The 2024 Passion conference opened with a countdown video. The crowd of 55,000 students packed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta cheered with anticipation. What would the first song be? Who would lead it?

What was the Holy Spirit about to do?

Flashing lights and a drum track led into the opening of Elevation Worship’s “Praise,” with the chant, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Worship artist Brandon Lake and a team of singers emerged on the stage.

After days of music and teaching, during the final session of the conference, attendees and leaders were surprised by a spontaneously extended worship session.

Most people don’t get to worship with a crowd of 55,000 on a regular basis. That immersive experience is one reason thousands of Christians travel to events like Passion, Worship Together, and Sing! each year.

These conferences also serve as settings where worshipers encounter and fall in love with new music. Though the stage production and arena energy isn’t replicable in their local contexts, the songs themselves are: Recent research found that worship leaders are more likely to use a new song if they encounter it at a live event.

These events are the latest iteration of practices that have a long history in the church: pilgrimage and temporarily gathered corporate worship. Christians in Europe during the Middle Ages walked miles from shrine to shrine to venerate saintly relics and temporarily adopt the monastic practice of living a life set apart for devotion and worship.

Before stadium sets and big screens with lyrics, 19th-century tent revivals attracted participants with passionate preaching and spirited music, which often fused new refrains set to folk tunes with hymns and traditional sacred songs to cultivate a more rapturous, affectively heightened atmosphere.

Ethnomusicologist Monique Ingalls refers to modern conference congregations as “pilgrim gatherings” and “eschatological communities” in her book Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community.

“Evangelical participants step outside the purview of regular religious authority and are invited to try out new kinds of religious identities forged in the crucible of intense spiritual experiences,” Ingalls writes.

Kristian Stanfill, worship pastor at Passion City Church, sees the massive temporary congregation at the annual Passion conference as a way of creating an “eschatological community,” a shadow of what believers will experience in eternity.

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“We prayed for the reality of heaven to be a reality on earth,” Stanfill told CT.

Stanfill says that the planning team for this year’s Passion conference, held in January, felt an unusual sense of urgency and that leaders and participants showed up ready for revival.

“We sensed a different weight around this year,” said Stanfill. “Looking at the times we’re living in, we are seeing the enemy deceiving a new generation, convincing them to live for less. But their eyes are being opened to see that only Jesus offers abundant life. That’s why they fill up Mercedes-Benz Stadium to worship and seek God. They want something real, something that lasts.”

Halfway through the worship set on the final morning of the conference, Stanfill sensed a prompting to slow down and wait to move on from their new song, “Cry Out.”

“I don’t know why I started singing ‘Agnus Dei,’ it wasn’t a song we had in our pocket, but the students just took over,” said Stanfill. The crowd and the leaders on stage sang “Agnus Dei” for 20 minutes.

“We all just lost track of time. We all got lost in Jesus for those 20 minutes.”

The potential for spontaneous experiences is part of what makes conferences like Passion special. It’s also what drew pilgrims to the Asbury revival in 2023. These events can serve as spaces to experience the “one-heartedness” that has historically accompanied revivals, and the music used in these settings becomes linked to the intense communal experience of the event itself.

Passion is largely attended by high school and college students from across the United States. Other conferences like Worship Together and Sing! aim to reach worship leaders and church musicians. Recent research suggests that while streaming has changed the way worship leaders find new music, live events like conferences remain influential.

“I prefer to experience the song before I use it,” wrote one respondent to the 2022 Worship Leader Research survey, reflecting on why live events are so effective as spaces to experience and evaluate new music.

The survey found that 71 percent of respondents were likely to consider using a new song after encountering it at a gathering in-person.

“Live events help me see how a song is executed and how it’s used and people respond to it,” wrote another respondent.

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Marc Jolicoeur, one of the members of the research team and an affiliate professor of worship arts at Kingswood University, observed that some worship leaders see conferences, concerts, and other in-person experiences as field tests for new songs.

“Leaders will say things like, ‘I want my congregation to experience what I’ve experienced,” Jolicoeur said.

Passion’s new album Call on Heaven includes live recordings of many of the songs used at the 2024 conference, including the 20-minute spontaneous “Agnus Dei.”

For those who were in the stadium during that morning session, the recording provides a way to relive the seemingly endless outpouring of song, complete with the shouts, cheers, and murmurs from the crowd. A video of that session spread on social media and attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube, who left comments about their in-person and online experiences of being inspired by the event.

“This moment changed me. I’ve always been a worshiper and have enjoyed rewatching this clip many times over the past 6 weeks,” wrote one commenter on YouTube.

Call on Heaven preserves some of the aural sensations of what it was like to be in the room filled with thousands of worshipers singing “Holy, holy are you Lord God Almighty.” But as most conference-goers know, the emotional high of these live events isn’t sustainable. So what does it look like to take the music associated with these events back to the local church?

“The reality is, most services are not an emotional high, and that’s not a deficiency,” said Hilary Ritchie, who serves as minister for worship and the arts at Hope Church, a Presbyterian (ECO) church in Richfield, Minnesota.

Ritchie’s church utilizes music by Passion, Elevation, and other popular artists, but she tries to look to her congregation and musicians rather than the live versions recorded at conferences when adapting the songs for her context.

“Some of these things aren’t transferable to a gathering of 175 people,” said Ritchie. “It’s so important to have a pastoral sense of your congregation’s worship voice. What does your congregation need?”

Ritchie pointed out that while there are some potential problems with looking to conferences as models for local churches, these gatherings are often the only opportunities church leaders have to participate in congregational worship as true participants, not saddled with the burden of management or leadership. And while she likes to look to other similar churches to see what their smaller teams might do with a popular song, visiting another church on a Sunday morning isn’t usually possible.

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“We’re always working on Sunday mornings,” she said. “Sometimes a conference is the most expedient way to get you and your team to a place where they can worship together outside of the weekly service they lead.”

But large conferences aren’t just worship events, they’re also promotional vehicles for popular worship artists and brands.

Worship Together is owned by Capitol CMG (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group), and Passion is signed to Capitol CMG as well. Sing! features new music from the Gettys and affiliated artists. These conferences promote the music and artists they platform by showing their effectiveness in an arena of worshipers.

Church musicians have been adapting music from professional recordings for their churches for decades, so the challenge of tempering expectations about what a song can “do” in a setting far removed from an arena is not new. But when congregants return from a conference inspired, energized, and full of suggestions, leaders often end up fielding unrealistic requests.

“I do think everyone understands that I’m not a jukebox,” said Ritchie. “And when someone approaches me with an idea that won’t work for us, I try to pastorally ask about their experience. They feel like God was doing something as they experienced that song.”

Spiritual encounters at conferences and revivals can be catalysts for real transformation and renewal that benefits the local church. Singing with a congregation of thousands feels, for some, like the closest they will get to experiencing God’s throne room on this side of eternity.

“The singing church is a powerful thing,” said Stanfill, reflecting on his 19 years leading worship at the Passion conferences. “When we join and sing our faith together, it encourages the whole room. It reminds us that we are part of the kingdom, and part of a movement of God that is bigger than ourselves.”