Apparently Chris Tomlin doesn't love the spotlight

March 12, 2013

In the evangelical subculture of my youth, there were three categories of pop music. There was secular music, the avoidance of which was, as with alcohol, a nonessential of the faith. (My parents’ approach was more tight regulation than outright ban.) There was Christian music, the Nashville-industry pop records that we heard on Christian radio during our school carpool and then saved our allowances up to buy. And then there was worship music, which we sang at church.

In those days I loved a good straightahead guitar-pop band, whether secular, weekday-sacred or Sunday-sacred. Nowadays I’d rather listen to almost anything else. So one big reason I avoid most praise music is that I personally don’t like the musical style, just like I don’t like fantasy literature or hamburgers. It’s a preference, not a critique.

As for actual critiques, a lot of people like me—by which I mean mainliners who love liturgy—go after praise music for its alleged fixation on individualism. But when I hear this I always wonder whether they’ve paid even less attention to this music than I have  in the last 15 or 20 years. This criticism just isn’t as true as it used to be. Not just because of corners of the evangelical world like the retuned hymns movement, as exciting as a lot of that stuff is. Because whether you like the music or not—and I do not—the words of “How Great Is Our God” are a huge improvement on “Shout to the Lord.”

“How Great Is Our God” songwriter Chris Tomlin has been a big part of this shift. CNN just did a short piece on Tomlin, who gives them this quote about how he strives for simplicity:

“I'm trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can't clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?”

I couldn’t agree more, and I aim for the same in my own songwriting for worship use. Later we get this:

The spotlight is on Tomlin even more than ever after starting the year a top the Billboard charts. As he tours the country at bigger and bigger venues, he would prefer to step out of the spotlight, away from the microphone, and let everyone else sing.

“People would be mad that they paid for a ticket for that. So I do that just occasionally, but that is what I love.”

He said the night before, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, he took as much time as he could to step back and let everyone else sing.

“It was just so beautiful, because I feel like it says something. It's not just like, ‘Hey, listen to me sing.’ This is all of us together.

Again, I agree with a lot of his sentiment here. But then why is he playing ticketed concerts at all? Lots of us church musicians feel like it’s important not to train a spotlight on ourselves. It’s a little odd to hear this perspective from someone who tours bigs arenas and jumps around like a rock star in front of fans who pay to be there.

Of the three categories of pop music I grew up with, two of them—”Christian music” and praise music—have largely collapsed into one. It’s hard to say whether the decline of an explicitly Christian market for music not intended/suitable for worship is a net loss or gain. But for the church’s worship life, I have a hard time seeing an upside to this conflation of church music and entertainment.

Praise music isn’t my cup of tea, but I have no substantive objection to a lot of the music itself. I find the “worship rock star” thing far more troubling: the music pitched too high for people to sing comfortably, the band drowning them out even if they can, the various ways the presentation emphasizes that these musicians are really cool, really talented performers. Stepping back from the arena-show mic and listening to the crowd sing is nice; it’s also a classic rock star move that mostly just emphasizes the massiveness of the hits. If Tomlin’s worried about too much spotlight, why not just shut the thing off altogether?


It's All About Connecting People with God

I've been in leadership positions in church music since the early 1970s ever since my high school days.  My tradition is Reformed Church in America (RCA) and Presbyterian (when we lived in an area without RCA congregations).  I was taught piano, taught myself pipe organ, and directed traditional choirs through the early 2000s.  I was one course short of a double major in music (to go along with aerospace engineering).  Since about 2002, we have been worshipping, and leading worship, at an RCA congregation with a contemporary worship style.  The reasons we left the church with the traditional worship were many, but, only a couple had to do with worship.  Today, I play a digital keyboard, stand rather than sit when I play, and assume the role of a "blender" rather than a "leader" -- except for keyboard-driven worship songs.  It's a pleasure to play with a group of more talented musicians rather than do it all myself.  It's chilling to look out at a congregation and see that you are taking someone to a different level.  That's what it's all about.  I remember a statement from Reuben Morgan of Hillsong Church in Sydney at a workshop I attended:  "Giving it all to God doesn't mean you can show up to rehearsal unprepared."  The style may be different but the God-focus of worship leaders and their attention to musicianship hasn't changed since Jubal.

I have always believed that the Church had to be relevant, connect people with God, and meet peoples' needs.  Chris Tomlin is very relevant.  I have been at several of his worship concerts.  I have been to the music ministry offices of Hillsong Church and have sat down and talked with some of the most prolific worship song writers of modern times.  It's not about me.  In every case, I have been impressed by their God-focus and their genuine humility.  I'm also impressed by their commitments to their own congregations.  Tomlin, along with Christy Nockels, Kristin Stanfill, and others, are on the staff of Passion City Church in Atlanta and lead worship on Sunday mornings.  Casting Crowns plans their tours so they can be home on Sundays to lead their church's high school youth ministry.  Hillsong is very much a local congregation with a local, as well as global, focus.  

This doesn't mean we should throw out everything written before 1985.  For me, it means being open to letting God transform you, even a guy like me who has gone from three hymns, the Doxology, and voluntaries to a keyboard player and worship leader of a contemporary Christian worship band.  

I think the fundamental thing we lose sight of, and I certainly lost sight of for a long time, is the truth that church musicians throughout the ages have always adapted contemporary music of their era that people knew and of which they were comfortable.  (For example, think about the large percentage of the Messiah score that came from Handel's secular operas.)  We can't afford not to do the same in 2013 if the Christian church is to remain relevant.