It is a common sight in the fall and early winter, yet here in the south it always stirs something powerful in us:
A huge stadium filled with screaming college students, all passionate about the same thing: a win for their side. They shout with joy and sing their songs when there is victory. They cry tears and and look on in horror when there is defeat. The emotion they feel is real, even life-changing. Because what they witness in that stadium is important to them. By the way they talk and live, you get the impression that nothing else matters. What they encounter in that arena erected to the glory of sport marks them powerfully. They will most likely grow old, still talking about the glory days, hoping to experience them again in the seasons to come.
I have experienced this personally as a graduate of Texas A&M and as a long-time Aggie football fan. As my team (and it's much-lauded Heisman trophy winner, Johnny Manziel) get ready to play Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl tonight, I cannot deny my excitement. I will be watching the game with great anticipation. If we win, I will celebrate. If we lose, I will be sad. The emotion will likely stay with me for several weeks.
I also witness the impact that college football has on the people around me. As one who pastors young adults at a large church, I can say that literally 97% of the small talk on any given Sunday between August and November will be related to college football. And the talk is passionate. If someone from another country who doesn't know a thing about Christianity walked into our small groups on Sunday morning, I'm sure they would think that "turnovers" and "pass coverage" were key components of our faith.
But something entirely different happened with college students in a stadium this week. And it had nothing to do with football and everything to do with Jesus.
Here in Atlanta, 60,000 students gathered at the Georgia Dome for Passion for four days. They were from all over the world and represented more than 2,000 different college campuses. Their energy and passion were not focused on moving a football down the field but solely on God's name and renown. They shouted and sang for joy at how great Jesus is, inviting Him to work and move powerfully in their lives. But they also felt great sadness in the face of loss: specifically, the reality that there are 27 million people in slavery in our world today, more than at any time in history. Many of these college kids devoted themselves to partnering with organizations who are working towards freedom.
These kids gathered for a reason: to lift high the name of Jesus, to discover God's will for this earth, and to commit their lives to something that matters. From the stories I have heard from my own kids that went, their encounter with God will mark them for life.
I know this is true from my own experience. Every day, Jenifer and I get to see the lasting impact of the Passion movement in our 12 year old son, Drew. It was at the very first Passion in Austin, Texas 15 years ago where we both heard God telling us that our lives were meant for His glory. Period. And that He was going to use our children for His glory. And we needed to have more kids. Drew was the immediate fruit of our obedience. (We almost named him "Louie" after Passion founder Louie Giglio, but we just couldn't do it.)
We have all heard preachers say that we should have the same devotion to God that we have to our football team. They say that we should bring the same passion and emotion to church on Sunday that we take to the stadium on Saturday. They say it because it's true.
Think about it.
How much personal energy have you spent on your team this fall? In contrast, how much energy have you focused on making Jesus' name great in your world? What has He done for you? How do you cherish and celebrate that? How do you express your thankfulness and gratitude to Him? How do you speak of Him to others?
Consider how much emotion you have spent on the tragedy of your team's losing season this year (or by a close loss to a rival)? Now compare that to how broken you have been over the fact that 27 million people made in God's image are in captivity? Or that there are people all around us who are in spiritual bondage simply because they do not know the Christ that you know? Our perspective is so messed up.
I am encouraged by the fact that sixty thousand college kids put things into perspective over these last few days in a giant stadium at Passion. Like Isaiah, they have been marked by their encounter with God. I will be praying that it marks them for life and changes them forever.
As for me, you can bet that I will be gathered with other Texans in front of the TV tonight, cheering on my Aggies in the Cotton Bowl with intense emotion. I won't deny that. But whether we win or lose, I can know that it really doesn't matter. It's just a football game. Compared to what is happening in our world, it is of absolutely no consequence.
May our hearts and lives be moved by what DOES matter: the cross of Christ and His movement to use His church to redeem His world. No matter what happens on Friday, we can confidently and passionately celebrate the risen Lord on Sunday.