During the first weekend in January, an estimated 55,000 Christians representing 28 countries and all 50 states gathered in Atlanta, Ga., for Passion 2022, an annual Christian conference of young adults ages 18 to 25. The gathering, which is part of a network of ministries called "the Passion movement," featured famous speakers and Bible teachers interwoven with contemporary worship music. Just a few days earlier, the U.S. hit a new record for daily COVID-19 cases.
If you search Passion’s social media and website, you will find scarcely a mention of the pandemic. The one exception can be found on the frequently asked questions page of the conference website which states that Passion 2022 would be abiding by city and state agencies’ recommendations as well as the requirements for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the conference was held.
Passion made it clear that their plan to combat COVID-19 was to do the bare minimum: They did not require social distancing, proof of vaccination, nor testing; per the venue’s guidelines, masks were not required unless the stadium’s roof was closed. They farmed out any safety protocols to others and emphasized that their goal was for the in-person gathering to not be interrupted. By choosing to continue with this massive gathering despite the current surge in cases, the leadership of the Passion movement — including Louie and Shelley Giglio — and the members of Passion Music — failed to protect the lives of the attendees and the lives of the families, friends, and acquaintances who have now come in contact with attendees post-conference.
Passion also put the lives of a predominantly Black city at risk in holding their conference in person — a conference attended primarily by white young adults. The lives of low-wage workers at the stadium and throughout Atlanta’s hospitality industry who served conference attendees were not protected. Passion leadership encouraged students to take public transportation, resulting in crowded public transit which potentially exposed a multitude of Atlanta residents to COVID-19. The conference did not enforce the city-wide mask mandate or stadium mask requirement they said they would follow, as seen in hundreds of pictures and videos posted to social media.
“There’s a massive difference between looking at this moment through a screen and being in the room to experience this rush,” reads a caption on Passion’s Instagram.
By holding the Passion conference in person, Passion’s leadership communicated to these young adults that the “rush” of the experience is more important than health care workers crying out for help in overrun hospitals, more important than children under 5 who cannot be vaccinated, more important than the disabled and the elderly, and more important than Christ’s commandment that we sacrifice our own desires in the interest of others.
Since 1995, the Passion movement, which includes the annual conference, a multi-city church, a global institute, as well as publishing and recording labels, has been widely known for discipling young adults. The leaders of Passion have established trust among young Christians who are looking to deepen their faith and put that faith into action as they enter adulthood.
According to their website, “The Passion movement has a singular mission — calling students and leaders … to live for what matters most. For us, what matters most is the name and renown of Jesus.”
By holding an in-person gathering, Passion failed in achieving its stated mission. Louie and Shelley Giglio, like every other speaker and worship leader at the conference, said to tens of thousands of young adults this week, “Follow us as we follow Jesus.” But the problem is that at every turn they ignored what Jesus has required of us: to love your neighbor even if it comes at a personal cost (Matthew 22:39; 1 Corinthians 10:24).
Passion’s leaders may have made Jesus known in name, but through their deeds they did not give his name the honor or “renown” it deserves. These leaders had the incredible opportunity to call a generation to practice self-sacrifice for the love of their neighbors. They had the chance to remind them of how creative God has made us to be, especially in hardship; to teach them how many ways worship can take shape outside of traditional large gatherings. Instead, they decided to ignore surging pandemic cases, modeling a self-focused, individualistic faith to the next generation.
The consequences of these leaders’ failings run deep. We will never know the number of people who will fall sick with COVID-19 because of this gathering. Passion will never know all the people who have died or been disabled as a result of holding this in-person gathering at the current height of COVID-19. What we do know is that those who continue to be at the highest risk during this pandemic are people who are marginalized: disabled people, the elderly, people of color, and children. The people whom Jesus cares for the most are the people who Passion cared for the least.
When thinking about the manifold consequences of Passion holding this in-person conference, we have to take into account how many of these students will be returning to various colleges around the country. By Passion’s own estimates, students from 1,335 colleges attended the conference. Many of the students are likely to only catch mild cases of COVID-19 due to their age and health. But in the coming days, these students will be returning to their colleges where they share dorm rooms and classrooms with disabled and immunocompromised peers. Some of their professors and university support staff will be older and, therefore, more likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19 and some will be returning home each night to children too young to be vaccinated.
With their words, Passion’s leaders claimed they were spreading the gospel, but in their deeds there was no good news, especially for the most vulnerable among us. The decision of Passion leadership to host Passion 2022 in-person communicates that they would rather get back to “normal” than care for the vulnerable. A total disregard of human life at every turn. A complete denial of a pandemic that has killed over 800,000 Americans alone.
It is clear that while Passion may be encouraging our next generation to not be “of the world,” they are also teaching them to not be “in the world.” It is the only possible way one gathers tens of thousands of people for an in-person conference during a pandemic — a terrible witness to a world already crumbling under the weight of selfish individualism.
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