Saturday, November 6 started early for me.  I left my house at 3 a.m. bound for Chicago, a three hour drive from my home in western Illinois literally a stone's throw from the Mississippi River.  In order to avoid falling asleep on the road, I actually stayed up all night the prior night so that I could sleep during the day on Friday, waking up late in the evening so as to drive while awake and fresh.  No such Luck.  After trying several times to fall asleep Friday, I resolved that I was going to audition on two days of no sleep (actually I did fall asleep twice, both about two hour naps).  I arrived in Chicago as planned around 6 a.m.  The audition was held downtown at McCormick place, the largest convention center in the United States.  After wandering for about 15 minutes, I finally found the line, which was already several blocks long at 6:15 a.m. 
     It was a clear chilly morning in Chicago, about 20 degrees with a slight breeze.  When I got out of the car in the parking garage it was surprisingly warm, so I did not bring my jacket; a mistake I would regret as I stood in line for about an hour and 45 minutes in 20 degree weather.  When I finally got to the front of the line a staff member informed us that we were not to take any pictures.  If we were caught filming in anyway we would be disqualified, and our camera would be confiscated.  After making it through a winding make shift queue line of long tables, I was able to register.  After that, off to the famous "holding room".
     If you have ever seen America's Got Talent, you may remember seeing all of the contestants waiting in a long room for the audition.  That would be the holding room.  Shortly after arriving in the room, one of the producers of the show came out to give us instructions.  She asked all of us to stand and get ready for a crowd shot to be used on the show.  While the cameras were rolling, she wanted all of us-several hundred- to do our act at the same time; sing, dance, yodel, whatever; for 5 minutes straight.  It really was pandemonium; people singing and playing guitars and saxophones everywhere. So I sang my song in its entirety.  Immediately after I finished there were these three women near me who stood up and began to applaud to me!  One of them said that if I did not win this show that a scout would hear me and sign me.  What a boost that was!
     My contestant number was 6030215, which meant that I was the 215th performer in line that fateful morning.  So they pulled people out of the holding room in groups of 50 at a time; from there they divided them by talent; all the singers together, all the comedians, etc.  So I got into the holding room around 8:15 and my number was called (numbers 201-250).  There were several rooms with many auditions going on at the same time.  When we got to our area, the wait began again.  Eventually I was led, along with 5 other contestants, into an empty conference room, probably 20x20, around 10:15.  We lined up against one wall, while two judges with laptops were seated at a table on the other side of the room.  One by one they called our number.  We were to step up the an "X" made of painter's tape on the floor; we were to give our name, age, city, and song title.  We then had 90 seconds to sing our song, then retreat to the wall and wait for the next contestant to be called.
     As if singing a song in front of judges AND other performers wasn't enough, we had to sing a capella. I did not have a pitch pipe, but I did have my mp3 player with the song in my pocket.  As my number was called and I stepped forward, I quickly listened to my key one last time before singing my song.  Over the course of the previous 8 hours, I had probably sang that song comfortably and confidently at least 100 times.  Yet at that moment I was more nervous than I was at my ordination council; this was on par with my wedding itself.  To this day I still don't understand why I was SO nervous; it's not like I was on national television with Sharon Osbourne watching me.  There were two staff girls who appeared to be in their mid twenties who spent most of the ninety seconds typing notes on their macbooks.  My song ended, everyone in the room applauded, and I quickly retreated to the safety of the wall.
     After all of us in the room finished, they told us that no decisions would be made until after all of the preliminary auditions were complete.  IF I made it back, it would be to audition again in Chicago, but this time WITH background music, on the stage in front of a full audience AND the celebrity judges.  They said that the ones who make it will be notified sometime in March of next year; the season starts airing in June.  Then they verified our contact information, and released us.  I was thinking about going back and hanging out in the holding room in hopes of getting in on some more crowd scene shots, but decided that I was tired and would rather go home.
     All in all, I had a great time.  I saw some very interesting and bizarre acts in the holding room.  I met some interesting people.  I froze like I have never frozen before.  I think the hardest thing now is the waiting game; I have 5 agonizing months before I will know if I was good enough or not.  During that time I need to have six songs ready to sing in the show; if I were to make it all the way to the finals I would need to perform six times.  Even if I don't get called back, it will be o.k.  I'm sure I will go back and audition again next year. 
     This experience has already been a win for me because I conquered one of my fears.  I have been singing since college (graduated 13 years ago) in choirs, praise teams, and quartets, but never a solo, much less in front of anybody.  Most people don't even know that I CAN sing.  This morning (Sunday) in church just before the service started a young lady came up to me and said "what's this I hear about you auditioning on America's Got Talent?  When I heard that you went I was like 'what's he gonna do?' When I heard you were gonna sing I was like 'Mike sings? how come we have never heard him?' ".  I have a gift that I have not been using.  I understand that not everybody God gifts with song should be on national television.  However, this was a chance for me to break out of my shy introverted mold, and use my musical talents.  Funny that a youth pastor would have stage fright?  I think you probably would be too if you were put in the same situation.
     O.K. I don't want to sound like I am accepting an Emmy, but I do want to thank all of my friends and supporters who helped me along this journey.  You made it more fun for me and helped me see flaws that I would have never seen.  Now we sit and wait till March...