At the moment I’m writing this, there are 60,000 college students gathered inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. They are singing worship songs, listening to sermons, and gathering what will no doubt be a massive offering that will go towards combating human trafficking. It’s pretty unbelievable stuff, but the Passion conferences specialize in the unbelievable.
Cutting edge media, excellent musicians, famous speakers. If we’re going to be candid, it’s refreshing to see something “Christian” also be something of such exceptional quality. You could invite an agnostic friend to it and not blush at the prospects of asking him to pay a couple hundred bucks to attend something that feels like a home-school prom. I like excellence, you like excellence, we all like excellence, and I think Jesus does too. Hooray excellence!
That said, as I was reading the tweets of a number of my students who are at Passion, a question kept bouncing around inside my head. Maybe I was asking it of God or maybe God was asking it of me—I often can’t tell the difference. But either way, the question was, “What would Jesus make of Passion?”
Now I know, I know. The question is both loaded and brutally anachronistic, but it just kept asking itself to me. Spoiler alert: I have no idea what Jesus would make of Passion. But here’s some stuff I threw up against the wall. Maybe some of it sticks.
Thought #1…Temple = Georgia Dome
I remember the first time I went to a Passion conference. I was a senior in high school and together with my youth pastor and a few friends, we made the trek to Sherman, Texas. And from the beginning, the trip had a certain vibe to it, a vibe I’ve since learned is the anticipation of pilgrimage.
Religious pilgrimages—as far as I can tell—stretch back to the beginning of human history. There’s something primeval and elemental about the act of going on a journey to a place where we believe we will encounter something transcendent. In the Hebrew Bible, we see God commanding the Jews to make yearly pilgrimages to “appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 34:18-23). Once the Temple was built, these pilgrimages would culminate there, the place where heaven and earth came together. Indeed for a Jew, the Temple was the holiest place in the whole universe. They traveled there because God was, uniquely, there.
And by way of crude parallelism, it would appear that what the Temple was for an ancient Jew, the Georgia Dome is now for many young-adult, American evangelicals. They take a yearly pilgrimage to the Dome because they feel it is a place where God is uniquely present.
“Cleansing” the Temple?
So what do we make of this? The first thing that came to my mind was Matthew 21 and Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple. I put cleansing in quotations because contra popular belief, NT scholars point out that Jesus is not cleansing the Temple so much as he is shutting it down. Flipping over the tables of the money-changers and seats of the dove-sellers (21:12)—these are not acts of purification but condemnation. The exchanging of pagan coins for Jewish coins and the selling of animals for sacrifice were both essential for Temple worship. They Temple didn’t need rehabilitation. It needed to die.
But not because God hates buildings; rather, the Temple needed to die because Jesus was replacing it. Jesus was a one-man, walking Temple; the place where heaven and earth came together and God was uniquely present to his people. As N.T. Wright says, “What the gospels offer us is a God who is in the midst [of us] in and as Jesus the Messiah…Jesus himself is the new Temple at the heart of the new creation…And so this Temple, like the wilderness tabernacle, is a temple on the move, as Jesus’ people go out, in the energy of the Spirit, to be the dwelling of God…”
Now from one angle it’s tempting to connect these dots. Jesus shut down the Temple because he was replacing it. The Georgia Dome has become a new Temple. Jesus would walk into the Georgia Dome and flip over the merch tables and slam Chris Tomlin’s guitar, Garth Brooks style. And while that sort of simplistic reasoning certainly won’t do, I do think it raises some interesting questions regarding the pilgrimage/Temple mentality that so clearly permeates the Passion ethos. So here go a few thoughts…
Jesus didn’t shut down the Temple because it was evil. He shut it down because it was obsolete and no longer needed. God was doing a new thing, was making himself present to his world and his people in a new way, and the Temple didn’t have a place in this new creation. God was now present to his people through the Spirit and was present to the whole world through his Spirit-filled community = the church. And I put church in lower case on purpose. Local churches made up of normal people doing normal things…this is the God-appointed medium of God’s presence and grace to the world. Not a Temple. Not a yearly pilgrimage. And dare I say, not a trip to the Georgia Dome.
To be sure, many Passion attendees love their local church and their pilgrimage to the Dome is a noble period of spiritual refreshment. But I don’t mind going out on a limb and suggesting that for a great many attendees—perhaps the majority—Passion is the most spiritual moment of the year. It is the standard by which all other spiritual moments will be judged. They’ll have to wait a year to feel this close to God again because it’ll be a year before they’re back here, singing the resounding chorus to an awesome song, having just listened to a sermon from their favorite celebrity pastor, all while their eyes are dazzled by the glitz and glamour of it all. It will be a chore to wade through the ordinariness of actual church life for another year.
As I once told a college student, if Passion is the most spiritual moment of your year, a.) I feel bad for you…b.) you’re not going to be able to love and serve your actual church. And that’s because your actual church actually has to be the church. It has to deal with crying babies, botched song transitions, average sermons by not-famous people, and a budget for the year that is half as small as that for 4 days of Passion. It’ll never measure up and so you’ll probably bail and look for a church that will feed your Passion addiction (if only Passion could be a church…o wait…it is J) or you’ll stay and complain and never put down any real roots.
I inhabit and am thus aware of a rather small sliver of reality that I know as my life, and speaking from here, this is not hypothetical. I work with college students, I watch it happen, and I deal with the aforementioned phenomena. For the longest, I didn’t quite know what to call it and I still don’t. But I know it involves a skewed understanding of the spiritual life in which a streamlined, hyper-spiritualized gathering has replaced the gritty reality of incarnation, of learning to be a human, among other humans, through whom God is reconciling the world to himself. It invigorates the spiritual life to be sure, but it does so by immersing them in something that just doesn’t seem to bear much semblance to the real world.
And so as ironic as it may sound, maybe what Passion is doing is not progressive or ground-breaking so much as it is, well, antiquated. That’s hyperbolic to be sure but maybe, just maybe, Passion needs to make sure it doesn’t build something that Jesus already tore down. And I really hope it doesn’t build it on top of the church.
Thought #2…Going Vegan in a Steakhouse
Maybe you don’t buy the “Passion or church” thought above. Maybe you think you can have your cake and eat it too. I’m not so convinced most people can, but moving on, thought #2 is something I hope we can all agree on, even though it is uncomfortable.
So I’m told that at the beginning of this year’s Passion conference, Louie gets up, surveys the energy and buzz of 60,000 students packed into the Dome and says, “Is this not incredible?” He goes on to talk about how Passion has become a global movement, impacting millions of lives and follows that up by telling the story of a student who had been addicted to drugs, but as a result of last year’s conference is a year clean. Louie then says, “The testimony of these days in the Dome will be, ‘I know that He is the Lord,’ and ‘I know He can do immeasurably more because He did it in my life,’ and ‘I don’t need an event, I don’t need a Dome, I need Jesus.’”
I don’t need an event. I don’t need a Dome. I need Jesus. Amen! See, Louie and company know it’s about Jesus and not an event. But let’s allow ourselves to sit with the irony for a moment. Louie stands before a crowd of 60,000 people, in the Georgia Dome, talking about how this is a global movement, telling a story about how this event helped a guy be sober for a year…and he says, “I don’t need an event, I don’t need a Dome…” But Louie, you’re in the Dome, at an event, hyping the event. We hear you saying something about not needing a Dome, but it’s hard for us to take you seriously when your face is being projected on that 5-story tall LED screen suspended in the middle of the Dome.
Perhaps it’s something like taking a group of people to the best steakhouse in town, providing them with a buffet of the finest cuts available, all the while telling them that eating meat is wrong and we should all go vegan. You can talk to people about the virtues of going vegan all day long, but as long as you’re feeding them steak, I doubt they’re really listening to you. And perhaps even more importantly, I doubt you really want them to listen to you.
Means = Message
There is a more technical way to say all of this: your means is your message. When delivering a message, our words are not the only things that communicate. Everything communicates, and in particular, the “way you do things” communicates, perhaps the loudest. I’ll borrow an example from an excellent book.
Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken were the pastors at one of those suburban, fast-growing, soon to be mega-churches. Fearing they were bordering on becoming a “seeker-sensitive” church, they started really emphasizing discipleship from the pulpit. But they noticed it wasn’t changing the culture of their church. It was still trending towards consumerism and impotent discipleship. What was the problem? In their own words, “We couldn’t merely change the words we used to communicate the gospel because there were too many other messages ingrained in the Oak Hills culture that would contradict our words.”
In other words, you want to make sure you’re creating disciples and not voyeuristic consumers? Then you’re going to need more than words spoken in a context that contradicts everything you’re saying. It’s naïve to think we could hook people with a massive, consumer experience, and then not expect them to act like consumers. As Carlson and Lueken say, “Our attractional methods are not neutral. We are training people as we attract them.”
So what would Jesus make of Passion? I don’t know. I think he’d enjoy hearing 60,000 people singing to him. I think he’d love a massive offering taken up to combat human trafficking. I think he’d rejoice in the refreshment and repentance taking place. And as mentioned earlier, I think he’d enjoy the excellence of it all. These are—in and of themselves—indisputably good things. But I’m not sure what he would think about the new Temple we’ve constructed, the celeb-pastor cults, or the Passion fever. But deconstruction is easy, so how about a little reconstruction.
How about this. Do some massive downsizing for Passion next year. Minimal media, no celeb-pastors or musicians. Get people who are good, just not famous…they’ll cost less. Maybe just leave the regular lights on. Maybe you could charge $50 instead of $200. By my calculations, that’s somewhere around $10 million dollars you’ll save the attendees. Then, challenge everyone who attends to put that $150 they saved at Passion towards their local church’s budget. Or if they really hate their local church and don’t believe in it enough to give $150, then give it to Compassion, International Justice Mission, etc. And then maybe Louie could stand up in the Dome in front of 60,000 people and say, “I don’t need a dome, I don’t need an event, I just need Jesus”, and we’d actually be able to hear him.
And one last thing. We Christians do have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical towards things that are doing well—especially when it’s not “our” thing. Whatever the psychology behind it, it’s all too easy to be swept away by some latent notion that if it’s Christian and successful/excellent than there must be something wrong with it. The success and excellent of Passion should be something we rejoice in. But success and excellence—from a truly kingdom perspective—are things only achieved through ruthless self-evaluation and continual repentance. Like most things, I don’t think the Passion conferences are all black or all white. Like most of us, they do some good things and bad things. So here’s to exposing the hype and nourishing the good.
 N.T. Wright, How God Became King, 239.
 Carlson and Lueken, Renovation of the Church, 57.
 Ibid., 67.