their worship.
There’s a great quote that I have heard attributed to C.S. Lewis that says, “Being selfless is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.” I found this to be true through my experiences on Highest Praise, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn what true servanthood looks like. I think the sincerity of our service is shown in this documentary my dad made of Highest Praise behind the scenes.
Being on the Road Is an Inspiring Experience
I don’t even know if I could begin to calculate the exact number of miles I traveled over the course of those tours. I guess that it was probably at least 10,000 miles I traveled over four Highest Praise tours (and that’s not counting my 8-hour trips to and from Joplin each year). It’s crazy to think about all the places I had the opportunity to travel to and all the people I had the chance to meet thanks to Highest Praise. I had the opportunity to travel to Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana (which was by far the most fun tour), Oklahoma, and Arkansas, just to name a few of the states we visited. I probably went to at least 30 different churches and stayed with at least 40 host families. I went to one amusement park (Silver Dollar City), Navy Pier, two national parks (Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Glacier National Park in Montana) and a music festival (the Alive Festival in Canton, Ohio).
That’s just an idea of where we went on the road. But all the tourist nostalgia aside, the thing that left the biggest impression on me was the hospitality that was given to us over those tours, both by the churches and our host families. The churches would make us the most incredible meals, and would be so welcoming to us. And our host families were amazing! We received more blessings than most of us could have ever imagined when we started on tour. To think that so many of them were willing to open their homes to complete strangers, and teenagers none the less! But that’s what the biblical concept of hospitality is all about. The Greek word literally translates to mean “the love of strangers.”
I definitely experienced that with my host families. I have some especially fond memories of conversations with my host families, the houses we stayed in, and sometimes even the outings they took us on after our concerts. We even had some of our hosts or the churches give us gifts bags when we left! I still have some of those gifts to this day and I thank God every time I remember those people and their hospitality. Most of my fellow Highest Praisers would say the same thing.
Being in Christian Community Is a Blessing Beyond Measure
It’s hard to find the right words to describe how incredible it was to live life in that kind of community for two and a half weeks each year. I ended up traveling with about 50 - 60 other teens and about 5 adults plus our bus driver(s). Most of normal life experience does allow for that kind of community over that length of time in Christian circles, especially in your teen years. Even things like church camp only last 6 – 7 days tops, but Highest Praise lasted 18 days. The friendships that were formed and the memories made in those friendships have lasted with me to this day. We were all brought together by our love of music and our love for Jesus. I may not have stayed in touch with many of those friends as well as I would have liked, but many of them are still my Facebook friends, and I could easily pick up right where we left off. Some of those friendships were sustained through college because we ended up attending Ozark together. Even some of the adult sponsors ended up being my college professors.
One of the things that makes me smile the most is when I discover someone was in Highest Praise before I or after I was in it. Not to say I would mind getting to reminisce with someone that toured with me, but it’s amazing to see what kind of connection I have with someone that wasn’t on tour with me. We automatically have a special connection because of our time in Highest Praise. No matter how long it has been for any of us, we have a mutual understanding of the experiences we had on tour and we often end up telling each other stories on the spot. There is still that sense of community among those of us who have ever had the experience of being a part of Highest Praise. In that sense, it unlike anything I have ever experienced. End of story.
As I said earlier, I could literally write an entire book about my experiences in Highest Praise. And maybe I will write more about specific experiences on Highest Praise in other posts. But as I reflect on everything that happened during Highest Praise, it still amazes me how much of an impact Highest Praise had on my young life. My YouTube user name, HPgirl0609, was derived from my experience in Highest Praise and the years I was in it. It has become such a huge part of who I am and how people know me.
The beginning of my understanding of the “Carpe Aeternatatum” also came from Highest Praise. My first year, I clearly remember the opening narration of our concert talking about the author John Piper recalling the plaque that hung on the wall of his childhood home. It read
“Only one life twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
The narration continued this thought:
“You only get one pass at life. That’s all. And the lasting measure of that life is Jesus Christ. What are doing with the life He died to give you?”
These quotes have stayed in my heart and my mind all these years later, especially that last question. As I think about this lesson and all the other lessons I learned, my heart still overflows with gratitude for those that made it possible and are still making it possible for other teens to have the same experience.
For the school to the adult sponsors to the churches that host them, you will never realize how much good you are doing by furthering this program. To all Highest Praisers of the past, don’t ever take for granted the experiences you had. To present Highest Praisers, remember to always give your best to the Lord in everything you do on tour (especially concerning your attitude) and I guarantee that you will walk off the bus at the end of tour a different person than when you started. And to everyone else in high school with musical talent that is thinking about doing it, you should!
I learned a total of 49 different songs over four tours, and I can honestly say thanks to Highest Praise, I now know what it means to praise God “At The Top Of My Lungs.” (which happened to be the title of one of the songs we learned). I hope that some of you will have the opportunity to do the same thing.
Please enjoy a few more pictures from my years in Highest Praise!