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. chris

    the formula for mass appeal is relatively simple: just sacrifice Jesus, and everyone can feel good. In fairness I do not think this is the intent of writers like Tomlin - which of his songs, though, challenge to more than feel-good about how "great" "our" "God" is? (and some are better than others)

    April 18, 2013 at 6:09 am |
  2. Elaine

    All Tomlin seems to have is a personal responsibility to spew stinky Christian music at people. Ick. He might well be a prince but he sure ain't no "king". Play some real rock already.

    April 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  3. chris

    God is greater! While some of his anthems seem to truly reflect the God/messiah/Jesus who was/is/will be .... others should seriously call into question the difference between smatterings of truth, which seem primarily about making us feel good about ourselves; and where true praise/worship calls to so much more than sincere sing-along. To his credit, he doesn't seem to discount his responsibility, even as doesn't seem to practically recognize there is a crucial difference!

    April 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Elaine

      All Tomlin seems to have is a responsibility to spew stinky Christian music at people. Ick. He might well be a prince but he sure ain't no "king". Play some real rock already.

      April 17, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  4. Beyonce Tour

    Hello. I agree. Looking forward to going to her next concert. Beyonce Tour http://www.ecitytickets.com/Beyonce-Tickets

    April 14, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Austin

      what is the name of the alter ego that possess her on stage? oh ya its sasha.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • Austin


      April 15, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  5. Scarbourough fair

    Tell her to find me an acre of land, parsley sage rosemary and thyme, between the salt water and the sea strand...then she'll be a true love of mine.

    April 14, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  6. JesusNotReligion

    Through Chris Tomlin's music (and many, many others) the gospel is reaching an incredibly immense demagraphic of young people of all races around the globe who will be the leaders of the next generation...This will coincide with the fast-growing number of sceintists who can no longer, in good conscience (you know, that God-given soul-sense of right and wrong based on an Absolute Source of Truth) prop up the straw-man of atheistic evolution/naturalism...I only hope I am here for another 30 years to see the gospel of 'Jesus not religion' overtake the masses, filling the vacuum created by the last 2 generations (over the last 40 years). A vacuum sustained by one lie upon another by those whose post-modern, God-hating agenda will soon fall and shatter like good ol' humpty dumpty...and the yoke will be on the faces of those who "supressed the truth...and worshipped the creation rather than the Creator" (Romans 1)...Let the pagan panic begin as the Day of the Lord draws near...and panic they will! So, as Jesus said: "Repent or perish, for the Kingdom of God is at hand"...

    April 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • Science

      Where do morals come from?

      By Kelly Murray, CNN


      Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

      Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

      Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
      bears his name as the “God particle.”


      Pope praises science, but insists God created world updated Thur October 28, 2010
      Stephen Hawking is wrong, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday – God did create the universe. The pope didn't actually mention the world-famous scientist, who argues in a book published last month that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme... \



      Heaven is 'a fairy story,' scientist Stephen Hawking says updated Tue May 17, 2011
      By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...


      April 7th, 2012

      08:32 PM ET

      The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth


      April 14, 2013 at 8:22 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      1st...I'm not a follower of the "Pope" or the Roman Catholic "religion", or ANY "religion" (Jesus did not come to start a new "religion", He came to call people out of this fallen world to be in a "relationship" with Him in order to be saved)...I am one of many, from every tribe, tongue, people-group and nation, who has been "born again" by the grace of God over the last 2,000 years (i.e. since the resurrection of Jesus, not religion)...Where is your link that speaks to, and measures that statistical phenomenon? Unfortunately you have no idea what being "born again" means (John 3:3-8ff/ 1Peter 1:3, 23/T itus 3:4-7). The Bible is the "MEANS" to confirm this supernatural working of God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit–IT IS NOT THE "SOURCE". People don't choose to be "born again", it is given as an unexpected, undeserved, unmerited "gift of God" (Ephesians 2:1-9/ Romans 6:23, etc). So no attack on the "Bible", or so called "scientific evidence" that you trust in (i.e. You are taking by FAITH) will ever stand against the supernatural work of God to change a person's life from the inside out...This time-transcending, global phenomenon of God causing individual's to be "born again" will continue unrestrained & unhindered until the return of Jesus not religion! You're on the losing side and I am giving you the Biblical warning & opportunity to "repent or perish".

      2nd...Your "faith" is showing...Not in"God", but in "Man"...You didn't do the scientific work to know firsthand if what you are posting is true...You weren't there to see the actual testing done...I'm fairly certain that you don't personally know the character of the men/women you are propping up as some "scientific authority"...or whether or not they have a personal agenda, if they need more grant money, etc...Just think about how often you, as a man (or woman) have lied in the course of a day to either manipulate a situation to work in your favor, or to protect your own name and reputation...Do you not think that others are just like you–especially if they don't have God to restrain them?...even if they are indeed, educated "Scientists"?...Wake up and smell the rotting flesh and corruption of sinful, fallen man that you are trusting in...including YOURSELF. "SIN" has "I" in the middle of it! I am not asking you to trust in me or any other follower of Jesus Christ...TRUST IN "JESUS NOT RELIGION/MAN"

      April 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Science

      It would be NICE......... but
      Maybe they should not have created the wedge !!!
      The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Insti-tute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Insti-tute manifesto known as the Wedge Docu-ment,[1] which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic


      Please watch

      The African Rift


      April 15, 2013 at 6:31 am |
    • Science

      JesusNotReligion..........................are you as smart as a 5th grader ?

      Listening to the Big Bang - In High Fidelity

      Apr. 4, 2013 — A decade ago, spurred by a question for a fifth-grade science project, University of Washington physicist John Cramer devised an audio recreation of the Big Bang that started our universe nearly 14 billion years ago.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:21 am |
    • Damocles


      Your most compelling argument is sin has an I in the middle of it? ZOMG did you know that belief has lie in it? Holy hell what ever do we do now? Pup has a U in the middle, that must mean you are a pup! Who knew? Win also has I in the middle, guess I win! Wow what amazing truth you bring to the masses!

      Your whole first paragraph can be summed up as 'I'm special.'

      Your second paragraph is a bit confused. People can study science and conduct experiments on their own time to recreate what has been done. I go whole days without telling a lie and I don't even believe a deity is looking over my shoulder, if that's the only thing keeping you from lying, well, keep on believing I guess. It's funny that you mention grant money. Amazingly, scientists do need money to keep doing research. Do you pitch a hissy fit when the collection plate comes your way? Ever donated to a charity?

      And of course you end with the typical 'surrender or die' and 'rotting flesh of sin' crap that is a one-trick pony with two broken legs. Well done.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:42 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      @ Damocles
      1) I'm not in this forum to win an "argument"...I'm here to proclaim the good news of God's free offer of salvation through

      2) "Sin" does have an "I" in the middle...Do I really need to explain this "creative writing technique" that reduces a large subject
      matter down to its essence?...It's simply an effective way for you to remember the basic truth of "sin", which I have no
      doubt that you will from this point on......

      3) "I'm special"?...Have you heard of "grace" & "mercy"? I have truly received what I do not deserve, and until you see yourself
      in light of God's holiness, justice & love hanging on a cross you will never understand God or yourself-and it's not my
      responsibility to convince you of anything, the "gospel", in and of itself, has the power to do that in communion with the
      Holy Spirit (Romans 1:17/ T itus 3:4-7/ Ephesians 2:1-9)

      4) The "theory" of evolution is not "science" (i.e. The collection of data per an observable, repeatable experiment)

      5) The "warning" I gave does not come from me, it comes from the recorded words of Jesus...BELIEVE IT OR NOT...I'm just one
      beggar telling another beggar where to find food that gives life before he dies...but I can't convince you that you're a
      "beggar", now can I? We humans can all dress ourselves up like a pig or a skunk in a tuxedo but guess what?...

      6) Like "Science", you also have no idea what Jesus meant when He said, "You must be born again" (Jn 3:3-8ff)...But don't
      worry, neither did I nearly 27 years ago when I was in "Teen Magazine's" thinking I was all that and a bag chips...I hold out
      "hope" for you...

      Later > JesusNotReligion

      April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Science

      JesusNotReligion.....................might be to much for you to understand ? no gods needed !

      Brain Development Is Guided by Junk DNA That Isn't Really Junk

      Apr. 15, 2013 — Specific DNA once dismissed as junk plays an important role in brain development and might be involved in several devastating neurological diseases, UC San Francisco scientists have found.

      April 16, 2013 at 7:13 am |
    • Science

      Oops source..............better than the bible too.


      April 16, 2013 at 7:15 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      @Science...I will say one thing, You have been cordial-very refeshing.

      "Information" communicates Intelligent design, and Intelligent design communicates an INTELLIGENT BEING...
      For example: If the Mars rover found a slab of stone with stick figure drawings on it:
      1) We, as inteligent, creative human beings would recognize the "order" of the drawings as NOT BEING "ACCIDENTAL" but possessing an intelligent source behind it..and....
      2) We, as intelligent human beings would KNOW, and therefore intelligently conclude that there is (or was) intelligent life on Mars...

      Why don't you apply this basic principle to Creation itself...especially when good "science" (or mathematics, physics, etc. for that matter) is applied and reveals the INFORMATION PRESENT in creation and the intricacies of its form & function (and all the more astounding as we have entered the realms of extreme sub atomic particles that make up, support and give creation ORDER instead of chaos. I'd say that is much better evidence for INTTELIGENT DESIGN and for the existence of an INTELLIGENT BEING than that of "stick figures", don't you?

      Science doesn't create or define creation , it's simply unpacking what's already there...DISCOVERING WHAT CREATION IS INTELLIGENTLY COMMUNICATING to us humans...GOD IS THERE! Now the question is WHICH "GOD"?...Jesus Not Religion!

      April 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • Science

      Evolution wins hands down time for gods to get the hell out of the way.................so humanity can evolve.

      Dinosaur Egg Study Supports Evolutionary Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs: How Troodon Likely Hatched Its Young


      April 20, 2013 at 5:03 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      @Science...Enough said...God created all animals "after their own kind" (dna)....and..."He created man in His own image" (including you). Ever since then, man has been foolishly trying to return the favor by creating God in their own image...Keep promoting God's fingerprints of creation with all your science. Any intelligent, unbiased, clear-thinking, rational human being will see that you're actually helping to glorify Him-making Him known through His extremely intricate and INTELLIGENT DESIGN..Thank you...Jesus Not Religion saves!

      April 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
  7. brian

    If he comes to my town i'm going to dress as a priest and attach a little boy doll to my crotch and then start a mosh pit.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  8. brian

    I wonder if he has bible groupies.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  9. Elaine

    Chris Tomlin's musack is so cheesy he could host a stink-along. Ewww. Ick. Stinky stuff.

    April 12, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • Kilto

      What an idiot... You already expressed what you have to say....get lost troll!

      April 12, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • Terry

      Mad poster Kilto calling someone else a troll. TOO funny.

      And I agree with Elaine, Tomlin's music just stinks! Hold the cheese please Louise...

      April 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  10. Sing-along


    April 12, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  11. Randy

    Chris Tomlin doesn't equal a pimple on the late, great Larry Norman's butt.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  12. Elaine

    Ick. Chris Tomlin's musack is the worst of the cheesy Christian stuff. It stinks really badly. Bring nose plugs as well as ear plugs if you have to be anywhere near it.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  13. Chris with Watoto Choir


    April 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  14. Maya

    Zealous Atheists resemble religious fanactics. If you're offended by Christians, God, etc. don't read articles on Christians or God. Just like if you're offended by gay marriage, don't get gay-married or read articles on the LBGT community and leave offensive comments. Simple.

    April 10, 2013 at 5:02 am |
    • Science

      Hey Maya good news below for the planet !

      Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

      Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
      bears his name as the “God particle.”


      April 11, 2013 at 6:23 am |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      Oh, like christians have nothing to say about islam or muslims? Hypocrite

      April 11, 2013 at 6:28 am |
  15. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot


    April 9, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  16. 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 4:37 pm |
  17. Gadd

    Reproduction between two of the same species, yet genetically somewhat different is much preferable when it comes to survival than mere cloning, which is what early life started at.

    "Species"... that adds to the problem. We have not even left the molecule-to-organism stage...

    "Cloning"....really? Any data to support this? ...it just happened from the blues? Sounds deliberate ...or...??

    The amalgamation, combined with random mutations provides much more genetic diversity....

    Such choice words...and we look down on people how believe otherwise. Me thinks you are pretty sure of yourself here...data?

    So what?...good question! So, purpose; direction; unless you believe you are a chance and an insignificant collocation of an atom in a far corner of the universe, in which case, why bother with anything....even why bother voicing an opinion about anything? In any case, nothing matters...or does it now?

    April 9, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  18. truth truth truth 2013

    How great is our GOD. Thank you GOD for this song, please continue to bless the man of GOD Chris Tomlin

    April 9, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  19. Gadd

    Mmm...science...as far as I know, science is not as objective as it is paraded to be; it is a dogma. People actually worship it. ...And that origin of life story? I keep wondering ...the odds of one molecule dividing and boecoming...an... organism of sorts...those odds are daunting; the odds that a molecule decided to divide into female and male ...beats me...

    April 9, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don't even know where to begin.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Reproduction between two of the same species, yet genetically somewhat different is much preferable when it comes to survival than mere cloning, which is what early life started at. The amalgamation, combined with random mutations provides much more genetic diversity.
      Also keep in mind, How are you calculating those probabilities that you find so daunting? What datasets are you using? What calculations are you using?
      And even if you could provide more than a single dataset for emerging life, and you calculated the probability of naturalistic origins of life, so what?

      April 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  20. JOJO

    Chris Tomlin is truly anointed by God.I have been blessed by his songs and continue to minister his songs through dance.Whether people agree or not, God is touching lives through his songs.... you can hate or dislike him.... the truth is, those who love him are more that those who don't....hopefully all these haters can find a way to make a positive impact on others.....

    April 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • JoJo

      More like he was p!ssed on, not "annointed". And hence the bad smell of his "music".

      April 12, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • sam stone

      annointed by god?

      April 17, 2013 at 6:31 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.