Christian festival launches music careers, youth ‘movement'

The Passion Conference will draw flocks of college-age Christians to Philips Arena and the Georgia World Congress Center on Jan. 1-4. This is good for Chris Tomlin’s music career, but that’s not the way the Atlanta-based recording artist prefers to see it.

“It isn’t my role to grab as much attention as I possibly can, but to really point people to God,” he said.

The success of Tomlin’s seven albums -- including one that has sold more than 1 million copies -- owes much to his past performances at Passion.

He played the side stage at the first conference in Austin in 1997 and has advanced to a headliner and worship leader at the side of the event’s founder, Louie Giglio, who brought Tomlin to Atlanta a few years ago to help keep the conferences growing and to start Passion City Church, an idea based on response to the events. The church is nondenominational.

Part arena rock show, part church retreat, part trade expo, the event uses high-tech, theatrical displays to inspire college students to do service work, and performances and seminars that show church still can be cool.

Organizers say more than 22,000 people attended the four-day Passion Conference in Atlanta in 2010.

Over the years, Passion has morphed into a movement made up of educated, young Christians who call themselves the 268 Generation. Based on a passage from Isaiah 26: 8 that says “... your name and your renown are the desire of our souls,” the message forms the backbone of Giglio’s ministry to “make Jesus famous.”

The shows are also famous for producing sought-after recordings and bringing music like Tomlin's into the spotlight. At each conference, Tomlin debuts new songs. He also will perform tracks from his latest album, "And If Our God Is for Us ...," released in November.

"In the early days, we’d just press record and see what happened," he said. "Then people started wanting these records like crazy."

Giglio founded sixstepsrecords in 2000 and has partnered with EMI to distribute numerous live recordings from Passion events as well as to release studio albums. The conferences also have spawned the church (a permanent home is expected to open near Buckhead in the middle of 2011), world tours and one-day festivals.

“Passion is really such a good word for it,” Tomlin said. “It’s more than just a conference, it’s a launching pad for so many students to be engaged in the world. The college moment is so pivotal. Decisions are made that set a course for your life. We want to be there standing at that moment."

Event info

Passion 2011. Jan. 1-4. $219. Philips Arena and Georgia World Congress Center.