By Justin Horey
On the evening of Friday, February 9, limousines will line up in front of Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in coastal Florida. As guests in tuxedos and gowns make their way down the red carpet toward the entrance, cameras will flash and onlookers will yell, “You look great!” “We love you!”
Some of the honored guests will be in wheelchairs. Some will use walkers. Others will struggle to speak. On this night, the occasion is not an award show or a celebrity gala; it’s “Night to Shine,” a prom-style formal event for people with special needs created by Christ’s Church in Jacksonville and sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation (an organization founded by Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow).
Night to Shine has become an annual tradition in Jacksonville, as young people with special needs are showered with God’s love on the Friday before Valentine’s Day. Attendees wear formal attire, dance, eat, and pose for photos—all at no cost to their families. Each guest is paired with a volunteer “buddy” who accompanies them throughout the event, allowing parents to relax and enjoy their evening as well. At the end of the night, each guest is crowned “King” or “Queen” of the prom. It is a joyous event for the attendees and their families—most of whom have never experienced such a formal celebration.
In 2017, 375 churches participated in these events, hosting galas in 11 countries on six continents. This month, more than 500 churches from around the world, with the support of 175,000 volunteers, will host Night to Shine for approximately 90,000 honored guests.
It Began with a “Night to Remember”
Night to Shine began in 2014 as “Night to Remember” at Christ’s Church in Jacksonville. The previous year, lead pastor Jason Cullum and the staff at Christ’s Church envisioned the event as a way to expand their ministry by loving people who are overlooked or forgotten.
As they talked and prayed, the team at Christ’s Church became convinced that they could and should seek ways to minister to people with special needs. Cullum grew up with an aunt who had Down syndrome, so the idea held personal significance for him. He was also familiar with “Jesus Prom” at Southland Christian Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky—a formal event for people with special needs that began in 2000.
Inspired by Cullum’s family experience, Jesus Prom, and a conviction from the staff retreat, Christ’s Church held “Night to Remember” on Valentine’s Day 2014. About 70 guests attended. One of the volunteers at the event that night was a young woman from Christ’s Church’s preschool ministry who works full-time at the Tim Tebow Foundation. That woman shared the concept with her coworkers, and the Tim Tebow Foundation quickly decided to get involved, renaming the event “Night to Shine” in 2015.
The foundation’s vision for the event is to “work with churches around the country to provide an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs.”
Tim Tebow said, “When you are able to share with kids that the God of this universe loves them, or let them know they matter, or celebrate them, that’s worth it because lives change.”
How Christian Churches Are Involved
Because Christ’s Church and the Tim Tebow Foundation are both based in Jacksonville, the event grew quickly in Florida. Other congregations signed up to participate in the first Night to Shine in 2015, and Cullum estimates that more than 80 percent of them were Restoration Movement Christian churches. Real Life Christian Church in Clermont, Florida (near Orlando) has hosted Night to Shine since 2016. In the first two years, Real Life’s events have drawn more than 300 guests and approximately 450 parents. Mike Shelly, outreach pastor at Real Life, quoted the church’s slogan by saying, “Our goal was to show both the guests and the parents that God Is Crazy About Them!”
With the backing of the Tim Tebow Foundation, Night to Shine has rapidly expanded beyond Florida. And approximately 75 of the 500 churches from around the world that are involved this month in Night to Shine will be Restoration Movement congregations like Christ’s Church and Real Life.
What It Means for Parents
Night to Shine is a blessing and a thrill for the guests who attend, but it is also an opportunity for churches to minister to parents of children with special needs.
“At Night to Shine, we’re ministering to the parents as much as—if not more than—the kids,” Cullum said. “We want to give them a night they won’t forget.”
The flagship event in Jacksonville includes a Respite Room where parents can sit, relax, and enjoy a view of the festivities from above the dance floor. Parents are also reassured to know that the building features a Sensory Room during the celebration where guests can escape the noise, lights, and stimulation of the evening if they become overwhelmed.
Jill Conley, whose son, Logan, attended in 2017, said, “Night to Shine is the first special event my son was ever invited to . . . [to] be celebrated and loved just the way he is. Having a child with special needs brings many challenges, especially financial challenges. So, when a group of beautiful volunteers come together to provide clothes, food, and a night of fun for free, it’s like a tremendous gift from God. The whole night feels like a dream come true.”
For Churches that Want to Get Started
Cullum actively encourages churches to become involved with Night to Shine or another formal event for people with special needs. At Christ’s Church, Cullum said, “No matter what, we are always going to be involved in a special needs prom.” Thanks to the involvement of the Tim Tebow Foundation, churches with no existing ministry for young people with special needs can get started. In Cullum’s estimation, the foundation “has opened the door to special needs ministry more than anyone besides the Special Olympics.”
As part of its sponsorship of Night to Shine, the Tim Tebow Foundation provides each host church with a planning manual, a “prom kit” with gifts for the honored guests, and branded decorations. Foundation staff members offer personalized guidance throughout the planning process, and host churches can also apply for financial grants. (In 2017, the foundation contributed more than $3.5 million to Night to Shine.) For more information, see www.timtebowfoundation.org/ministries/night-to-shine.
Special Needs Ministry Beyond the Event
As special and as valuable as Night to Shine is, Cullum admonishes churches to think bigger than one annual event for people with disabilities.
“Don’t just make this an event,” Cullum said, “make this part of your church’s ministry.”
Sherri Clark, who leads the special needs ministry at Christ’s Church, said she hopes to use the event as a “bridge” for families that might feel isolated from church.
“Our goal is to get the word out that families with kids who have special needs can come to church,” she said.
Cullum and Clark both encourage churches to actively minister to families with children who have special needs. Clark said many of the families she has met through Night to Shine have not been to church for years because they aren’t confident their child can be cared for while they worship. It’s a problem Christ’s Church is committed to solving.
“We want everyone to be allowed to worship,” Clark said.
To that end, Christ’s Church provides volunteer “buddies” who accompany children with special needs on Sunday mornings. Many of those buddies first become involved at Night to Shine, and some of them have served faithfully for the past four years.
The True Light Shines
This ministry on behalf of the “overlooked and forgotten” is challenging and time-consuming, but also rewarding—and fruitful. As the Lord promised in Isaiah 55:11, “My word . . . will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
Anyone who serves at Night to Shine or in the special needs ministry at Christ’s Church feels more blessed than the people they aim to serve, Clark reports, yet the results are tangible. Today, dozens of families attend worship services at Christ’s Church each week as a result of Night to Shine. And at the church’s most recent baptism service, Jason Cullum baptized two young adults with special needs.
For those new believers and many others like them, what began on the red carpet will culminate on streets of gold.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.