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March 9th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Chris Tomlin, king of the sing-along

By Eric Marrapodi and Tom Foreman, CNN

Baltimore (CNN) - The capacity crowd at the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore is bouncing in unison to the most widely sung music on the planet today. The catwalk above the arena is shaking.

Chris Tomlin grabs the microphone and asks the crowd if they’re ready.

"I feel alive, on God's great dance floor!" He leads the packed venue in singing and jumping.

Tomlin is out touring the country with his latest studio album, “Burning Lights.” In January, it topped the Billboard 200 charts. But unlike those who've enjoyed performances by Beyonce, Johnny Cash and a host of others who've played this Baltimore hall, after these fans stream out the doors they will have ample opportunity to sing Tomlin's songs again, as one.

That is the secret to Tomlin’s success – the stage, the lights, the band - aren’t about him. As lively as his shows are, the point is not to get you inside the doors. The point is to get you singing in church.

“I strive for trying to write something that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing,” Tomlin explained before the show.

Tomlin is the undisputed king of worship music, a genre of Christian music sung on Sunday mornings all across the world and increasingly played on Christian radio stations. The music is simple, devotional and easy on the ears.

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“We would say that Chris is the most prolific songwriter in the United States now, in this past decade,” said Howard Rachinski, CEO of Christian Copyright Licensing International, the company that tracks what music is used in churches around the world.

In 2012, CCLI paid out $40 million to artists and musicians, and Tomlin got a healthy slice of that pie. Churches around the world used 128 songs he wrote or co-wrote last year, Rachinski said.

CCLI estimates that every Sunday in the United States, between 60,000 and 120,000 churches are singing Tomlin’s songs. By extrapolating that data, Rachinski says, “our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin's songs.”

In their last two reporting periods, Tomlin had the No. 1 most-sung song and five of the top 25.

Search YouTube for "How Great is Our God" or "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)." Black, white, Asian, big churches, small ones are all belting out Tomlin songs. A lot.

For perspective, consider Tomlin’s musical success against one secular counterpart. In 2012, Katy Perry's record sales dwarfed Tomlin’s, but Billboard reported her songs were played 1.4 million times on the radio. Using CCLI’s low-end calculation, Tomlin’s songs were played 3.12 million times in churches.

Growing up Tomlin

Chris Tomlin was reared in Grand Saline, Texas, heavily influenced by country music. His dad taught him to play the guitar.

“I learned all country music - Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, all those kind of guys. Those are what my dad played and I played. And I played at my church as well,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin went to college to study sports medicine. “I just didn't know the music would take me here. I loved it and I was getting opportunities to go play, and when I say go play I was starting to write songs of worship even (as) a young kid. I didn't know really what worship music was, what a worship leader was, any of that. I didn't know any of those terms,” he said.

Today, at 40 years old, he is the artist most associated with worship music.

While in college he began singing and writing in earnest. As a senior, he said, he was getting invitations to lead the music for Christian conferences with 10,000 students.

He knew his music was resonating with crowds when he got a call from EMI Publishing after his song “We Fall Down,” which was released in 1998, starting being  played in churches.

“I was just writing songs for the church and from there they just started taking off.”

The compositions are considerably different from pop music. They are simpler, and he takes pains to write them that way.

“I'm thinking as that comes out of my heart as a song of response, 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?”

Part of that process comes from his love of country music, the simplicity of that music and the stories those songs tell. His goal is to write songs that communicate what people would like to say to God.

“Now, that doesn't happen all the time. I mean, I write so many songs that you never hear because they are not any good.”

Tomlin is the worship pastor at Passion City Church in Atlanta. He leads worship there twice a month and beta tests all his new songs on the congregation. Tomlin is also a major draw as the worship leader of the Passion Conferences, a series of Christian conferences around the world. In January, the conference packed out the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with 60,000 college-age students. Billboard magazine noted the conference helped push up pre-sales of Tomlin’s latest CD.

His songs are so sought-after that, even before they're released on CD, they start showing up in CCLI’s online database.

“His songs have probably had the most immediate impact on churches that we have seen in history,” Rachinski said. “Even before you get to street release [of a CD], churches are already networked and engaged with his songs.”

Don’t look for a crossover

Other contemporary Christian musicians, as the music industry designates them, have crossed over to mainstream pop with some success. Tomlin said he has no designs on making that leap.

He also doesn’t need the money. Over the course of his career he’s sold 4.2 million albums, had 6 million digital downloads, a number of sold-out tours, and of course, the copyright royalties.

Tomlin said money isn't what motivates him to write and perform.

“I feel like I have a responsibility,  that God has given me a gift to write songs for his church that people listen to and that people are coming to expect now,” he said. “When I make a record I feel that responsibility that worship leaders, churches are going to say, 'Hey, are these some new songs we can sing in our church?' And I don't take that lightly, and I don't go, ‘Oh let's go do something else fun.’”

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“I haven't invented any new instruments, I haven't created new chords that no one has ever played. I play the same chord that every band plays, we play the same instruments up there, the melodies are melodies. The difference to me in the music is that I ask that God's presence be on it and that people, when they sing these songs, sense that God does something.”

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. I think when you step back from the mic and it is not about you - and yeah, the light may be on you, but this is about all of us singing. This is about a bigger story, it's about a greater story. It's about a greater name than my name. My name is on the ticket, but this is about a greater name.”

CNN's Oliver Janney, Chris Turner, and Dan Merica contributed to this post.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Music

soundoff (1,754 Responses)
  1. Captain Smurf

    Just another talentless hack spewing drivel into the ear holes of sheep. The fact that its music for team jeebus makes it even worse. They don't realize how accurate it is when they say god is their shepherd since they can't think for themselves and have to be lead, just like sheep. Maybe some day people will realize god (all of the versions) is just Santa Claus for adults.

    March 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Domine

      "Harmlessly passing your time in the grassland away" -Sheep by Pink Floyd

      Animals by Pink Floyd brilliantly outlines what happens when one just follows something mindlessly in an Orwellian sense. While the contexts are different. I do see Stalinism and Christianity on equal terms, as religions and what religion really is, an idea.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  2. James

    What's with all of the hate speech? If you don't like Christians or Christianity, stay away from them. All of this antagonism towards people of one faith has got to stop. Do you show such animosity towards people of all faiths or just people of the Christian faith?

    March 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Austin

      James, don't worry. If you go back a year in the blog history, you find familiar names. This is more than a hobby.

      The good thin is that people are wrestling with the word of God. How are we supposed to judge the unbeliever?

      Their behavior is normal. They are atheist, where there is nothing immoral about hating .

      March 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • Domine

      The only difference is that when you guys hate someone or something your faith calls for, you don't feel the slightest remorse.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      How can we stay away from christians and christianity? They want the laws to reflect their religion, they want the schools to teach their religion over science, they want their religion front and center in public life. They even ring bells loudly when they're having a meeting. Difficult to avoid and ignore.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Austin

      Domine,

      We don't hate you. We are sticking up for you in a spiritual battle where self worship, is a religion that follows after the God of this world, the enemy.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • duh

      Making millions in the name of Jesus may be American, but it's not Christian. Jesus of Nazareth would be appalled.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • duh

      Making millions in Jesus' name may be American, but it's not Christian. Jesus of Nazareth would be appalled.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • duh

      My apologies for the double post.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • Compulsive Christian Criticizer

      There's nothing that suggests that the real Jesus could carry a tune or even liked music.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  3. Austin

    Akira The new world order people need medication?

    Maybe you should get out a map and put a flag up everywhere NATO is involved, or everywhere the US has a military base, and then get out a map of the roman empire, and compare the two.

    Then, read the book of Daniel,and ask yourself......what is with Iran and china.

    Listen to Chuck Missler NATO on YouTube.

    March 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  4. duh

    Nothing like getting rich off of Jayzuss! Am I the only one who thinks Jesus of Nazareth would be appalled by people making millions and building monuments to themselves in his name?

    March 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Science

      Billions upon billions over 2000 years

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  5. Cope36

    HaHaHa Plucked a nerve!! Love being a Jesus freak!!

    March 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • End Religion

      A few reasons why religious people are so stupid:
      - do not understand Sunday is a day off for many people
      - they feel it's honorable to post on hobby/interest blogs while at work
      - do not understand time zones and/or that web sites may be accessed 24/7 by international visitors
      - do not understand that even within a single time zone humans may have different sleep habits
      - argue erroneously 10 times a day that Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists
      - cling to same arguments even after shown multiple lines of evidence and probabilistic reasoning to the contrary
      - they cannot understand the "reply" functionality of a blog
      - continually redefine common words to suit their needs
      - they use belief as an excuse for their bigotry and hatred

      March 10, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • .

      If plucking a nerve is something to be proud as a Christian about, I guess you are bursting with pride; isn't that a sin?

      March 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  6. Reality

    Christian music? It should be called Myth Music!!!

    Details available.

    March 10, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • James

      Is that what YOU think? Congratulations for expressing your faith. Now, if you would please stop harassing people for expressing their's

      March 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
  7. liv

    I'm so proud. There are tears in my eyes. It's not often Christian singers are noticed by the news or by Hollywood, no matter how much money they make. God Bless you Chris Tomlin. Keep the fire going.

    March 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • End Religion

      He's not being recognized for being a good Christian, he's had this story written because he is raking in YOUR money. That makes you weep in pride?

      March 10, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • Chad

      why are atheists compulsively driven to criticize Christianity and Christians for anything an everything?

      ever wonder why?

      March 10, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Science

      Chad's 2 cents worth of wisdom .

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • End Religion

      Top 10 Creationist Arguments
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSxgnu3Hww8&w=640&h=390]

      March 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • James

      Chad, It's the new racism. Can't discriminate because of nationality, color, gender, etc, so now people are focusing on religious discrimination.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • Captain Smurf

      James, you deluded muppet. People have been discriminated against based on religion forever. People get killed for not believing the right space ghost or having enough sense to see it all as BS. What you are seeing with atheists is closer to the civil rights/women's rights movements where a group that is actually being persecuted or discriminated against says enough and starts fighting back. The discrimination isn't in the direction you seem to think it is. The majority if atheists would leave you alone if you'd get your fairy tales out of our schools, city halls, and courts. Christians are not the persecuted minority like so many seem to think.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
    • Bob

      Chad-Rachel, it's partly because you double down (at least) on the nonsense output.

      And still no thigh gap?

      March 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      James, Christians in the USA are NOT persecuted. Add another delusion to your list.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • thought

      Refreshing isn't it? As for the ones who keep commenting...let them be. Doesn't change the fact that I happen to like Chris Tomlin's music. Great job Chris...blessings upon you and your ministry!

      March 10, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  8. Cope36

    To sooo Many of you that have commented on this and voiced your opinion about how God does not exist. Why should you care then, and why did you even take time out to notice or even read the article. The old saying if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. When this world ends for you, be sure to keep telling the ole mighty satan how great he is, and see if he is kind enough to save your butt from the flames he intends to leave you in for eternity, and by the way he has set up it so that you will "feel" the fire forever.

    March 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • tony

      To warn you off grooming our innocent children with your purely speculative and evidence-less crap. The most important reason there could possibly be

      March 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • End Religion

      Only Christians fear heel, dimwit. If we don't believe your childish notion of god, then we do not believe in Satan either. Your pascal's Wager is weak and possibly immoral, and fails to consider that YOUR soul is in great peril if none of the MANY other religions in the world are true. For atheists, we are risking nothing since we are quite comfortable it is all horseshit.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Just because a person does not believe in god does not mean they believe in, or worship, satan. There is no evidence for either. Keep your religion out of schools, funding for science, courts, politics, and public life in general and I doubt you'd hear from atheists.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Saving the earth,one pithy comment at a time

      It is always refreshing to see the delight religious folks feel when they can condemn non-beleivers to eternal fire.This confirms the desire of atheists to rid mankind of these hideous beliefs.But-you go with it,and go with your loving god.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Captain Smurf

      End Religion: the thing that they don't realize when they try to employ Pascal's wager is that the chances are actually far worse than they think it is. They operate under the idea that the choice is that their god exists or doesn't, and then forget the various other religions or even different flavors within their own sphere. EVERYONE'S chances are actually far worse than 50/50.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • End Religion

      smurf, yes, i tried to explain that to a nutter earlier today/yesterday and somehow that person couldn't get past the fact it wasn't 50/50. but we know that's one reason people are religious: they're stupid, they have trouble with infinity and probability

      March 10, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
  9. tony

    There's no business like "snow" business.

    March 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  10. tony

    Ya gotta wonder who the "I am a jealous god" was/is jealous of?

    March 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Chad

      Jealous a : intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness
      b : disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness
      2: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage
      3: vigilant in guarding a possession

      I would say that is pretty close, God simply does not us to waste our time worshiping any other so called "gods", He wants us to spend eternity with Him.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • Science

      Chad's 2 cents worth of wisdom .

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • End Religion

      God of Israel is jealous of the stronger Flying Spaghetti Monster, right Chad? Chad, did you ever get around to finding ot why midgets are the FSM's Chosen People?

      March 10, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • Jessica

      In this case, jealousy is not the same thing as envy. It doesn't mean that God covets something that someone else has/is. When the Bible says that He is jealous, it means that He loves us so much that he wants to protect the relationship He has with us, and He is angered by anyone or anything that tries to draw us away from Him.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • chuck

      Hey Tony. My understanding is that God was and continues to be a jealous God. However He is not jealous OF us, but FOR us. He desires us to want Him above everything else in our lives because He has what is best for us but he allows us to choose. I'm thankful for a God that loves me enough to be jealous for my affections.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • End Religion

      jessica, chuck, dress it up however you want. What in the world does a god need jealousy for, especially if he knows there really are no other gods. The idea he'd be jealous over anything is simply a giveaway that the bible is not god-inspired but simply men writing their own thoughts.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • Bob

      Chad(Rachel) gets so jealous when others get attention that he is Rachel too.

      How's that thigh workout coming along, Rachel-Chad? Still no gap?

      March 10, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • Bob

      Great point, ER.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Jessica, What is there that an omnipotent god cannot control? So would it need to worry or get jealous about its flock?

      March 10, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • G to the T

      "He desires us to want Him above everything else in our lives because He has what is best for us but he allows us to choose."
      Why would a "perfect" being want or desire anything?

      March 11, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  11. tony

    I think the endless December droning of carols in all the supermarkets throughout the land, beats this guys contribution a hundredfold.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  12. רחל

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d61LamkXfwk&w=640&h=390]

    March 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • God is love

      Wanna give a shout-out to Chris Tomlin for the wonderful worship songs.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • The Devil

      Knows the music suks

      March 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • @peace with my faith

      :)

      March 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • thought

      Love this song, thanks for posting!

      March 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  13. kevobx

    What is culture, that is a cult ure is the big picture. The most high God never mentioned the word culture.(Jeremiah 17:4)

    March 10, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • End Religion

      ...moderated comments are reposted...

      "Science is interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off." – Richard Dawkins

      March 10, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  14. kevobx

    Thou is the white man (Esau). And Thee is the black man (Jacob). *John 4:24 God is a Spirit: *Galatians 5:18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • Austin

      Kevobx, Esau was red and hairy. Where are you scriptures for white and black?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • End Religion

      Does Esau in Genesis 25:25 who "came out red, all over like an hairy garment" count as a creature or maybe just a human with Hypertrichosis?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • End Religion

      ...moderated comments are reposted...

      Religion, for many, helps cloak their hatred. Yours is right out in the open, eh?

      Christianity: The belief that a Cosmic Winged Jewish Zombie, who is his own Father and virtuously r@ped his own 12 year old mother, can make you live forever in some other dimension if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood while telepathically telling him that you accept him as your Master so that he will remove an evil force from your soul, which is present in all humanity because a woman he made out of one rib bone and a mound of dirt was tricked into eating fruit from a magical tree by a talking snake.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  15. GAW

    CCM is a way to keep 'em down on the farm / After they've seen Paree. Evangelicals have all kind of ways to adapt themselves to the culture in order to keep em in the fold.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  16. yosemite sam

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Q1_7KMDz8&w=640&h=390]

    March 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  17. yosemite sam

    So he's a professional lie-monger.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Pastafairian

    What investigation have you done to reject the FSM as the one true god? Musical taste is really not a christian strong point, Gregorian Chants have been known to make people bazzooka barf.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • lol??

      Those are fly specks on yer food, not pepper, you moron.

      March 10, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  19. Austin

    Chris Tomlin is always on.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • pam

      So are certain electronic gadgets in the toy department of certain stores. Pretty annoying really.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  20. Owen

    Chris Tomlin sucks and Christian music does too. It really, really stinks. Super cheesy, schmaltzy stuff without any balls -music for the stupid and the hard of smelling.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Austin

      So true bro.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.