by Mark Smeby

The stage along the end of the arena floor is ultra-hip -- filled with steel beams, hoisting television monitors with rotating computer graphics. Fog machines fill the air with smoke, allowing the lights to paint a multi-colored mood picture. More {{dc Talk}} than Billy Graham, I'm expecting a rock and roll worship experience.

The audience is made of back-pack slinging, gotee-wearing, rainbow hair-colored college students from around the country. They have all gathered with the expectation that over the next four days they will have an intense experience with God.

They are meeting under the banner of {{Passion}} '99, this past January 1-4 in Texas, for an event that was started by Atlanta-based Louie Giglio and his Choice Ministries. After leaving a campus ministry at Baylor University in 1995, it was during a family move to Atlanta when Giglio had the vision birthed for a nationwide gathering of college students.

While high school students go through many ups and downs in their spiritual journey, Giglio's thinking is that college students usually settle deeper down into their quest for truth, making reasoned and lasting choices in the direction their lives will take. Out of this desire, the Passion event was born.

The conference started with 2,000 attendees in 1997, grew to 5000 in 1998, and this year hit capacity at 11,500.

I find an empty seat in the sold-out Ft. Worth Convention Center next to two young women from Texas A&M. They came with a hundred or so of their sisters from the Christian-based Sigma Phi Lambda sorority.

Megan Watson, a freshman from Houston, found out about Passion from some friends. "I heard from a lot of people who came in the past that it was just an awesome Christian experience...that it was really moving," she explains. "That's the main reason I came, from word of mouth. People telling me it was a lot of fun, and that it was awesome praise and worship." Her friend, Sally, nods in big-grinned agreement.

The lights begin to fade and the crowd rises to their feet, in anticipation of the headlining act-a group of unassuming, nameless, extremely talented musicians. They come out of the hugely popular Metro Bible Study that takes place weekly in Houston. I notice Nathan and Christy Nockels of {{Watermark}}, but they're not introduced.

The guitar begins gently strumming. The words to the first song hit the screen and the crowd immediately joins the performance.

"Did you feel the mountains tremble? Did you hear the oceans roar? When the people rose to sing of Jesus Christ the risen One." (from "Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble" words & music by Martin Smith)

Immense crowd cheers after that last line...

It quickly becomes evident to me that this performance is for an audience of One. The performers on stage, the people in the audience, individually worshiping together as a corporate body. People dancing in the aisles, some kneeling, most singing, some shouting, many arms raised, some stand silent-watching.

"I like to sing," Sally explains to me. "But I also like to just sit and listen...and just take it all in. I look around and see what God is doing not only in my life, but in everyone else. You can totally tell in everyone here how much God is real in their lives."

During the lunch break I hook up with Mike Rutledge, a 19 year-old sophomore at Dallas Baptist University. He tells me he thinks this generation is more sold out for God, and into being about the Great Commission, than any other generation. "When you find out who God really is, you get away from tradition and are really able to worship. You give up your comfort and let God show you want He wants. People are really seeking for themselves. It's not just something they're doing as a group."

"So let the hands go up around the world in surrender. And let the voices echo out a new sound. So the ones who come behind us, will follow in His name and see the greatness of His renown!"
(--from "His Renown" words and music by Nathan and Christy Nockels)


"First and foremost, college students are looking for a faith that is real," Giglio explains. "They quickly throw off the 'exterior, surface, we went to church as a family because that's what we were supposed to do' kind of experiences that many of them grew up with. That kind of "Christian" upbringing doesn't make it through orientation week for most college students. They check that kind of religion at the dorm room door."

His words are echoed by Pete Reed, Pastor for Youth and Young Adults at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I think this generation wants a church they can relate to and not a church that their parents can relate to. If we're going to meet people's needs where they are, we're going to have to do things differently. That's what Passion stands for-looking at worshiping God not differently, but in a way that's going to connect with young people today."

What does Giglio think it will take to make this connection? He says it'll take a kind of worship and relationship with God that is based in experiences that are real, powerful and life-altering. "Students are looking for something that works, and are not afraid of Jesus' brand of all or nothing follow-ship and faith, but rather they're drawn to it."

From the stage is announced: "Jesus is not calling you to a cause, or a commitment. He's calling you to die. To die to yourself. And to the things this world has to offer."

"In the same way," Giglio continues, "they see through any worship that is surface and fake, gravitating toward experiences that deal in real terms about the pilgrimage of life and offer a powerful encounter with God as their reward. That doesn't mean a wholesale throwing off of the old, but rather an honest embracing of many traditional and contemporary forms of connecting mind, body and spirit with the Living God."

These four days are designed to provide this powerful encounter Giglio talks about. Although he's aware of the emotional pull of the lights and smoke machines, he's quick to say from the stage, "This is not about worshiping worship, or the songs. It's about worshiping God."

His goal is to lead people into a real experience of worship. "The experience of worship will always be shallow and void without a proper understanding of the majesty and wonder of God as He has revealed Himself to us. Without a glimpse of a glorious and awesome God, worship will sputter and fail. Amounting, at most, to beauty and sound. But disintegrating, at worst, to a poor reflection of man and his need to placate his needs and magnify self."

"To me, what is most essential in teaching others to worship is the combination of revelation (they must see how awesome God truly is-a through biblical overview on the priority of worship in the life of every person) and the opportunity to put this teaching into practice in a setting defined by freedom and truth, shaping us as we glorify Him."

Giglio is optimistic about the changes he see occurring in the church-changes that allow for the honest expression of our wounded and frail hearts. "In these days we live in an environment where such [honest] assertions can be made openly and freely. The church, once a place for rigid and stoic exteriors (no matter what the condition of the heart), is changing with the culture. With this change has come experiences of worship that are more open and free, people being real before God and one another, longing for the tender embrace of His arms and the opportunity to look up and remember His unchanging excellence and glory."

The foundation of the Passion conference is rooted in Isaiah 26:8, with the hope that man-centered, me-oriented Christianity would be shattered by a God-centered view of life. (see sidebar on 268 Declaration)

"To say 'Your name and Your renown are the desire of our souls,' is to say 'I am not the center.' So our aim is God-centered, God-glorifying students, saying yes to God in all things for the sake of making His glorious name know in all the earth."

The result, according to Giglio, is a passion for God like never before and a vision to live and share in such a way that every person in our nation and the world knows just how wonderful Jesus Christ is.

Pastor Reed is firmly convinced that people's eyes are being opened during this conference, some for the first time, to a real and personal God. "As opposed to something that you study and know about-they can truly know that it's a one-on-one thing."

"Every move I make, I make in You, You make me move, Jesus. Every breath I take, I breathe in You. Every step I take, I take in you, You are my way, Jesus."
from "Every Move I Make" words and music by David Ruis


"There's no gimmick to what's going on here," Reed continued. "There's nothing new you're going to learn. it's a personal encounter that comes from getting on your knees and focusing on worshiping God. It's Jesus centered-no bells and whistles along the way."

The Passion event will not take place next year as it has the last three years, rather they are planning a national gathering of prayer in the spring of 2000 called One Day. "It is our hope and vision that every Christian college student in America will gather in one place to seek the face of God for awakening in this generation. What that looks like, who can imagine?"

Building up to that One Day event, Giglio will be taking smaller, one night Passion events to campuses all across the nation throughout the year, hoping to build alliances and network toward the event.

Before I leave, I meet up again with Sally and Megan to find out what they thought. "For me, it's been about getting to know God better," Sally expresses. "I just want to start the year off right, and grow even closer in my walk with God."

Megan reveals that before she came to Passion she had gotten off track a bit with her spiritual life. "This has been kind of like a good slap in the face...that I haven't been doing some things that I need to be doing. I guess I knew that all along, but now I really have to do something about it."

She and Sally embrace-the promised accountability of a friend expressed without words.




This declaration captures the spirit, vision, and commitment of the students and leaders who participated in Passion.

268 Student Declaration:

"Yes, Lord, walking in the way of Your truth, we wait eagerly for You, for Your name and your renown are the desire of our souls."
Isaiah 26:8


Because I was created by God and for His glory, I will magnify Him as I respond to His great love. My desire is to make knowing and enjoying God the passionate pursuit of my life.

Because Christ established the Church for God's glory, I desire to magnify God as I use the gifts He has given me to serve and build up the local church. I will pray for continued renewal in my church through the work and power of the Holy Spirit.

Because God is glorified greatly when believers love each other, I desire to magnify Him as I humbly yield to and pray towards unity among all Christians on my campus.

Because many on my campus are hopelessly separated from God, I desire to glorify Him by sharing the life and love of Jesus where I live. As I share, I will earnestly pray for revival on my campus and in my world.

Because God is seeking worshipers of all peoples, I desire to magnify Him among the nations. I actively commit my life and energy to participation in His global purposes in my generation.




This article originally appeared in Worship Leader magazine. For more information contact: 107 Kenner Avenue, Nashville TN 37205