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CHRIS TOMLIN: in the days of praise
[ exclusive interview ]


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There is still a hefty trend in the music business towards praise and worship. Sales are still good, climbing even, and it seems that everyone in Christian music is either moving over to secular labels, or trying to get a piece of the Praise and Worship "action." But when you are dealing with something that is created to be set apart, not just a fill-in or a fad, what happens to the purpose? cMusicWeb.com had a talk with Chris Tomlin, one of the country's foremost worship leaders to try to figure this whole thing out.

cMW: How are you? Let's start there
Chris: I'm doing great. Enjoying the day in Austin.

cMW: The OneDay conference was about a week ago, and that was spectacular. Tell me about your experiences there.
Chris: Were you there?
cMW: I was there.
Chris: Yeah it was awesome. It's kinda hard just to broadly say… It was fantastic. I thought that the message was clearly there as far as Isaiah 26:8. That whole idea of walking in the way of the truth of God, consecrating ourselves, being obedient to the Lord, and living for His renown, His glory, His fame. I felt that was really communicated very well. I was excited to see how all these different worship leaders would have the right songs at the right times. The messages were right on the money every time, with different kinds of messages from different kinds of speakers, but they all pointed to the same thing. That was beautiful. Organizationally, it was just so well done. Having the 1,200 volunteers who were working so hard… That's just organizationally astounding. And God was amazing to us with the weather, both with terrifying awe [there was a massive thunderstorm], and with peaceful mercy as well. God showed us different aspects of Himself even through the weather. It was amazing.

cMW: I was really impressed with the way that it was presented. I've been listening to Matt Redman's latest CD, and there is a line in there that mentions "Come let us worship, come let us recognize what a sacred thing we do." It never really struck me as praise being a sacred thing until I heard that line. The sacredness was really presented well at OneDay.
Chris: The thing that sets OneDay apart is the preparation, the consecration that we are not just coming to have fun here. It's not about getting a warm fuzzy feeling. It's about preparing our hearts and asking God to have mercy on us. We want to get close to Him. We don't just walk into the presence of God. We've created a culture that just walks into church and starts singing, without even giving that much thought to God before that. The purpose of the Sunday night gathering, before the main day, was to say "prepare the way." To prepare the way for God to come, to consecrate hearts, to open our lives, to rend our hearts. I think that is just a beautiful thing… To realize what a sacred thing we do. What a holy and awesome thing this is. What a humbling thing to come before the Lord to worship Him in song, and to hear His word and obey what He says.

cMW: Do you think that the worship "craze" has zapped some of the sacredness out of praise, or has it helped it?
Chris: I think both. I think there are a lot of people that lead worship don't really understand the weight of what they do. But I think it is all about leadership. It's how you lead people into understanding what this is about. But also the wind of God, the fresh Spirit of God has been amazing, and that is what has caused people to turn their hearts towards it. Worship music is the most popular thing in Christian music. It's what Christian music is. And I think that it's because people are realizing "Wow, this is not about me." It's not about liking this song or that song, it's more of a thing of "This really goes to my heart—communicates to my soul." It's something sacred, something holy.

cMW: On your website you have a little corner called "Wordstones" where you take a word flesh it out a bit and make a little sermon out of it. In May the word was "Original." As I look around at the praise and worship bands, especially some of the newer ones that have just popped up, it seems like originality isn't as extreme as it is in other genres. Why do you think that is?
Chris: I'd probably get in trouble for answering that question… (laughs) I just want to call people to that, because God is original. We are singing about the most original thing that has ever been: God. He is creator of all things. It wasn't like "Oh wow, those mountains look cool, I'm gonna make something like that." No, God made mountains. It was His idea. The ocean—"I've never seen anything like that, with the fish... I've never seen anything like that before, I'm going to make something like that." No, that was His idea, His creative power, and I just want people to tap into that. If we are really serving God we should be the most creative people on the planet. We are hopefully getting our ideas and our inspiration from the creator of all things. I think it's ok to be influenced by different styles... Everybody is. There is nothing new under the sun. Everybody is going to be influenced by different things, and that is fine. In every genre of music everybody is influenced by somebody. But to try to be them… That's not what you want to do. That's what I'm trying to tell people. Be influenced, but be creative, be original, be yourself. That is the kind of person God made you to be. That is the leader He has created you to be. Nobody's gonna follow someone who is trying to be like somebody else. I think when people are leading they should be themselves.

cMW: What are your thoughts on bands like Third Day and Caedmon's Call and the Newsboys who have been simply "Christian artists" and now they are putting out specifically praise and worship albums?
Chris: Well that is what a Christian artist is. Hopefully they are just being who they are. Because we are all worshipers. You could be a dentist, artist, whatever, but we are all worshipers, and hopefully they are coming to the true essence, the bottom line of who they are. A lot of people are saying "Well they are just doing this because it's popular." I know a lot of those guys and I don't think that's the case. I think they really have a heart that wants to serve the Lord. This is not so much them. The sad thing is, people are putting it "This is something they are doing." God is doing it. God is putting this in people's hearts, God is changing people's lives. The Holy Spirit is causing people to say "I want to use this music for God. I want people to connect with God. I don't want people to connect so much with me." Hopefully that's the right motivation behind what these bands are doing.

cMW: I recently read a quote from a Christian artist and he predicted that in the future, 99% of Christian artists would have to produce praise and worship albums in order to survive in the Christian genre. Do you agree with that?
Chris: No. I don't think so. It depends on what surviving is, and what they mean by that. I hope not. Just because you know how to do a worship song doesn't mean you are a worship leader. The sad thing is, leading worship is the church's job. I think that Christian music has been very disconnected from the church, but the church wants people to lead worship. That's probably where that comment came from. A lot of these bands are having to go into churches to lead worship and they aren't good at it because they are not called to that. Those aren't the gifts that God has given them. So there is a lot of struggling there. But I hope that they don't feel pressure to put out worship albums to survive. That's not trusting the Lord. I hope that's not the case. Leading worship is different than playing worship songs. Anybody can sing a worship song, but to really lead people towards God is a completely different thing. It's a much deeper thing.

cMW: You like to use the term "Lead worshiper" when referring to people in your position. What is their responsibility in their relationship to the audience in a worship setting?
Chris: Well, there is the term "Lead" in there. They are leading people. You can't just get up there and close your eyes, never acknowledge anybody in the crowd, just walk up and start singing songs. That's not really leading anybody. It's like you are going to battle. You're the general. You say "Hey, we're going, c'mon. We're fighting this fight together. I'm not going by myself." Great leaders have that presence of really calling people… I like the word "presence" rather than "performance." They have the presence to call people to worship the Lord all together. And they have that humility that is the key of every lead worshiper. Humility to get out of the way and lead people to God. Not to lead people to themselves once they've called the people there.

cMW: Describe for me the one event where you were in the best worship you've ever experienced.
Chris: Oh, man. The one that is freshest was the night at OneDay. I loved that. When we were at OneDay 2000 in Memphis and we were singing "Wonderful Cross." Matt Redman and I were leading that. It was unbelievable. People were coming to the cross as a spontaneous thing. People were pouring out their hearts and it was just a beautiful thing. Then Worship Under the Night Sky at OneDay about a week ago… Just a celebration after a day of fasting and praying and listening and seeking the Lord… It was such a release. It was so fun. So much joy in the air as people released their hearts to the Lord, and sang with everything they had. It gave me a picture of the release of emotions when we see Jesus face to face. So that is the freshest and one of the very best.

cMW: I know you have a few camps coming up, what other things does the future hold for Chris Tomlin?
Chris: I do a few camps, but I don't do too many anymore. We do a lot of worship conferences and concerts… We are planting a church in Austin. That's a big deal that started this year. That's where you'll find me most Sundays. We are doing a Passion tour this Fall to different campuses. Taking it on the road and doing a tour September, October, November. Really excited about that.

cMW: Any thoughts for a new album?
Chris: Oh, definitely. We are working on that. I think we will hopefully record at the turn of next year. Trying to find the time to slow down and record. I feel like we have a lot of songs, so I'm real excited about that.

cMW: May God bless you in the work that you do.
Chris: Thank you so much!
- Melissa Miles
August 2003
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