Chris Tomlin: The Man Behind the Music
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2003 15 Jan
His lyrics ring out in sanctuaries across the nation each Sunday: "Forever," "Kindness", "We Fall Down", "The Wonderful Cross", "Be Glorified", and "Famous One." His compositions have been recorded by the likes of Michael W. Smith and Petra, and can be found on over 800,000 Passion records. Who is this prolific songwriter? None other than Chris Tomlin.
Tomlin's own recordings, The Noise We Make and Not to Us have been enthusiastically received by worship and CCM audiences alike. Coming off a fall tour with Rebecca St. James, Tomlin is now transitioning to the role of lead worshipper at The Austin Stone Community Church, a brand new congregation based in Austin, Texas. He graciously took time from a busy fall schedule to give us a glimpse of the man behind the songs.
Crosswalk.com: This might be a little bit different from some of your other interviews in that I won't be focusing as much on your music, but more on your faith. I'd like to start at the most basic place--how did you come to know the Lord?
Chris Tomlin: Well, I grew up in a Christian home, and I can't really remember a time I did not believe in God in the most basic way. But then when I was 9 years old, I went to a little Southern Gospel concert down the road. My dad, who loved music, took me and that night was a real awakening point. That night, they gave an invitation to receive Christ as Savior and something was really pushing, pulling me and burning in my heart to do that, to really make that a commitment in my life. I did, and went back to my home church. I talked to my pastor about it and was baptized the next Sunday and began a walk with God.
There's always been these different points along the way where God has brought me to a renewed sense of that commitment, or even a deepening, every so many years. For example, when I was in eighth grade, in the middle of this worship service, I just left the service and went out back and kneeled down next to a tree and said, "God, I just want to let you know whatever you want for me for the rest of my life, I'll do it." I remember that prayer so vividly. I know God was stirring in me, just like when I was nine years old. And so it's been those kinds of deals throughout my life that have continued to deepen my faith.
Crosswalk.com: What has been your biggest challenge spiritually? What do you struggle with? Are there areas where you really feel like you want to grow further?
Chris Tomlin: Probably the biggest struggle is letting go of and seeing past the temporary things of this world: to latch on to what's important, to not be distracted by things like making more money, or being more popular, or being on a bigger stage. Those things really are just temporary, things that your flesh is after. Thankfully, God has put people in my life who have come in at the right time to say, "Chris, this is the way." I have friends who help me see that way, and help me go that way, to go after the things that are eternal and way more important and way bigger than temporal things. Being human, it's hard to see that sometimes when someone is throwing a bigger carrot in front of your face, you know? For some reason your flesh or human self is never satisfied; it always wants more.
Crosswalk.com: Where would you like to be in five years? How would you like your ministry to grow?
Chris Tomlin: I've just been so thankful for where we are at this time. I would never have believed our songs would influence the church the way it has, and I hope to continue. It's been amazing to just go out, traveling all over the world, and to hear people sing our songs. I know I hope to be part of a thriving church and I hope to have a strong ministry, traveling and playing.
I guess God has given me a gift and I want to use that and not be lazy, but to really be disciplined to continue to write songs. I want to say things that help people express their love for God, their devotion for God, their need for God, in the church. And then, as a band, we want to grow more together--I hope that in five years I'm sitting around a table with the same guys. We love to travel, but we want to find a balance and not neglect our home life.
I'm also helping to plant a church in Austin, Texas, and so I want to see in the next five years this church make a huge impact in that community in Austin. That's a big deal to me.
Crosswalk.com: What influences have shaped your songwriting? You have written so many great songs of such depth. Where do you draw your inspiration; how does that process take shape?
Chris Tomlin: I've been writing since I was a teenager and I think the Scriptures are the number one thing that has the most influence. I'll just see something in Scripture, like for "We Fall Down," it was Revelation 4. Psalm 136 really influenced "Forever" and Psalm 19 influenced "The Famous One."
But another big influence is the people God has surrounded me with. Jesse, my bass player, really helped me write these songs. I'll have a thought about a song and he'll help me finish it. He helps me focus a song and finish lyrically.
And then sometimes I get inspiration from simple things. Louie Giglio will usually send me some idea from his journal, like when he said, "Here's a thing I was writing down in my journal. See if this stirs anything in you: that all of you is more than enough for all of me for every thirst and every need," which became the song "Enough" on our record. I think as a songwriter, you need to be aware of everything around you.
But for me, it really comes back to Scripture. Our new record, Not to Us--I mean that whole theme was Psalm 115:1--"Not to us, oh Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory." I see these things and I try to think of a simple and creative way for people to sing them.
Crosswalk.com: I think you do a great job of that. Getting back to your walk a little bit, how do you stay grounded when you are on the road?
Chris Tomlin: Again, it comes down to those people that God surrounds me with. I have a Board of Directors that have set up some guidelines for us as a band, to pray together constantly, to be in a Bible study together. Right now I'm going through the book Wild at Heart. That's a thing I'm doing personally. But as a band, we try to pray together before we play every night, to say, "Hey, what's going on and is there anything we can pray for in each other's lives back home?"
I think growing up the way I grew up, it's pretty easy to stay grounded. I grew up in a very small town, with a very good family. I didn't grow up with a lot of hype or anything like. I wasn't a city boy, so I have pretty strong roots--kind of down home roots, I guess. I think that keeps me pretty humble.
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