March 9th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Chris Tomlin, king of the sing-along

By Eric Marrapodi and Tom Foreman, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='EricCNNBelief'] [twitter-follow screen_name='tomforemancnn']

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. MARY


    March 29, 2013 at 6:15 am |
  2. Bill

    Does jeebus play a Strat or a Les Paul?

    March 28, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  3. Worship Him!


    March 28, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Science

      Worship Him! ................................................ can you read a map ?

      Best Map Ever Made of Universe's Oldest Light: Planck Mission Brings Universe Into Sharp Focus

      Mar. 21, 2013 — The Planck space mission has released the most accurate and detailed map ever made of the oldest light in the universe, revealing new information about its age, contents and origins.


      March 28, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  4. Golijat

    Be paid weekly and earn like a boss! I just got a gorgeous Mercedes from having made $7988 this – 4 weeks past and just over ten grand last month. Without any doubt, this is the easiest work I've ever done. I began this 3 months ago and immediately made myself more than $85... per hour. This is what I do Rich45.cℴm

    March 27, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
  5. Sarah

    Chris Tomlin's music is really stinky. Total cheese. Phew. Someone clean out the fridge of Tomlin sappiness and put some real rock on.

    March 27, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  6. MandoZink

    The "most widely sung music on the planet today" is probably a bit overreaching. Possibly in certain areas of the heavily christian world. I would bet that a few decades ago, Paul McCartney and John Lennon's songs were being sung all OVER the world by at least 30 – 50 times as many people.

    Speaking of bets, and I'm not really a betting man, here's my take on Pascal' Wager:
    1. Line up all of the gods that man has had since we started plugging the gaps of our ignorance with myths.
    2. Notice there are thousands.
    3. Pick one, knowing the odds are you are doomed!
    4. Now cheat and pick all of them.

    Oh darn. It's God's lottery. He'll make you stop after number 3.

    March 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  7. How great is our God


    March 27, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • Sarah

      Chris Tomlin's music is really stinky. Total cheese. Phew. Ick. Someone clean out the fridge of Tomlin sappiness and put some real rock on.

      March 27, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  8. Just call me Lucifer

    Too creepy for me. Are they really that afraid of death that they kiss an invisible mans hole?

    March 27, 2013 at 5:44 am |
  9. Science

    Looks like that funky talking snake ?........................is the fairy in the fossil bed ?

    Strange Spaghetti-Shaped Creature Is Missing Link: Discovery Pushes Fossil Record Back 200 Million Years

    Mar. 13, 2013 — Canada's 505 million year-old Burgess Shale fossil beds, located in Yoho National Park, have yielded yet another major scientific discovery - this time with the unearthing of a strange spaghetti-shaped creature.


    March 26, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • dream on!

      why do you love fantasies?

      March 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • MandoZink

      And these invertebrates still live on today, not just in the hearts and minds of their followers.


      March 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  10. Inspirational

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.
    Serenity Prayer

    March 25, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Inspirational ......................................read below for true inspiration.

      God LOST the origin debate........................... so facts are.............. there is no god required to take sides !

      \Dover Trial Transcripts............................................. FACTS.

      Below are the complete transcripts from the Dover Trial. Thanks to our friends at the National Center for Science Education for helping us fill in the missing transcripts.


      March 26, 2013 at 8:18 am |
    • Saraswati

      I'm not religious but I've always thought the general idea of that saying was a good one. There are several secular versions of this prayer available or non-theists can make up their own:

      Practice the serenity to accept the things you cannot change,
      The courage to change the things you can,
      And the wisdom to know the difference.

      March 26, 2013 at 8:25 am |
    • Thai Researchers Discover 100-Million-Year-Old Crocodile Fossile

      The fairy in the sky a fossil yet ?


      March 26, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Science

      And facts works too .

      News Release

      3-D structure of the evolved enzyme (an RNA ligase), using 10 overlaid snapshots. In the top region, the overlays show the range of bending and folding flexibility in the amino acid chain that forms the molecule. The two gray balls are zinc ions. (University of Minnesota)

      University of Minnesota researchers unveil first artificial enzyme created by evolution in a test tube

      Media Note: To request high resolution images of Dr. Seelig and/or of a 3D structure of the evolved enzyme, please contact Matt Hodson at mjhodson@umn.edu.


      March 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Holy Week begins

    Mankind's greatest redemption began!!!

    March 24, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  12. Ray of Hope

    The next day, the news that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem swept through the city. A large crowd took palm branches and went down the road to meet him. They shouted, "Praise God! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hail to the King of Israel."

    ~ John 12:12-13

    March 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Pip

      After reading this post im defiantly going the atheist route

      March 25, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Lindsey Brutus

      Amen!! There is hope through Jesus Christ!!

      March 26, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  13. Lindsay

    We all worship something- it's interesting and ironic that this type of atheism has become it's own religion.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Saraswati

      "We all worship something"

      Everyone wants to believe their vice or weakness is universal. It makes you feel less week. People who enjoy hurting others convince themselves that really everyone else is the same but just doesn't express it. The selfish have to believe everyone else is just expressing another form of selfishness. Even battered women who don't leave cling to the myth that "it could happen to anyone." Just because you have a weakness, in this case the need to worship, does not mean everyone shares it.

      March 27, 2013 at 5:51 am |
  14. End Religion

    This Palm Sunday, thank an atheist for helping set you free!

    March 24, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • History Channel's "The Bible" Parts 3 & 4 - In Under 11 Minutes!


      March 24, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • mm77

      Atheist (like anybody else) will have a chance to recognize there is God. Before they die or after they die...it is not a matter of "if", but of "when".

      March 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Celebrating Palm Sunday
    March 23, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • Zingo

      I bet you "celebrate" with your palm all the time.

      March 23, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  16. Richard Cranium

    Which god?

    March 23, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  17. Worship Him!

    He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God... Psalm 40:3

    As the birds renew their singing and butterflies flitter about just-emerging flowers, all Creation brings glory to God!

    March 23, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • He is The Great I AM

      El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty)
      El Elyon (The Most High God)
      Adonai (Lord, Master)
      Yahweh (Lord, Jehovah)
      Jehovah Nissi (The Lord My Banner)
      Jehovah-Raah (The Lord My Shepherd)
      Jehovah Rapha (The Lord That Heals)
      Jehovah Shammah (The Lord Is There)
      Jehovah Tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness)
      Jehovah Mekoddishkem (The Lord Who Sanctifies You)
      El Olam (The Everlasting God)
      Elohim (God)
      Qanna (Jealous)
      Jehovah Jireh (The Lord Will Provide)
      Jehovah Shalom (The Lord Is Peace)
      Jehovah Sabaoth (The Lord of Hosts)

      March 23, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Bill

      "He put a new song in my mouth"

      I bet he put something else too!

      March 28, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  18. Men of wisdom

    You said– As Christians, we need to humble ourselves and tremble at God’s Word (Isaiah 66:1–2). And, if we boast at all, it should be about our Lord and His Cross by which we have received the forgiveness of our sins (Galatians 6:14). We should follow the example of John the Baptist when he said about Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
    To that we say-well said!!, Thank you!

    March 23, 2013 at 7:08 am |
  19. K3MP0

    this is some funny stuff.

    March 23, 2013 at 6:29 am |
  20. Holy Holy is He


    March 17, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
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About this blog

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.