ATLANTA – People want to be here. That's the sense you get when you come to the Passion 2011 conference that opened Saturday, New Year's Day, with 22,000 students.
Seemingly no foot-dragging or dour face was seen at the Georgia World Congress Center and Philips Arena where one of the nation's largest annual youth conferences is being held. High fives, spontaneous stadium-wide waves, and woo-hoos when favorite worship songs take form are perfectly normal.
The night began with Grammy-nominated Chris Tomlin rocking his new song, "Our God," and his other popular hits. But after the high-energy worship session, complete with a light show befitting a rock concert, Passion founder Louie Giglio took the stage to reel students in from their high by making it clear that following Christ does not guarantee an easy life.
Although Giglio's point was students can be free and fully alive in Christ, based on Philippians 1, he emphasized that spiritual freedom may come at the cost of being physically in chain. He spoke about how Roman Emperor Nero used to torch Christians at night, Stephen was martyred, and Apostle Paul was chained for the gospel to point out that the freedom experienced by followers of Jesus Christ comes despite their physical circumstances.
"The guy writing this (Book of Philippians) is in a jail and he is chained up but his take of being in jail is not, 'Hey Philippians, I'm in jail, get me out of here.' It's verse 12, 'I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,'" said Giglio.
"What Paul understood is circumstances have no power in us being free and fully alive," he said passionately. "They (circumstances) do not limit Him (God) in the slightest. For people whose mission is to eliminate the desires of everything that doesn't matter in the end, circumstances don't matter."
The Passion conference's mission is for students to make God famous by focusing their life on the things that matter from an eternity perspective while letting go of materialism and other short-term pleasures.
Giglio drew attention to Philippians 1:21, where Paul wrote: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
"You have to love the guy who has come to this place where he has really got a clear focus where he says, 'Here is the simple deal. If I live … it's Jesus," said Giglio. "To die, it is gain."
Some students who attended the opening session admitted afterwards that they are still struggling to understand the message deeply, but come with an open heart.
"I think challenged is a good word," said Nathan Cummings, 21, from Dayton, Ohio, about how he felt after Giglio's message. "I just want to be open to what God wants me to see, the needs in my life. Because I think sometimes we have wants that we want God to show us but there are also the things that God needs us to see and to focus on in order for His glory to be shown."
Meanwhile, Danna Comfoot, 20, from Waveland, Miss., said she was touched by Giglio's encouragement that Jan. 1, 2011 – the number one symbolizing beginning – means she can have a new start free from the past.
She added, "I came expecting God to do something great."
In 1997, Louie Giglio organized the first Passion conference in Austin, Texas, which attracted about 2,000 people. The conference, which is part concert part Bible study, has grown to over 20,000 student attendees and began to take place outside the United States in 2008. In 2010, there was a Passion seven-city world tour that included cities: Kiev, London, Tokyo, Manila, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo and Vancouver.
This year's Passion 2011 in Atlanta will feature speakers Francis Chan, John Piper, Beth Moore, Andy Stanley, and Louie Giglio. Lead worshippers at the event include Chris Tomlin, David Crowder Band, Matt Redman, Charlie Hall, Christy Nockels, and Kristian Stanfill.