March 9th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Chris Tomlin, king of the sing-along

By Eric Marrapodi and Tom Foreman, CNN
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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. Keith

    I dont' know which is worse the deluded or those that fool them.

    April 8, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • Kilto

      There are so many great songs from this artist. My favorite songs are I Will Follow and The Way I Was Made by Chris Tomlin.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:19 am |
    • Jennifer

      Why would anyone like such cheesy stinky odoriferous "music" of this untalented Chris Tomlin dweeb anyway? Plug your nose and cover your ears if you have to be in range of it; he offends so many senses.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • Kilto

      Chris Tomlin songs are way better than the crap you hear on the radio nowadays. Most of the artists are auto tuned to death and sounds horrible.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • sam stone

      i think the deluded are worse.....they voluntarily delude themselves. those that feed on them are merely shearing the sheep.....if god didn't want them to be hoodwinked, he would have given them common sense

      April 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  2. Regina

    I Like To Listen To Gospel Music To Prepare My Heart Before I Go Into Church Because It Helps Me To Stay Focused On God. Chris Keep Up The Great Work.- PS "People Have Gone Crazy" it's because Jesus is real. He is Not On A Cross Anymore, He is Alive & Well.

    April 8, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Victoria

      Chris Tomlin's Music Stinks Much Worse Than Capitalizing The First Letter Of Every Word Does But Regina Stinks Badly Too.

      April 9, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  3. gango

    Awesome! A story about a positive guy and a positive message who loves God as a Christian. How did CNN let this story slip by?

    April 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  4. For God so loved the world...


    April 7, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  5. Kilto

    To Elaine. you can suck my big plaintain!!! You know you wanna to, right? You hore...You wanna correct my grammar too??

    April 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  6. Kilto

    You guys who are dissing Chris Tomlin are stupid. All you atheists and agnostics have nothing better to do than come to christian articles and bash people for no reason. I don't see you doing this to Islam articles or any other articles for that matter. I think the truth has gotten you to act crazy. How the hell can you believe in the big bang theory when you atheists don't believe in anything at all? Your afraid of the truth that there is a God and he is more powerful and majestic then all you self proclaimed atheists and agnostics combined. Why don't you get together and eat %^$^!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 7, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Victoria

      You ate it all up before we could. "It" is the religion that you swallowed despite how much it stank.

      April 9, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Kilto

      How old are you five? Practice Abstinence!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 9, 2013 at 2:42 am |
    • sam stone

      Kilto: First of all, atheists do not "believe in nothing". Secondly, the articles are primarily about christianity because christianity is the dominent religion in the United States. If you want to love god, have at it. If you want to evangelize or use your faith to deny other their civil rights, we are going to have a problem.

      April 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • sam stone

      thirdly, it seems like you are more afraid of the possibility of no god. as far as your last statement....well.....let's just agree it was your intellectual peak.

      April 17, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Dennis

    Oh, man, what awful "music" this guy Tomlin does. Put a clothespin on your nose if you have to be in range of him singing. Holy stinky.

    April 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
  8. judy

    for the people who say they never heard of him/ they dont know who chris is / or dont listen to him/ bet ya happy birthday wins/ what are you doing here? why comment on something you know nothing about?. take your antagonistic lonley little empty life somewhere not christian..listen to your happy birthday cd all night. millions of us are happy without you..everyone wont beleive. maybe you are one of them. go have dinner with the spagetti monster. its his birthday. faith alone in Christ alone.you will have nobody to blame but yourself. and when you enter in to the throne room spagetti wont be there. we stand alone.God setteled the issue of eternity without you or me. you are a fool to say there is no God. have you noticed beleivers in Christ dont bother going to websites to hate on you. it doesn't serve you well either.

    April 6, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Elaine

      Judy, better ask your god to help you with your grammar and spelling, you pathetically stupid beotch.

      Chris Tomlin's music really stinks, and not in a good way like extra old cheddar. His singing is of the really putrid hold-your-nose kind.

      April 6, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • sam stone

      christians do refer to their faith when they attempt to deny a portion of the population their civil rights. they do attempt to get organized prayer in schools, they attempt to teach this pseudo-science of creationism taught in school. so, do not imply that christians are minding their own business, when they certainly are not

      April 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      perhaps we are fools for saying their is no god. but, you are a bigger fool for implying yours sis the correct one.

      April 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  9. Paul

    Amen .

    April 4, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • Timothy


      April 4, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  10. Vadik-Quienivic

    название домена херовое

    April 3, 2013 at 3:59 am |
  11. Ben

    Reblogged this on My Thoughts and commented:
    The reason is simple... his humility.

    April 2, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  12. granny13 critiques music


    April 2, 2013 at 2:01 am |
    • Really?

      Ah, the irony, granny 13 has a 50 dB HL

      April 2, 2013 at 2:06 am |
    • tallulah13

      If you are talking about me, I've never heard of this guy. It's not my sort of music. But then, I don't listen to the radio anymore because everything is over-processed drivel anymore. Ha! I guess I am a granny! "You kids and your top 40 nonsense! Back in my day we had punk and heavy metal! And we liked it... Now get off my lawn!"

      Anyway I doubt that his music is sung more than "happy birthday". Calling him the "most sung artist on the planet" seems far-fetched. Perhaps he is the highest paid christian songwriter, but there is no way to measure how many times any given song is sung on the planet, just by people singing in the shower or along with the radio.

      April 2, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • UnashamedJesusFreak

      Chris's music is more than fancy lyrics and cool instrumental. His music moves my heart and draws me closer to Jesus. I pray he keeps writing music and creating music.

      April 2, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • tallulah13

      That has absolutely nothing to do with what I said. There is no way to measure how often a song is sung, because not every song is sung in a place where it can be counted. To claim that he is the most sung artist on the planet cannot be factually supported.

      April 3, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Dan N

      Actually, let me shed some light on the "counting". CCLI is to Christian artists what ASCAP and BMI are to "the rest of the world". They have very specific guidelines for tracking "plays", and paying out royalties to Christian artists.

      I've personally played on a CCLI-registered Christian album but more importantly I attend a church that is a CCLI-member. CCLI member churches pay an annual fee for being a "member" (which gives you copyright permissions to perform or play recordings of the songs), and also must track songs that are played and performed (and submit them at the end of the tracking period), generally for one 3- or 6-month period every 2.5 years. CCLI then uses these partial tracking results, in mass aggregate, to determine "plays" and royalty payouts to the song authors, producers, publishers, etc. So, yes, actually they get pretty accurate numbers on how many people are listening/singing to these songs.

      So, yes, I agree with tallulah13 that there's never any way to truly track how often every song is "sung", but it CAN be tracked based upon how often the song is "performed" and that performance is reported, and then it can be multiplied by supposed "average" church attendances to get surprisingly accurate numbers. No, CCLI doesn't track "shower singing". But neither does anyone else.

      April 7, 2013 at 1:50 am |
    • DanRead

      @tallulah13 The US has a population of ~313 million. That means that any given week 6 million will celebrate a birthday. Generously assuming that each person has a birthday recognition while easily assuming that the traditional version of "Happy Birthday" is sung, I would say it is safe to predict that there are about 60 million people who sing "Happy Birthday" any given week, at least twice the number of Tomlin (within the US).

      However, to claim that Mildred and Patty Hill's "Good Morning To All" song (of which "Happy Birthday" is based) makes them the most sung artists on the planet seems a bit far-fetched as well, since that song was published in 1893 and has had more than a century of circulation and tradition to spread its roots across America.

      We also need to take into account that the authors of this article made use of the word "planet" yet they only used American mainstream media to back their claims. So perhaps it is safe to say that they used a word of exaggeration to make their point that Chris Tomlin is a giant in the music industry. (Is he a literal giant? No. He's 5' something)

      April 9, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  13. tallulah13

    All kidding aside, I wonder how it stacks up against "Happy Birthday to You", a song that is not limited to Sundays or one particular religion.

    April 2, 2013 at 1:34 am |
    • tallulah13

      By it, I mean the song library of Chris Tomlin, a guy whose music I have never even heard.

      April 2, 2013 at 1:35 am |
  14. tallulah13

    Hmm. I wonder if they have numbers on how many people are singing that "Hoverround" song from the commercial. I bet that song would give this guy a run for the money.

    April 1, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  15. Carrie

    I love this guys music! So glad God is using him as a vessel to reach people through his music.

    April 1, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  16. tony

    Intelligence. Lacking it, or having it, and realizing that those of the former will try and corrupt your childrens' minds.

    March 31, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  17. People Have Gone Crazy

    What is it about Jesus that causes people to either love Him or go absolutely crazy with hate toward Him and His followers?

    March 31, 2013 at 8:15 am |
    • Lashae

      He's just that influential and powerful 🙂

      April 1, 2013 at 12:46 am |
    • TANK!!!!

      How does one lover or hate a guy who's been dead for two millenia?

      April 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • EG

      Thats the thing. HE IS NOT DEAD. HE IS ALIVE 🙂

      April 2, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Patricia Rife

      Christ's TRUTH: and truth will set you FREE

      April 4, 2013 at 5:56 am |
    • Science

      PR the truth you are looking for maybe ?


      Origin of Life: Natural Cause no god(s) required.

      Hypothesis Traces First Protocells Back to Emergence of Cell Membrane Bioenergetics

      December 20, 2012 — A coherent pathway – which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells – has been traced for the ...


      April 4, 2013 at 6:21 am |
    • WASP

      @science: mourning science 🙂

      here is something cool. scienctists discovered the building block guanine one of the four markers in our DNA on an asteroid.
      DNA is comprised of
      A = Adenine
      T = Thymine
      C = Cytosine
      G = Guanine

      now if you have asteroids pelting the earth that are carrying these building blocks then we are aliens. lmfao
      i still enjoy ancient alien thoeries, their some much more fun than some invisible doomsday god.

      April 4, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • Science

      Morning WASP

      And the lastest one had RNA.................................... OK


      Welcome to the list by the way !

      April 4, 2013 at 6:57 am |
    • Science

      Hey WASP just wanted to mention this................ your moderated post got .......................reposted already on be nice !


      The LIST !


      April 4, 2013 at 9:23 am |
  18. Good Friday


    March 29, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • Science

      Hey good Friday.............................Please share at mass on Sunday

      Scientists say they've found a "God particle"


      March 30, 2013 at 5:58 am |
  19. MARY


    March 29, 2013 at 6:31 am |
  20. MARY

    Chris tomlin is the best singer and because you have no taste it doesn't

    March 29, 2013 at 6:23 am |
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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.