The Passion conferences have evolved from a simple worship event to a generational movement, bringing students from around the world to Atlanta, Georgia (and now Washington D.C.) to rally as the people of God. Passion has birthed tremendous support for the counter trafficking End It movement, and has also become creative ground for some of the biggest church anthems of our day.
The latest from Passion's collective is Whole Heart, recorded live at Passion conferences 2018. I had the chance to talk with primary Passion writer and worship leader Kristian Stanfill about the ways God moved through this year's conferences and the new songs.
I'd love to know what the atmosphere was like when you were in the recording sessions for Whole Heart?
Well, we were in three different venues. We had Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Infinite Energy in Atlanta and then The Anthem, which is a venue in Washington D.C. It was pretty electric. Passion 2018 was a pretty significant event in the sense that we had several thousand college students in one place just to worship God.
So capturing that and putting it out to the world in the form of Whole Heart is pretty awesome. Like every Passion record, what you hear is this generation worshipping God. And that's a pretty moving thing. Especially if you're a college age student and you love God and you listen to this record, you hear 30,000 other college students agreeing with you. And that's a pretty big deal.
The atmosphere was electric, and a bit unpredictable. You don't really know what's going to happen when you start these sessions. We have a plan, we have a setlist, and whoever is going to give the talk has a talk prepared, but you don't ever really know what God is going to do in these sessions. So a lot of what you hear is the spontaneity of the Spirit of God. It's really powerful. Especially when I listen to songs like "More Like Jesus" on this record, I will never forget leading that song on the last morning of Passion 2018 after Priscilla Shirer gave that talk. It's just something I'll never forget, and that's the spontaneity of God. And it's pretty great.
Sorry, I could talk forever about this!
No, that's totally OK! It's kind of a very unique setting that nowhere else has I feel like. It does leave a lot of room for that spontaneity, for the Holy Spirit to move. In that process, were there specific themes you saw emerging through all three locations? In prayer time, in worship times, were there things that the Holy Spirit was consistently bringing up?
The theme of transformation surfaced for me. Even when you think about the title track "Whole Heart," the song is about this incredible unparalleled almost unreal love of God that comes with no condition. There's no prerequisite. It doesn't come with any kind of attachment to it, it's just freely given and expected to be freely received. That kind of love is a transforming kind of love. It's not the kind of love that we experience normally on earth, in this world. So it is transforming. And that's the theme that I think you see through all of the songs, is this transformational theme when you experience God and when you see Jesus--and when I say see Jesus, I mean have this revelation of who He is and the grace and mercy of the cross--that is a transformational thing, transformational idea.
Creating that environment and atmosphere, it's almost like a collaboration between obviously God and then the students and then those of you who are actually leading the songs from stage. Do you want to introduce us to who the Passion team is for this record?
Leading the way, we have Brett Younker, Melody Malone, Sean Curran and myself, with David Crowder, Matt Redman, Tauren Wells--who brings the HOUSE down on "All My Hope." It's just unbelievable. So you have that collection of peole leading the way. And that really is a family. Passion is a family of people who do life together, and we lead together, and we all have unique and different giftings and callings, but we all have the same heartbeat in terms of wanting to see Jesus take center stage. So all these people in their unique callings lifting up Jesus, it's a pretty special collection.
And I will say too, with this collection of songs, and this is true of every Passion record, but you don't really know what you've got until you get there. We write all year long for Passion, and we're diligent about putting ourselves in the right place to write new songs. We wrote these songs and prepared, but we didn't realize until we were there what God had given us. He had given us the right songs for these moments that paired perfectly with the talks and the theme of Passion 2018. So I'd just give a huge shout out to all these writers, and our band. Our band is the best around. They're amazing, and they worked just as hard as we did as songwriters to arrange these songs and put music around these songs and help support the themes and the mood.
When you're creating these songs, doing all that preparation work, how do you balance the desire for creativity as artists with the desire to communicate clearly the message that's on your heart? Do those things ever feel at odds, or does it come very naturally?
Thank you so much for asking that question! That is on my mind all the time. Because as a band, and as a creative person, the tendency is to create something that is interesting to you, but it loses the people. And my goal, our goal, Passion's goal as a movement and as individual people, is to connect people as best we can with the truth of who God is and what He says about them. We desire to take any roadblock or any hurdle completely off the table. I don't want people to have to climb any walls to get to what we're singing.
So sonically, melodically and lyrically, we want to make these songs as easy to access as we can. And again, that goes to our worship leaders and songwriters, but also to our band. We're always thinking about it. We don't want to be tricky. We don't want to be too smart and go "oh, this will be cool to us." But it's not going to be cool to anyone else, you know?
We lead every week at Passion City Church. And the first five rows at church are going to know every word, they're going to sing every word, they're going to have their hands up in the air worshipping God. I'm like great, you guys got it. I'm worried about the back row. How are we connecting what we're doing to the macro of Passion City church who don't really know what we're about or what we're singing?
So that's how we write these songs and we arrange these songs. We're really thinking about the back row, about those people who need help connecting the dots. Why is this important for me to sing? Why do I care about this? The tendency for creative people is to be artsy and creative so they enjoy it. But that ends up missing a lot of other people.
That absolutely makes sense, and kind of ties back to how hymn writers approached it as well, even hundreds of years ago.
Right! There's a reason we keep going back to the hymns. There's something built into the DNA of humanity that connects with these lyrics and these melodies in the hymns. I love hymns so much. And just as a person who loves God, I can connect with the hymns so easily. There's something to that for sure.
You've been involved with Passion for years, leading students primarily at these events. And there's a lot of negative stereotypes right now around the up and rising generation. I'd love to hear from you what gives you hope about them.
I would say come to Passion! That would be my answer. Like OK, if you have any negative opinion about this generation of students, particularly the college generation, come to Passion. Because you'll not only see these students worshipping God with total abandonment--to watch them worship God, it inspires me to a level of childlike faith. It's so beautiful to watch these students worship God. But watch them give too, watch them give their life away. Not just their heart, but their money. They come and they give their resources away to help free people around the world, to help bring the gospel, the word of God to people around the world, to help elevate issues around the world that need to be elevated. This is what these students are doing.
We've seen first hand what is possible with this generation and with these students. So if anyone has anything negative to say, I would pay for you to come to Passion and see what's going on! Because the real story is that 35,000+ colelge students gathered at Passion 2018, and they didn't just gather for an entertainment event. They gathered to worship God, to commit their lives to furthering the gospel and the kingdom of God in the world. But also, they gave huge of their resources to help spread the gospel.
How can people partner with Passion in prayer, as these songs get out and headed into next year's event?
Every week, we gather as Passion City Church. We lift up Jesus in Atlanta, and also in Washington D.C. So you can pray for us just week to week. We're trying to carry faithfully what God's put in our hands. But as these songs get out, I think what you can pray is that people would really experience the unparalleled love of God in these songs. Because that I think is the theme throughout this record. So I think that's what you can pray most of all, that people would understand that Jesus came from heaven to earth, went to a cross and died and then came alive again so that we could be alive. That's really what we want more than anything with these songs, we want people to know that the love of God is for every person, no matter where you've been, no matter what you've done. That above all would be the prayer.
Associate Editor Mary Nikkel’s love for writing, photography, videography and rock and roll have all been bound together by her love for Jesus, leading to her role with NRT. Her favorite things include theology and Greek language studies, obscure Nashville coffee shops, all things related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and pushing the boundaries enacted by societal norms. She blogs at Threads of Stars.
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