Chris Tomlin

The eldest of three boys, Chris Tomlin was born in Grand Saline, Texas in 1972. At the age of eleven, he contracted mono. Taking pity on the boy, his father handed him his very first guitar. Chris dropped the needle on some old Willie Nelson records and thatís how he learned to play. At the age of fourteen, Tomlin wrote his first worship song, not knowing that he would one day pen some of the most sung songs of all time: ďHow Great Is Our God,Ē ďHoly Is the Lord,Ē and ďAmazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).Ē In November 2010 at the age of 38, he married his girlfriend of two years, Lauren Bricken. Now on staff at Passion City Church in Atlanta , Tomlin finds himself performing in sold out stadiums around the world. He spoke with Servant editor Phil Callaway about the early days, great hymns, and lifeís surprises.

SERVANT: Hello Chris. We appreciate you taking the time to do this. Where are you right now?

Chris Tomlin: Iím in Texas today.

Howís married life?

Itís great. Weíre about four months in and itís going really well.

Well, congratulations.

Thank you.

Not to put a damper on the celebration, but are you ever a little alarmed to see how the work youíre involved in can chew up and spit out a lot of marriages?

For sure. I see it around me all the time.

What are you doing to insure that your legacy is one of commitment to each other?

Weíre just newly married so weíre working all these things out and enjoying each other. At the moment itís as wonderful as it can be. Weíre definitely aware of all that. We waited until a lot later in life so we understand better what a commitment is and what weíre walking into maybe than if we were twenty.

Was part of the waiting just a result of what youíve been up to? Not a lot of time for romance?

I think so. Youíre never in one place very long so, yeah, it definitely took longer than I thought it would. But itís amazing when it happens and you realize youíre in for a good thing.

Well, again, congrats. How did you get involved in leading worship? Was this something you always knew youíd do?

I didnít pick this. It kind of picked me. As a kid, I would pray to God and ask what He wanted me to do. I was saved at a young age and had a great desire to follow God. I was really focused on that through my whole life, even as a kid and through high school. I played at my church every once in a while, but thatís not a good gauge, because everybody loves you at your church. All the grandmas are like, ďOh, heís great!Ē So you donít know if youíre any good. But thereís a guy at my church who traveled as an evangelist. Heís a good friend of my family. He took me with him one time and said, ďYou can help me sell tapes and set up.Ē So I went and there were about 500 youth there. It was enormous to me. I lived in a very small town, about 2000 people. In the middle of the concert, he said, ďI have a good friend here, Chris, and heís going to play for you a little bit.Ē We had a three-hour drive there and he never mentioned it to me. He had his keyboard up there and I was just learning to play the piano. I was just terrible.

I thought you said he was a good friend.

[Laughs.] But that started it, and God used it. Later, that same guy said that God really wanted him to go pick me up that day. By the time I was a junior in college, I was travelling all the time and leading worship at different things. I was beginning to understand that I had a gift for leading worship. I felt I had a gift to connect to people. I remember praying when I was an eighth grader, ďGod, whatever You want me to do, I want to be available for the rest of my life. Iíll follow You wherever You want me to go.Ē God honored that prayer. Even when I tried to do other things, He reminded me of that prayer and brought me back to it. It was never ďGod would you please make me a musician, I really want to write songs, I really want to be on stage.Ē It was God, here I am, Iím just available to you and open to you whatever you want me to do.Ē And from that simple prayer as a 14-year-old kid God began to move mountains to make it work with music.

What did you think youíd do in life?

I went to school for many things. I thought I would be a physical therapist, because I figured I could make a lot of money and I knew how to do it. I had such trouble with just doing music. How do you just do that? Itís not the way youíre brought up. My dad said, ďWhatever you do, Chris, just get me a diploma. This music thingís good. Itís a nice hobby. Iím sorry I got you in it.Ē It came back to that prayer that Iíd do whatever God wanted me to do and I really sensed Him leading.

How are things going with the new album?

Weíve been floored by the responseóone indication whether people like it or not, of course, is sales. And itís been the best ever for us in all these years, which weíre just grateful for. But also the feedback from some of the songs. Some of them arenít going to be great radio singles but theyíre some of the most important songs on the record especially for the church. People are telling us how God has used a particular song. They are really diving into the album, not just buying a couple of singles here and there but theyíre using some of the songs for church. Thatís always my heart and hope in the midst of everything. And the title song, ďIf Our God Is For Us,Ē is just an explosion across every avenue, on our tours, on the radio, in the churches, itís just a real privilege to be a part of that song.

Why do you think those lyrics stir that kind of a response?

Itís not just a lyric, itís the Scripture, Romans 8: ďIf God is for us, who can be against us?Ē What a great hope. In the midst of all that can come at you in life and the struggles we can be reminded, I know God is for me. My hope is that every time people pick up that album and see that cover, theyíll rememberóitís true: God is for us and therefore... I left it open-ended because I want people to fill in the blank.

Did the music naturally progress out of your church experience? Was it a response to something that was missing or that you saw a need for?

I donít know if it was missing but I realized early on that God had given me a real connection with people and worship. I didnít know what Ďworshipí really was, I didnít know what the term Ďworship leaderí meant. I would sing in my little very traditional church in Texas and I loved it when people sang along. I loved choosing songs that people knew and leading them in that way. I didnít really get a kick out of just getting up and performing but I really enjoyed peopleís response and I sensed that as a kid. It seemed like God was gifting and wiring me that way. If you come to a concert itís all of us together, itís about gathering together to worship God and thatís what I write my songs for. So when I realized that God had given me a gift to write music and craft songs in that way, thatís all Iíve ever done really.

Where on a scale of one to ten has all of this been in the surprise category? Did you sit there as a kid thinking, yeah, Iím probably going to do this?

No. As a kid I loved playing music but it wasnít something I expected to really do for my livelihood. My dad taught me to play guitar and told me it was just a hobby and I needed to go to school and get a real job and those kind of things. Then when I did go to school I was getting the opportunity to go and play at other churches and people were asking me to play for their youth groups and weekend things and by the time I was a senior in college I was traveling almost every weekend and playing somewhere. I didnít have a band, didnít have a CD, just had my guitar and a Toyota Forerunner and I was cruising around and it was really a great time, a great building of my faith because when I realized this was something God had given me, I wanted to step out in faith and do this. Iíve been doing it ever since and I canít believe how it has taken me down all these different paths.

Do you ever look back and think, man, Iíve been really amazing? Iíve carefully calculated this thing?

[Laughs.] Noó ďI tried out in college for a singing group and the director said, ĎYouíll do anything in life but sing, Chris.í ... So this is pretty cool. I never felt like a great singer, but if God could use this voice to lead people to worship God, then Iím grateful for that.Ēthatís how you know itís the Lord when you look back and think, How in the world did this happen? And thatís what I tell people when I get the chance to mentor or teachóyou want to look back and have that WOW moment. You donít want to look back and go, ďItís worked perfectly to plan.Ē Because then somehow itís your glory involved in that. I can look back and just see Godís hand in so many ways and it couldnít be unless God had come through and let this happen and opened these doors. And Iíve just tried to be faithful to walk in it and take any opportunity Iíve had to make decisions along the way that hopefully were smart and had the wisdom God gives, from going from just me into a band, and always being in the church. Ever since Iíve been travelling Iíve been leading worship at a church and thatís just part of who we are. On the plane yesterday, I was like, ďLord, this is amazing.Ē I still havenít gotten over it and I never want to get over it. I absolutely love what I do. God lets me do it and I can be successful at it. I was always thinking that you canít make a living saying youíre going to play music.

So I want to do what you do, Chris. How do I do that?

I get this question more than any other. No one likes the answer. The reason Iím here is because of God and simply making myself available to Him. God will move mountains to put you where He wants you. If He has something He wants you to say, He can give you a platform to do it.

What are you seeing when it comes to bridging the gap between the younger generation and the older?

I see a lot of passion in the church, especially in the younger generation. The beautiful thing about the church is that itís every one together. Traveling the world, you see young people with a great enthusiasm and passion for God. I think theyíre carrying the ball well in the sense of really wanting to not just be about gatherings and events. You can challenge the younger generation that they can make a difference in their world right now, that the church is more than just gathering together for a Bible study; yes, it is worship, it is singingóit is those things, itís sharing the Word. But itís also reaching to the least and bringing justice to the world. Thatís all part of worship. And thatís the beautiful thing, seeing the younger generation grab onto that. It really wasnít talked about much when I was younger. I see that transition and hopefully that will be a great thing coming as this younger generation moves into the next generation and the gap is closed. Those arenít fads or trends or styles that come and go. It is eternal. The spirit of Godís Word is eternal, the spirit in which we serve is eternal, Scripture has always taught how to be the church. Styles change from generation to generation; thatís just normal. But the heart and the spirit are what I think bridges the gap.

Have you had criticism about the music and style of worship?

I donít sense that much any more. Probably because Iím not in one place as much any more. Iím sure criticism is out there but itís few and far between. Even in our church itís all ages, the whole thingóitís just wonderful.

The singer Chris Rice said, ďAs a kid sitting in a pew week after week I had no idea how important these great hymns would be to my faith. I miss the days when our songs were written to teach and preserve theology rather than to become a radio hit.Ē Isnít there a danger in turning worship music into such a big industry?

Weíve done a record of hymns and they have always been important to me. Of course there can be a danger in becoming an industry and thatís weird in itself, but the beautiful thing is that when I first started releasing songs to radio it was a roadblock slammed in my face. They sent my songs back and said we donít play worship songs: thatís for church. And somehow we just kept being persistent and broke through and they started playing them and it caught on like wildfire. Out of every ten songs, maybe three or four of them were going to be worship songs written in the church. I think itís incredible. Everybody thinks we need to make a worship record now. I love it. The media has realized that this is what people want to hear and itís pretty exciting to me. There will always be people who use it the wrong way with wrong motives but it doesnít take away from the songs. It doesnít take away from the desire for people to have a real connection to God. It gives them a voice to praise Him. That wasnít happening even ten years ago.

Youíve been involved with something called onemillioncan.com.

Itís a movement that helps people flesh out what it means to love other people. Itís helping the least of these. Itís child saving surgery in Central America and clean water in African villages. Itís building a whole new Watoto village in Uganda , where all of the child soldiers are and rehabilitating them. Itís providing a way out for sex slaves in India . Itís translating the Word of God for people who have never heard it before, who have never read what weíve read. Itís a way to flesh out what this whole life is about and what it means to be a Christian.Ē

As you travel do you find the word ďChristianĒ isnít necessarily associated with Jesus?

Ya. Itís more associated with political ideas or religion and that is a shame because what itís all about is love. God loves us and we love Him. So we love our neighbors and the people He created. But itís not happening in the world. Places are on the brink of annihilating themselves. This is not a time to say ďOh weíve heard enough about the love of God so letís move on to something else.í Apparently we havenít figured it out yet. Itís not a tired idea. It is the only idea.

What keeps you going, writing that next song, going to the next concert?

I canít get it out of me. I love doing what Godís given me to do. He put that drive in me. But also the realization that I get to help people in their faith by writing a song that can reach out to someone Iíll never meet. Itís just amazing to me. People say itís just a song but it can really lift people up in their greatest times of need so I continue. I canít believe itís been over a decade of recording now. I never thought I would look ten years back and see that weíre at our best and itís going stronger than ever.

When all is said and done, what would you like to be remembered for many years from now?

[Long pause.] Thatís a really good question. Hopefully, I think the word faithful comes to mind: faithful to God, faithful to my family and friends, faithful to the gifts that God has given me, that people would say I wasnít just tossed here and there but I was steady and faithful. Maybe some of my songs will be remembered but I know for my wife and kids one day thatís not going to mean as much as who I was as a person and whether I was a faithful husband and dad. Thatís whatís important to me.

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