Have you ever been in one of those conversations where something was said, and suddenly you knew God was in the equation? That’s what happened when I ended up across the table from an amazing rising sophomore at Baylor, a Jesus-loving Tri Delta (a sorority) named Kay Dossey. Kay had recently had her personal awakening to a real and personal relationship with Jesus. She was a leader on campus and had tremendous faith in God and a vision of what he could do in the lives of those around her. “You know God is bringing you to Baylor for a reason,” she said calmly.
The University Moment
For me, I had finished seminary in Fort Worth that spring and was entering another grad program at Baylor in a few days’ time. During the past few summers, I had been leading as an intern to college students at two different churches in Houston. Kay had been a part of what had been happening in the summers as a growing band of collegians would return home each year for a few short months. We were seeking God with everything we had, packing out any available living room to dig into Scripture and worship together. Kay wanted to see what we were experiencing in Houston happen back at Baylor. And somehow she was convinced I was a part of God’s plan.
Without telling the whole story, Kay’s statement to me across the table that day in 1985 sparked a movement among the students of Baylor. On any given Monday night, it wasn’t unusual to see a thousand to fifteen hundred students who were on a new journey of worship and walking in the truth of God’s Word. What I thought would be a two-year grad stint turned into a ten-year season of sharing life daily with college students, years that my wife, Shelley, and I consider some of the most special of our lives.
Maybe something similar has happened to you. You weren’t sure what path you were going to be on, but while looking at several options, God landed you in a place you didn’t even see coming. That’s what happened to Shelley and me. While we were wondering what was next in life after graduate school, God was planting us at a critical intersection in the lives of college students—a place we have come to call the “university moment.”
What became so clear to us in those years, as we were pouring into lives and leading the students of Baylor, and as I spoke to other campus groups across the nation, was that the university window of time is one of the most, if not the most, critical seasons in life. For most college students, the first semester of school is the first time they’ve been away from home—distant from the influences and people that have shaped their lives, with less accountability than ever and a wide array of choices regarding morality, beliefs, and values. Statistics show that for a vast number of Christians this terrain is difficult to navigate, something I can attest to from years of firsthand experience.
Why is it so difficult for young Christians to make the jump from the youth group back home to the campus environment? Why is it that a faith, which seemed so sure in its adolescent years, can quickly erode and sometimes even vanish? For one, in the campus climate, students face temptations that, at times, well-meaning people have attempted to shield them from in the past.
Their worldview and beliefs are assaulted by intellectual challenges that they may not be thoroughly prepared to understand. In the end, the question that starts to crack the foundation is this: Is what I am carrying, my faith or my parents’ faith? Another way of asking it might be: Is this what I trust, or just what everybody at the church back home believed? Is Jesus real to me, or do I have a mild dose of religion because that’s what everyone else is doing?
Having been there year in and year out, we saw a lot of kids that were all fired up in the youth group implode within six weeks of moving into the dorm. Fortunately, we also watched as a lot of students who had walked away from what they had thought was faith, truly find Jesus in a meaningful personal way before they graduated. But the reality is most do not. And this is critical because the relationships and experiences forged while on campus shape so much of the trajectory of our lives. Like never before, a desire was stirring in us to stand at the crossroads of the “university moment” and do whatever we could to introduce people to the real and living Jesus.
From a Campus to a Nation
You should never count God out. What he has planned and dreamed for your life far exceeds the circumstances of your day. He is always at work, painting on a canvas bigger than we can see or imagine. Not only is this true today, but it’s been true of our entire story to this point.
While Shelley and I thought we were going to be leading students at Baylor for a very short season, God had another plan. At the end of each school year, we would sit with our board and ask God if he was going to renew our assignment for another year. Nine times he said yes. We never set out to stay at Baylor for a decade; we just found ourselves being available to him again—nine times in a row.
But all that changed in 1994. That fall we sensed God saying it was time to go to Atlanta and help my mom take care of my dad who had been disabled by a brain disease seven years before. We felt happy to go—not happy about leaving what we loved, but relieved because we so desperately wanted to help my family in an intensely difficult time.
We did what we thought best. We put in place a transition for our staff and stayed through the end of the spring semester. But then something happened we could not have seen coming. On April 28, my father died suddenly of heart failure, unrelated to all the battles he had faced as part of the brain disease. On the day our ministry at Baylor hosted our ten-year going-away celebration, Shelley and I were in Atlanta burying my dad.
Talk about being confused. Our hearts—shattered by the loss of my dad—were crushed in a way I could never have fathomed before. Though we could have and should have lost him several times along the way, I was in no way prepared for the excruciating pain. And more, we thought somehow we had completely missed God’s timing and plan by staying in Texas when we should have come straight away to be with my family in the fall.
Shelley and I were unsure, unemployed, uprooted, and now plopped down in a new city without a clear mission or purpose. But God had a plan all along. Within a few months, a vision flashed in my heart that took our breath away. It wasn’t a picture of one campus seeking God—it was the vision of a sea of young people on their faces before God, crying out for revival in the land.
I told Shelley what happened, but the experience was so unusual that I waited a few weeks to share it with anyone else. After a while, we convened with our board and a few others who had offered counsel in our lives. Everyone was nodding along, somehow all sensing the same urging and timing of God.
Was all the heartache for this? Were we uprooted from what we had poured so much into at Baylor so God could more easily pluck us for a new assignment? Have you ever felt like that, or are you are in a place like that right now? While I don’t know your circumstances, I do know God always has something in mind. Most often, the trials we are walking through today are preparing us for a greater role in God’s unfolding story.
Over the course of the next few months, we talked with a few friends and campus leaders and eventually set out on a course to pursue the picture from the vision—because, at this point, the image didn’t come with a detailed how-to plan. Along with Cheryl Bell and Jeff Lewis, we rallied around a name we felt best embodied this emerging gathering. We called it Passion.
All these years later, the name fits so well. But on day one it was a risk. Passion wasn’t anywhere on the landscape of branding or cultural currency in 1995, except in an area of web domains we didn’t want anyone to explore. But our team quickly rallied around a definition of Passion that spoke to the heart of what we wanted to be about:
Passion—the degree of difficulty we are willing to endure to accomplish the goal.
That’s it! For us, passion does not simply denote enthusiasm, zeal, or emotion. Passion conveys the gritty determination to finish the task at hand. That’s why the final days of Jesus’s life on earth are known as Passion Week. Passion is about doing whatever it takes to get what’s most important to you. And what we wanted most was for Jesus’s name to be echoed throughout the land.
Our name was set, yet the framework of our vision was still coming together. How would we get there? How would our message be refined? And then it happened. God literally dropped his Word in our laps.
After speaking to a group of college students at a statewide event in Arkansas, I returned to my seat as the responsive worship was happening. I had given everything I had in that talk, calling us to live for the glory of God. I sat down next to the director of the event, and as I did, he plopped his Bible in my lap, a rather large, worn edition, opened to a passage in Isaiah.
I felt slightly annoyed because I wanted to lean into the song we were singing fully, but he insisted I see what he was showing me, firmly landing his finger on a highlighted verse. Slowly my eyes crossed the words . . .“Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.”
His finger was resting on Isaiah 26:8, but it might as well have been the finger of God. In those words, we found our banner. We now knew what God was calling us to be about—he was inviting us to inspire a generation to live for his renown.
Those words leapt off the page—his renown. At the time I wasn’t sure what renown was all about, but a quick glance at the dictionary explains: renown is fame or memory that will never fade away.
We later morphed two translations into the phrase: Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your truth we wait eagerly for you, for your name and renown are the desire of our souls. To this day, this confession is our core, an unchanging beacon we seek to live out and proclaim to the world.
Back to Memphis
So on the day students started arriving at Shelby Farms for OneDay2000, we could sense God was going to meet us on that field in a powerful way. The main area was cordoned off from everyone, empty except for a tower built in the middle from which students read the Word of God nonstop for over twenty-four hours before the main gathering began. Then, on Saturday, we asked students to come prayerfully, reverently, soberly onto the field. And they did.
The clouds hung low that morning as forty thousand students and leaders settled on the hillside. Waiting. Believing. Expecting.
The day was unusual in so many ways. For one, according to one of the local TV weather reporters, an approaching thundercloud arriving on the edge of Shelby Farms suddenly split in two, traveling on each side of the field without dumping its fury on us all. On another occasion, a huge, wooden cross was brought out before the people, as Scriptures of mercy and grace were read over the people. At one point a young girl started running—sprinting—toward the stage and for the cross. I’d seen people “come forward” in all my years of church life, but I had never seen anyone sprint forward to reach out for the symbol of the cleansing flow of Jesus. After a while, students took hold of the cross and began to pass it overhead across the field, not as a way of worshiping an icon, but as a way of exalting what Christ had done for us.
But possibly the most stunning moment of all came after a pre-gathering prayer involving many of the speakers and leaders. Kneeling and standing in a tent beside the massive stage, after the final amen, no one wanted to move, and no one was eager to walk on the stage. The moment felt holy, and though a huge crowd was waiting, we were all reluctant to walk on stage. I recall someone saying, “Why don’t you go up and lead first.” And the reply, “No, you go.” I know when humans act like that, we really are on holy ground.
Something happened that day that changed us all. I believe that this movement got much of its start on that day, on those grounds, in the brightest light of his glory that we’d ever seen.
Almost twenty years later, many of the venues and faces have changed since our first gathering in Austin and the assembly at Shelby Farms. We’ve gathered students in fields, arenas, churches, conference centers, and campus auditoriums on six continents. But while the places where we have gathered have varied over the years, the heartbeat of Passion has always been to see a generation leveraging their lives for the glory and renown of Christ.
Passion Global Institute
Now, I’m watching one of the next chapters in this God-story unfold: To see Passion’s heartbeat lived out. It’s vital to shepherd the rising generation, with a firm theological foundation and understanding of Scripture under them. I believe seminary education is invaluable to do just that. It provides the equipping in our lives that is necessary to stand up and lead God’s people.
My seminary training is not something that I did in life; it is a vital part of what I did in life and an undergirding to all that God has called me to do. I believe Passion Global Institute—an invaluable partnership between DTS and Passion—is a beautiful answer to our desire to see people raised up, equipped, established, and released to do all God has called them to do.