Chris Tomlin was destined to be salt and light. What else would you expect from a Christian singer who grew up in Grand Saline—the "Salt Capital of Texas"?
"Morton Salt is mined in our little town of 2,500," says Tomlin, whose string of praise-and-worship hits has made him one of the contemporary church's most influential artists. "Every summer we looked forward to the Salt Festival, which came with our own Salt Queen, salt parade, and salt rodeo."
One of three sons to a working-class couple, Tomlin dreamed of becoming a country singer ("Willie Nelson songs were my cup of tea"). But he found his niche writing and performing Bible-driven songs intended to edify the church.
These days, it's hard to participate in a contemporary worship service or listen to Christian radio without being greeted by Tomlin's distinctive sound. He's a winner of multiple Dove Awards and a regular on the popular Passion concert and conference tour. Millions sing along each week to songs such as "Indescribable," "How Great Is Our God," and "Holy Is the Lord." If every generation has its psalmists, Tomlin is certainly one of the leading voices for this day and age.
Tomlin's songs grow out of his time spent in God's Word and his deep bonds with other believers, like fellow worship artist Matt Redman and speaker and songwriter Louie Giglio.
"Matt, Louie, and I were on a tour last year called 'Indescribable,'" he says. "A lot of things came out of that tour, just being on the road with two of my best friends and people I respect. Songs for me come out of my relationships with people. I do a lot of co-writing with people I really trust. Other times they just come from the scriptures that are placed upon my heart."
Something looming large in Tomlin's heart these days is a desire to transform and expand our culture's understanding of worship. And that hope is proclaimed clearly on his latest CD, See the Morning. The CD's title was inspired, in part, by Tomlin's reflections on
As Tomlin studied Scripture, it dawned on him that many significant biblical events took place in the morning hours, including the parting of the Red Sea; the raining of the manna from heaven; the collapse of the walls of Jericho; David calling out to God throughout the Psalms; and the resurrection of Christ.
"The morning is a symbol of freshness, of starting over, of things brand new," the singer says. "Though people may be in a really hard place right now, and feel they're in the dark of their lives, the morning is coming. God is as faithful as the rising sun."
The CD's first hit single, "Made to Worship," has already inspired listeners with the profound truth that, despite life's messiness, we have a purpose that transcends all of our earthly struggles. In addition, the album's opening track, "How Can I Keep from Singing" (a rendition of the 1860 hymn by Robert Lowry) and the closing track, "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" (a powerful reworking of perhaps the best-known hymn of all time) reveal Tomlin's ability to connect the church's devotion of the past to today's modern expressions of worship.
"Glory in the Highest," another track on
"People at first told me, 'That song should be on a Christmas record.'" he says. "But I feel 'Glory in the Highest' is a statement not just for Christmas but for all of life. I love taking something people maybe think is just a holiday expression, and saying, 'This is our whole life! This is what we are created to do—to give God glory.'"
After more than 15 years of writing songs for the church, Tomlin has touched millions with his music. Still, he fears the message of the lyrics often fails to transform the lives of those who move their lips, clap their hands, and raise their arms.
"We continue to make worship more complicated, especially in our me-centered American culture," he says. "We spin the aspect of worship more and more into what we want and what we want of people, and how we think it should be. We're such a selfish society."
He pauses, searching for a less-abrasive way to share his passion. "The deal about worship is that the heart of it is what pleases God, not what pleases us. We do get amazing benefits out of worshiping God—our souls are filled up, we get life. But the purpose isn't so I can feel better about myself. Worship, in its simplest sense, is giving our lives to God … the fruit of lips that praise His name."
Tomlin admits he feels so strongly about the subject because, as a worship leader, he has to constantly check his own motivations. He finds it challenging to balance the concept of being not just a worship leader, but also a celebrity. He tries to maintain a proper perspective by staying rooted in the salt and light of his Grand Saline heritage, and with the people who comprise his inner circle of family and friends.
Single and now living in Austin, Texas—where he serves as lead worshiper at the vibrant Austin Stone Community Church—the 34-year-old artist feels he's stayed close to his lifelong identity and "doesn't believe the press too much" when it comes to his success.
"My journey has been years and years of just being faithful where God puts me," he says. "He's been preparing my heart for moments like this, where people recognize me more, and it really doesn't have that much effect on me.
"When I play music I want to use every minute I've got for God's glory. I don't want people to walk away saying, 'Wow, Chris Tomlin's amazing,' but rather, 'God is amazing.'"
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