Tony Cummings reports on Christendom's surprise best sellers CASTING CROWNS.
They are a sales phenomenon the Christian music industry is still getting used to. How a seven piece pop rock band from Atlanta, Georgia have today become the best selling Christian music band in the world is a heartening reminder that in ministry music circles it's songs which reach deep into people's lives, rather than marketing know-how and vast promotional budgets, which take sales to the stratosphere. And clearly the songs of Casting Crown's singer/songwriter frontman Mark Hall have the capacity to build faith and challenge apathy like few others. From the moment their 'Casting Crowns' debut emerged in 2003 youth worker Mark's songs have resonated with a mass audience and with both 'Casting Crowns' and 'Lifesong' enjoying platinum sales and the band's third, the magnificent 'The Altar And The Door' seemingly set to achieve the feat again, astonishingly entering the mainstream album charts at number two (only being kept off the number one spot by 'High School Musical 2'), apparently nothing can stop the band.
The Scripture illuminating many of the songs on 'The Altar And The Door' is Psalm 1. The verses describe a man who is blessed but also portrays him slowly losing his zeal for God as he is immersed in temptation. The album was inspired almost two years ago when Hall was encouraged by one of his students to check out MySpace. Hall told CCM magazine, "It wasn't any major surprise, but we did see a lot of kids who had two worlds going on. MySpace can be Spring Break for the brain, this place you can go and not think anyone's ever going to find out. Kids would be listed as Christians and then show their porn star name or what kind of kisser they are. They were just presenting so many contradictions on one page. The temptation was to just get upset and think that's terrible. But MySpace isn't really a big problem - it's just revealing what the problem it."
Hall wants to emphasise that the problem of compromised, double-minded believers isn't unique to teenagers. "I could talk down to the students and tell them they're terrible for doing these things, or I can realise that this is in all of us. We don't want to be bad. We want to love God. We come to church - we're believers - and we want to serve, but we get out there in the world and it's just different. We want to be accepted; we want friends. The compromises start coming in small little increments until you're just kind of out there. Church becomes more of a guilt activator than a place to go to be with the Lord. It's a nasty place to live, and we all live there. When we're at the altar, everything's clear and it all makes perfect sense, as we know how to live. We know what's right and what's wrong. The struggle is getting this life at the altar out the door. . . That's the problem; we're finding ourselves somewhere in the middle."
The struggle between the proverbial altar, where hearts are right and love is good, and the church door, where faith meets the stark reality of living in a fallen world, permeates the album. Hall told Christian Retailing magazine, "Somewhere between the altar and the door, it all leaks out and I'm out here wondering what to do, rationalising things instead of living the life that's in me. So the struggle that we have as believers is trying to get those truths (that are) in our heads and highlighted in our Bibles out to our hands and feet. The songs are all the things that happen in the middle of that."
On their latest album Mark Hall (vocals, guitar), Megan Garrett (keyboards, vocals), Juan DeVevo (guitar), Melodee DeVevo (violin, vocals), Hector Cervantes (guitar), Chris Huffman (bass) and Andy Williams (drums) have made their most creatively inventive album so far. Said Hall, "Once we got into the recording I knew we were in for something different, a more progressive approach to the music. These songs sounded different in my head; they've been a big challenge for us as a band. And the music definitely sets the tone for the whole project, but for me, it always comes back to the message. I always think lyrics first."
In "East To West" Hall tackles the all-too-familiar scepticism with which we humans embrace forgiveness. "We have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness. We cut ourselves and it heals, but the scar remains. Sometimes we think God treats sin like we would if we were God, and that he handles forgiveness like we would. We know he forgives, but we can't accept that God chooses to forget and relinquishes his right to avenge."
The song "Slow Fade" was written in the light of the well publicised falls from grace of several high profile church leaders. Hall describes it as a "pre-emptive strike" against the small compromises that lead to personal destruction. "Nobody falls, it's just a slow fade. It's a series of minor compromises until you're in a place you never thought you'd be, doing things you never thought you'd do and rationalising all of it. As believers, as men, if we're not guarding our relationship with God, we're going down. There's too much going against us. If we're not careful, we're going to crash and burn."
The song on 'The Altar And The Door' that's "going to get us in trouble," according to Hall, is the bold "What This World Needs", calling the Church to account for making the Gospel of Jesus Christ confusing. "That song is dealing with the fact that Jesus is the only way to God, but we are not the only way to Jesus," Hall said. "People aren't confused by Jesus, they're confused by all the stuff we've stapled to him. It's Jesus plus my church, it's Jesus plus this version of the Bible, this cultural belief. We're Pharisees all over again. It's pretty much laying it all out there. People just need Jesus, not my tie, my hoodie, my version of the Bible."
As well as being leader of Christian music's best selling band Mark Hall also today finds himself a best selling author. With Tim Luke, Mark has written Lifestories: Finding God's Voice Of Truth Through Everyday Life, chronicling the people, events and life experiences that inspired many of Hall's award-winning songs. Mark is quite candid about his unexpected entry into the Christian best selling books list. He told Chris Carpenter, "It just never occurred to me to write books. It's just not on my radar. Tim (Luke) came to one of our concerts and heard two or three of the stories we were telling during the concert. He said, 'Man, we need to sit down and get these stories in print - where these songs came from.' I get more emails after concerts about the stories I tell than I do about our music. So, we started sitting down for about 30 minutes a day on Mondays with a tape recorder and I just started talking. Then he started transcribing. And we started thinking that this stuff might be neat for everybody to have. Another thing that kind of clued us into this thing was that I get so many emails from people just telling what God is doing in their life because of the song. . . It has encouraged me."
Mark is renowned for placing more importance on his youth ministry than on his growing achievements as a musician. He was asked by Chris Carpenter whether he could ever see a day when he would not be able to balance the demands of recording and touring with running a youth group. He responded, "One thing I am learning is to say what I will never do. But I just can't see myself out of the church. To me, the church is the point and everything else is pouring into it and a part of it. That is the body. For me not to be working with students anymore in some way seems foreign to me - so I can't say it would never happen if God made me do something different. Right now, I am where I am supposed to be and I am doing what I am supposed to do. If anything, I would see Casting Crowns as more of a season in my life than I would see my student ministry."