The founder of the Passion student movement reflects on changed lives, purpose in suffering and why he’s no longer relevant
For more than two decades, Louie Giglio has been almost unavoidable. If you did not squeeze into one of dozens of church halls during his Indescribable Tour, you sung your heart out to ‘How great is our God’ on repeat. If you managed to somehow never pickup one of his many bestselling books, you were probably still thrilled when you stumbled across his mind-blowing talk on laminin (if that means nothing to you, then head to YouTube now).
The Atlanta-based pastor has helped launch the careers of worship leaders such as Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, he has written bestselling Christian books and spoken on cross-continent tours. But he’s best known for founding the humungous ‘Passion’ conferences, attended by tens of thousands of university-age Christians in the USA. Twenty-one years on, it has become a global movement.
Giglio was born in a Baptist hospital in 1958 and, he says, was probably first taken to church just seven days later. Although he was raised in the church and a Christian family, like many it was his teenage years that saw him understand the difference between knowing about God, and choosing to actually follow him. He says he first prayed a prayer of salvation aged eleven, but it was not until his first year at university that faith really became his own. The crunch moment came when he was being initiated into a fraternity. That same night God laid clear the crossroads he was at. After coming home from a party at 2am, he fell to his knees in prayer beside his bed and told Jesus he would choose his road, not the other one he was beginning to walk down. He has spent almost the rest of his life ministering to other young people facing exactly the same dilemma at that same critical age.
For someone who has dedicated his ministry to reaching 18 to 25-year-olds, Giglio is getting on a bit. The 61-year-old’s ever-smiling features are a little grizzled and the battered Bible he waves about in one hand as he preaches is falling apart at the seams. If he finds his workload gruelling he gives no hint of it. Warm and affable, Giglio seems like he has plenty left to give when we meet just before a speaking engagement at Westminster’s Central Hall. Before the veteran preacher steps out in front of 1,000 keen teenagers gathered for an apologetics conference, I wanted to cast his mind back two decades, to when it all began.
At least seven separate generations of college students have come and gone since the first Passion conference ran in 1997. The internet has come of age, exploded in popularity and significance, and then turned slightly sour. Theological controversies have erupted and then dwindled away again. Church movements have been born and famous pastors have died. Giglio’s country and church culture have both changed enormously. As the pastor enters the next chapter of his long and fruitful ministry, he – with a little bit of nudging – began to reflect on the journey he has taken and what it has cost him to get this far.
Young people have been a stalwart of your ministry – how did you end up dedicating your life to working with them?
God does what he wants to do. When I said yes to being in ministry, I thought I would be preaching his word to a more adult crowd, but God had different plans. I ended up dating a girl who was at Baylor University in Texas. I spent every weekend sleeping on some guy’s couch so we could be together, and, as I did, I learned university culture inside out. Not too long after that I ended up going to grad school at that same university and the Lord switched a light on, to say: “All this was a setup for you to a) marry that girl and b) understand what it’s like to live out faith in this university setting.” I realised that the university age – that 18 to 25 moment – is the critical crossroads of life. It’s where we decide what we believe. It’s where our values are tested. It’s where we normally make our best friends and our worst decisions in life. When a lot of people become Christians in their 30s and 40s their stories sound like this: “I grew up in church, blah blah blah, but when I went to university that’s where the road turned...But now, two marriages later, three rehabs later, a depression later, I’ve realised there’s something more to life. I’ve come to find Jesus.” So if we can show university students there is something worth living for, then we can help them live a full life and honour Jesus in the process.
Passion came about through tragedy– your father was very ill. Can you tell me how this all started?
It looked accidental to me. While I was at university, our little apartment Bible study exploded. Within three years a tenth of the students on this campus were gathering on Monday night to study the word of God and to worship. There was no free food, no frills, just Jesus. And that continued to grow, but in that exact window of time, my dad became disabled overnight due to a brain virus. He never went back to work, never walked or dressed himself again. He was like that for seven years. Each of those years my dad was doing OK because my mum was a great caregiver, but we were losing my mum a little bit more.
I would ask God continually: “Please let us go to Atlanta and help my mum take care of my dad”– because we were living 900 miles away – and every time the Lord would answer in some super-clearway, saying: “I’m going to take care of Dad, you stay here.” Ten years went by until finally we felt that sense of release: “You can go.” But before we could get to Atlanta he was gone. That was a super-confusing season for me, on a lot of levels, but we went ahead and we moved. We felt like the Lord had clearly sent us that way. So we just kept moving into the unknown, into the fog. There is a crushing weight when you lose your dad, and then we were in Atlanta with no job, no ministry and no reason to be there. But God has plans and God has a way.
I was on the plane flying home to Atlanta and had a vision. It’s the only one I have had like this in my life. I don’t mean I think I had a vision, I had a vision. It turned out to be Passion, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know what it was! I just knew God was moving us from one campus to the 18 million university-age young people in America. There was another whole army of 18 to 25-year-olds around the world that God wanted us to reach. We said “yes” and started a journey into the unknown.
A few years ago, we did a big event in the football stadium in our town. Our event is right at the start of the year, which is the end of the university football season in America. There’s a big special game at the end of the season between two teams and it’s called the Chick-fil-A Bowl, so their logo is on midfield. The very next day we started the biggest event we have ever hosted for 60,000 college students. The stage is in the middle of the field and as I went to walk up on the stage, I realised they hadn’t taken that logo off because they didn’t have time. Under this stage is the Chick-fil-A logo, which my father designed in 1964. My father’s logo is under the stage at the biggest event Passion has ever done. And I’m going to stand on it for four days and lead all these people. It wasn’t God saying: “Let me explain why your dad died suddenly of a heart attack after all these years of disability.” It just was God saying: “I’m here, and somehow in the grand scheme of things, all that had something to do with all of this.” I still to this day can’t make sense of it all but maybe if my dad hadn’t been disabled I would have stayed in Texas, who knows? God uses a lot of things in life to help move us along. Our story is a story of watching him do the incredible and immeasurably more.
Have you noticed a change in young people over the last 22 years? Have people become more cynical, more sceptical and less knowledgeable about Jesus?
I get asked that question a lot and it depends on where you look. There were as many sceptics 22 years ago as there are now, if you look in the right place.
And there were as many lovers of Jesus as there are now, if you look in the right place. The word I might use is ‘disillusioned’. There’s an entire generation of 18 to 25s who are now 35 and the things they counted on didn’t pan out. Their families didn’t pan out, their parents didn’t stay together. So they’re not so much sceptical as cautious about trusting, believing, about leaning in, not with their mind but with their heart.
People talk about how you can stay relevant all the time – well, the answer is, you don’t have to stay relevant. I’m not relevant, I’m 61 years old! I’m speaking to teenagers today, how is that even possible? Why won’t they just switch off the moment I walk up there and say: “That guy looks as old as my grandpa, why would I even listen to him?” Because what I’m going to talk about is Jesus and he’s instantly relevant across every spectrum, every culture, every age range, every demographic, every socioeconomic stratum. I feel like if we can continue to keep the focus on him, he’s the same yesterday, today and forever. Just put the conversation on Jesus and you’ll be fine.
Over 22 years of Passion it has become this incredibly successful international movement. How do you feel in your heart when you look at what God has built through you? Does that humble you; does it surprise you?
It does all of the above. I tried to end Passion after our fourth year. Our gatherings had been 2,000, 5,000, 11,000 and then 40,000 people. There was no internet then. No cell phones. No digital age. You had to mail a registration in if you wanted to come. You had to receive something in the mail if you wanted to know about it. The 40,000 I thought was the picture I had seen on that plane. It was the vision, almost to a T. So I thought: “That’s it. That was what God had called us to do.” We didn’t want to build a monument to Passion. We wanted to be a movement, and movements come and they go. We wanted to be a fuse, and once there’s an explosion no one cares about the fuse any more. So we took a year off. But lo and behold the Lord said: “No, we’re not done” and so here we are, 18 years later. There are new university students every year; the freshers just keep coming through the door. Passion is still serving them and we will continue until the Lord says: “It’s time.”
Soul Survivor has just closed this past summer, because the leader, Mike Pilavachi, believed God said “It’s time” for their event. Are you still expecting God to say: “It’s done”?
I have so much respect for Mike Pilavachi and for the way he has carried that vision for a long time. I’m such a fan of what God has done through that movement; I am forever changed by Soul Survivor.
You don’t plan your beginnings and you don’t plan your endings. God is the Alpha and the Omega. I didn’t start Passion and I won’t end Passion. I’m not looking or waiting for anything, I just have an assignment today and I want to do my assignment well today. But I have shifted my view a little bit, and, as I have matured, I understand that some things do happen year after year after year and it’s amazing. So I’m not looking to end Passion and I’m not looking to keep it going, but I am a pastor of a church now that I hope is around fora long, long time, even after I’m gone.
If there was one thing you could tell yourself when you were just starting out, what would it be?
I would just go back and say: “Hey, what you think is true. At 60 it’s still true. I’ve been through a lot of life, a lot of death, a lot of ups and lots of sorrow, a lot of confusion, a lot of questions, but here I am. It’s all true.” I would go back and just remind myself I’m on the right path.
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