Tony Cummings reports on the record industry phenomenon that is CASTING CROWNS who are about to release a Christmas album
It seems the major US Christian labels are turning like never before to Christmas releases by their top artists. Amazingly, Sixpence None The Richer, Third Day (DVD), Point Of Grace, Sara Groves, Mandisa, BarlowGirl and that queen of Christmas best sellers Amy Grant are all releasing yuletide projects. But undoubtedly the most excitement is being shown towards the first Christmas album by the act currently selling more CDs and DVDs than any other in Christendom. The announcement of an October release for the Grammy-winning multi-platinum selling band from Atlanta, Georgia, Casting Crowns, will no doubt add a sparkle to any retailer's Christmas. Peace On Earth is guaranteed to be a huge seller. Thankfully though it is an album completely avoiding the grisly sleigh bell muzak and Santa songs which do no credit to the Christian music industry. In fact, there is serious spiritual intent behind Peace On Earth and is an album pointing audiences towards rediscovering the worship in Christmas songs and encouraging listeners to connect with the original meaning in world-renowned classics that are truly worshipful in nature.
Mark Hall, frontman and principal songwriter with Casting Crowns, said, "I want to see people rediscover the worship that Christmas songs have in them. A lot of times, when we sing carols, we sort of shift into Christmas carol mode -singing songs that we've been singing for so long, we might not be hearing what they're really saying."
The featured single on Peace On Earth is I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day showcases a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based boys choir singing the sound of bells. The lyric isn't a Hall original but emanates from the pen of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The narrative lyrics convey how hope emerged from a crisis of faith Longfellow experienced after he lost his wife in a house fire and soon after saw his son crippled in the Civil War. Explained Hall, "He wrote about how every year when these Christmas bells ring, it reminded him that there's peace on earth, good will toward men. But this time around, the reality of the world he lived in at that moment rushed in. The verses change, and suddenly he's saying, 'But there is no peace. There's war, and there's hate. And this hate mocks the song of the bells.' He's working through his understanding of Christmas. And as the bells keep ringing, he just has this moment when he realises God is not dead, nor does he sleep. Good will prevail. God is going to save the day." Hall added, "This generation needs to hear this song. My kids need to hear this song."
Peace On Earth also features moving renditions of Silent Night (Hall's all-time favourite carol), Joy To The World, the Paul Baloche-penned Christmas Offering, O Come All Ye Faithful, Sweet Little Jesus Boy and Away In A Manger (as it originally appeared on 2005's WOW Christmas). The album also includes the Amy Grant song God Is With Us. In addition to the Christmas evergreens on Peace On Earth, there is a popular Casting Crowns song originally heard on the band's platinum album Lifesong. Unknown to many, Hall wrote While You Were Sleeping as a Christmas song when he was in college. Now it can be heard in its original form.
The aptly titled album emphasises the relentless hope pervading Casting Crowns' Christmas album. "How do you know there's peace on earth?" asked Hall. "Jesus said, 'They will know that you love me by the way you love each other.' And at one point, he even said, 'They will know that I come from God by the way you love each other.' As long as the people of God are here, there's hope."
In America to publicise the album there is a 14-city Casting Crowns Christmas Celebration with full orchestra and choir with guests Natalie Grant, Denver & The Mile High Orchestra, Avalon, Michael English and pureNRG in November and December. Before that, Casting Crowns undertake a major European tour playing concerts in Belfast's Odyssey Arena on 31st October and Stoke-on-Trent's Queen's Theatre on 1st November.
Recently American trade magazine Billboard ran an article on what it felt was a new trend in Christian music deserving of comment, that of Christian acts who sustain successful recording careers while continuing to be committed to local church ministry. Casting Crowns were held up as the most successful example of this phenomenon. Since debuting in 2003 with their self-titled album, the band have become the genre's biggest success story, selling 3.6 million albums total, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Each of the Grammy Award-winning group's three studio albums has been followed by a live CD/DVD release: Lifesong Live has sol 108,000 copies on DVD, while Live From Atlanta has sold 159,000. The most recent release is the new The Altar And The Door Live CD/DVD.
Casting Crowns lead vocalist/songwriter Mark Hall has been a youth pastor for 17 years and still works at Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church in McDonnough, Georgia. Hall says he's never felt any pressure from Beach Street Records founder Mark Miller or Provident Label Group president/CEO Terry Hemmings to leave the church. "They recognise that the songs that Casting Crowns records are coming from the ministry of the church," he says. "I don't believe you could have one without the other. It's like the ministry is the well that we are drawing from and these songs are pouring out of. [but] there are more challenges. We have to say no to a lot of [opportunities]. There are a lot of things we can't be a part of, but I know this is where God wants us."
"Mark is incapable of doing anything halfway," Hemmings says of Hall's commitment to his church. "I get concerned about the drain on mark himself and on his wife and family trying to maintain two [positions that are] more than full time jobs. It's very hard to be a full time youth worker and have all those kids needing you, and it's very hard to be an artist at the level of success and activity that they are. I'm surprised he's still standing. I would think at some point the guy would get tired, but he doesn't."
Casting Crowns members Juan and Melodee DeVevo and Chris Huffman also are worship leaders at Eagle's Landing, while the group's Megan Garrett helps her husband, Ryan, who is youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Thomaston, Georgia. In addition, Casting Crowns' Hector Cervantes is worship leader for the student ministry at West Rome Baptist Church and Andy Williams helps lead worship at Glad Tidings Assembly in Atlanta.
What is hugely impressive about Casting Crowns is their continued passion in keeping their priorities straight. Mark Hall told Charisma magazine recently, "The day when my wife and the kids aren't at the top of my list is the day when I know I need to quit all this. And the day when I can't minister in a church, I'll know it's wrong because that's my first ministry."
So the phenomenon that is Casting Crowns continues. A band whose members are all in their 30s yet who have a huge following amongst church going youth. A band who make unashamed rock music yet whose passion for souls and desire for ministry connect with even the oldest in the Church. And a band who sell unprecedented numbers of albums and DVDs yet continue to loyally serve local church ministries. The Church should be justly proud of Casting Crowns.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.