America's CHRIS TOMLIN is up there with Matt Redman and Martin Smith in taking pop rock worship to the world Church. Tony Cummings reports.
Of the new breed of pop rock orientated worship leaders the only American who has currently impacted the international church to the same level as Britain's Matt Redman and Martin Smith is Texan Chris Tomlin. Since his emergence in the Passion events the singer/songwriter has produced a string of classic worship songs including "Famous One", "Forever", "We Fall Down" and from his latest album, "Indescribable".
Born and raised in East Texas, Chris Tomlin grew up on a steady diet of country music, learning guitar by playing along to Willie Nelson records. By the late '90s Chris was writing worship songs when he teamed up with youth pastor Louie Giglio. Giglio had founded the Passion conferences in 1997 to support and unite Christian ministries on American college campuses. The Passion events took off like wildfire and Tomlin found himself catapulted into the national Christian music arena when in 2000 Giglio founded Sixstepsrecords as a division of Choice Resources, the parent ministry for the Passion conferences. In March 2001 Sixstepsrecords released Tomlin's 'The Noise We Make' and it was an instant success. From a pensive remake of the ancient hymn "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" to a bluegrass style version of Martin Smith's "The Happy Song", the Nathan Nockles-produced album was full of engagingly raw acoustic rock fire though it was the originals "Forever" and "This Is Our God" which made the album truly memorable.
By the time Chris' 'Not To Us' album was released, the Passion albums were popularising Tomlin's songs around the world. Produced by Matt Bronleewe (Jars Of Clay, dc Talk) and Sam Gibson (Elvis Costello, Crowded House), 'Not To Us' sported the stone classic "Famous One", a song whose popularity has now impacted the world Church. Said Tomlin about his classic, "I had no idea that 'Famous One' would connect with people in such a powerful way. I knew it was singable and I loved the idea of the word 'fame' for God because I know our society understands that word when they don't understand some of the other words we use for who God is. When you talk about fame, Jesus embodies the word. One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. That's fame beyond belief."
At the time of its release Tomlin said, "People are not meant to be worshipped because we're always going to mess up. Our culture longs to ascribe value to so many things that aren't of God, so anytime we can focus on God, and through that help people do the same, we're doing what we were put here for. And that's a powerful thing."
In 2004 Chris asked Ed Cash, producer for such artists as Bebo Norman and Caedmon's Call, to produce his new album, 'Arriving'. According to Tomlin, Cash didn't think modern worship songs were up to par with the best "regular songwriting" so he was initially hesitant to do the project. No doubt both artist and producer are glad he changed his mind as 'Arriving' has been another sales success, scoring high in Billboard's mainstream album chart. At the time of its release Tomlin spoke about his choice of producer, "I just wanted someone who really had a passion for the songs, not someone who just can sound good and has great bells and whistles. Ed Cash was that guy for me. He's a great songwriter himself with great ideas and he really brought out the best from the band as they played. He really caused me to grow because he challenged me to write the very best songs I could that would stand up to any song out there. There were amazing times in this recording where we would just get lost in worship to God and moments with God that were really beyond the songs."
In 2003 Tomlin became a founding member and worship leader of the Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. But his path to becoming a worship leader was a long time coming. Said Tomlin, "Since I was in high school my heart has been to write songs for the Church. It has been to write songs for people to sing and to play and to respond to God." And, according to Tomlin, not just any worship song will do. "There are lots of songs out there in the name of worship songs that are really badly written. They are uninspiring and they just do the same thing over and over and over again. Some of the new songs are written and they are not going to last. My thing is that worship music is Christian music in its purest form." And Tomlin seems to have found that perfect balance as evidenced by the radio success of "Indescribable".
"The beautiful thing about worship music is that God is at the centre," continued Tomlin. "It comes out of all artists who are really living out their faith and their relationship with Jesus because they can't help but worship him in their songs. We stand in a long line of people who have gone before us. The style and the way it's done, whether it's from the tradition of the old or the new, changes. But the spirit of it is never changing. What's important to me is putting out songs that the Church can sing. It's fresh and profound and the Church can really grab onto it. That's my heart in making music."
One of the standout songs on 'Arriving' is "How Great Is Our God". Said Tomlin, "It's about the greatness of God and how there are anthems ringing throughout the world by his people and by the heavens praising his glory." An enthusiastic response to the song was at the summer 2004 Willow Creek Arts Festival. "We've never had this kind of response to a song. People won't let it end. They just keep singing. I had no idea this simple chorus could turn into something this big."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.