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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
[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. 1brelliott1

    Chris Tomlin is one of the top Christian musicians who is bringing flocks of believers together in worship of our Heavenly Father. His music can be listened to anytime, anywhere by everyone. Thank you Chris Tomlin for sharing your talents and love of God.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • sybaris

      which god?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The nameless god at Ur, believed to control the weather; later known as the God of Abraham.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      The problem with this xstian music movement is the same with xstianity itself, it's designed to NARROW THE MIND, to numb thought and reason. I know xstians who will listen ONLY to this drivel, and refuse to listen to good stuff they used to like before the brainwashers got their claws into the psychology. I'm not talking head banging devil worshipping Heavy Metal, I mean just good ordinary stuff that talks of love, social change etc. They won't listen to Simon and Garfunkle because their not "christian"
      It's just so sad.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • GodIsDeadAndNoOneCares

      gross.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Iran went to war with Iraq over draining the swamp at Ur.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Billy Roberts JR

      Dear heavenly father i come to ou today to pray And let these mockers and sinners know there s. place for them up high with Lord Jesus as well. The liars of mouth and the ones who lie with men both know there is but two choices for you. Burn in hell forever which is not What i want or please repent before Jesus comes back! Please help these gays, racists, hate filled lesbian femenist abortion lovers find there way to the light.

      In his name i praise

      AMEN

      March 10, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  2. ikproductions

    I'm sorry but if just for one day I could log on to CNN and read a headline that isn't about Christianity, or religion in general, then maybe I wouldn't have to come in to the comments section to complain.
    The comment section IS the Atheist section, because there definitely is no "un-believable blog" on CNN to talk about how Christianity is everywhere. But yeah, I am sorry that WE are ones being annoying, with our Atheist churches on every corner, our many Atheist missionaries, and Atheist political leaders writing Atheist laws for all us Atheist people.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      I agree, it should be called "the Atheist Blog" I DO find it very comforting that more and more people of reason are commenting on here every month, (because the anonymity of the internet allows us to do so without fear of being murdered by a xstian)
      We "nones" are growing in number each day. When we can start taxing religion and prevent children from being dragged into this brainwashing there just might be some hope for this our species, on this our ever worsening situation on this planet. (Of course, xstians don't care about that, the just KNOW that they will be in "heaven")

      March 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Luke

      @nietodarwin
      It's funny how you call yourselves "people of reason". What then is the reason we exist? How do you define sympathy and love?

      "When we can start taxing religion and prevent children from being dragged into this brainwashing"...you mean when "we" can start dictating people what to do, what is good and what is bad? I see no difference between what you wish for and communism and nazism.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Luke, I remember, even 60 years later the answer from the catholic catechism: Q. "Who made me?" A. "God made me"
      Q: "Why did god make me?" A. "God made me to know, love, and serve him in this world and to be with him in the next." Ad infinitum and without cognitive content. The word for that is ANOESIS.
      Despite your fantasies, atheism has no agenda to force others into; that belongs to faith-based philosophies like christianity, and yes, communism and fascism. Emotional acceptance without cognitive content.

      March 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  3. John P. Tarver

    Canyon Country(LA County) has three radio stations pumping out Christian music full time.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Poopeil

      I think that's Charles Manson's neck of the woods.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Magic Mountain area, past where the orange groves once were.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Death Hammer 9000

    Chris who? Church music? Are you kidding me? NO ONE CARES. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-i6J03j6Bo

    March 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Christian music has devolved from 4 part beauty to 2 chords with a beat.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Danny

      Stryper is way better.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  5. Nietodarwin

    The World is divided into armed camps ready to commit genocide just because we can't agree on whose fairy tales to believe.
    Ed Krebs

    A man`s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
    Albert Einstein
    . The greatness of every mighty organization embodying an idea in this_world lies in the religious fanaticism and intolerance with which,_fanatically convinced of its own right, it intolerantly imposes its_will against all others.” [Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf" Vol. 1 Chapter 12]
    (I'LL GO FOR THE CAMP OF THE ATHEIST JEW INSTEAD OF THE CHRISTIAN DICTATOR)

    March 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Europe's experiment in social Darwinism killed more People over the last century than all of Christianity for all time.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • ..

      More Tarver BS. He never backs up anything he spews.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      "Social Darwinism" has nothing to do with Darwin. It is a corrupt concept created by elitists. Tying it to Darwin is like tying witch burning to Jesus (assuming such a person ever existed).

      March 10, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Nietodarwin

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours Richard Dawkins

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
    Isaac Asimov

    There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages.
    Richard Lederer

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
    Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Just Sayin'

      Nietodarwin – Your Dawkins quote should actually be attributed to Stephen F. Roberts.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  7. Nietodarwin

    Me cago en la hostia

    March 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  8. Danny

    Chris Tomlin has nothing on Stryper.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Damocles

      Stryper? Ahhhhhahahahahahahaha... wow I had forgotten about those guys.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Danny

      They are still around. You can follow them on Twitter.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Danny

      One reason Stryper is truth is because they have stood the test of time.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Stryper is truth? what is that supposed to mean?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Danny

      If you compare their lyrics to Tomlin, you will see what I mean. Stryper rocks.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  9. Nietodarwin

    it is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion of their parents rather than any of the other available religions.
    Richard Dawkins
    Brainwashed as children, adults are brainwashing children. Those who hurt children were usually hurt as children.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  10. marielouise

    Love that guy.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  11. mac

    Seriously CNN? The most widely sung music on the planet? What planet are you talking about exactly? Never heard this stuff before, gee guess I am just so out of it. And I thought Ho Hey was the most widely sung on the our planet.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      Well said. I'm sure they are just rocking out to this stuff in Asia. (I did read once that THE most widely recognized melody worldwide, (just melody, not lyrics) is that of "Yesterday.") Let the brainwashed xstians have their delusions, I'll stick with The Beatles, Paul is credited with the quote "Think globally, act locally" on Brainyquote. As for this article, let's quote John (the Lennon)
      Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock and roll or Christianity.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Luke

      @niettodarwin.
      Really? And when did rock'n'roll appear? Sixty years ago? How about Christianity? Nero and so many others tried to get rid of Christianity and couldn't. You think rock'n'roll will!?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • visitor

      I would challenge this also. You mean, songs included Catholic liturgies have less planetary coverage?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  12. Bobber

    I am able to play some congregation music with my recorder. But not all notes are attainable. Christian music is real easy to listen to at times, but I feel Katie Perry's music is more mainstream.

    March 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • GodIsDeadAndNoOneCares

      Katie Perry's music makes my ears bleed. But I would much rather listen to her.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  13. Nietodarwin

    “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”
    _ William Harwood, Dictionary of Contemporary Mythology

    March 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Luke

      I've said this before in other places. When atheists have no arguments, they resort to insults.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Doobs

      Where is the insult in that quote? Your persecution complex is showing.

      March 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  14. How great is our God

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=cKLQ1td3MbE

    March 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • ikproductions

      I just threw up a little in my mouth

      March 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Sing along

      Love Tomlin and Toby Mac. Fantastic songs.Love you both

      March 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Damocles

      Painful in so many ways. Best thing I can say is that the blue swirlies in the background hypnotized me.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Not bad...for a 10 year old.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Damocles

      Chad/Austin might be floating around somewhere in that blue back grounddid you see them maybe?

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Dan

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcJvkAdydnQ

      March 10, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Dan

      Good humor. True too.

      Paece

      March 10, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  15. pbernasc

    so many pathetic losers buying religious songs that says crap over crap (like mot other commercial songs by Britney Spear and colleagues)... and this guys is making millions of dollars while his customers think he is doing God's job
    Pathetic

    March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  16. Nietodarwin

    “Scientists do not join hands every Sunday and sing "Yes gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!" If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.”
    _ Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

    March 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • mac

      Bingo.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Someguy

      Best response.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Nietodarwin

    "Praise the lord and pass the ammunition"

    March 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Archibald Smythe-Pennington, III

      Now for some real music with ammunition, check out the 1970 recording of the 1812 Overture (Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy). This unique version features an alternate vocal beginning for the opening hymn that Tchaikovsky used. The hymn is sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Turn up the volume on this one!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3ZMpv9CnZk

      March 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      EO! What a fabulous sound!

      March 10, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • JMEF

      Charly Heston wanted to adopt and re-name it as the Battle Hymn of the NRA. Anyone know if he was buried with his guns or did they pry them from his cold dead hands?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • End Religion

      where's all the dag nabbed guitars?

      March 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  18. Riley

    I think Chris Tomlin's songs leave a lot to be desired, both musically and theologically. We could greatly improve the music of the church if we gave the entire congregation some practice and instruction in vocal music in American churches.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • thought

      Really? And where did most top performers/singers/bands get their "practice"? Most likely in church as a young person.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  19. hmf

    The problem most non-Christians have with Christianity is not really that you believe. It is that they don't appreciate having it shoved down their throats. The most judgmental people in this country are all Christians.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Jason Shoots

      I would say it is cause many of made judgments wrongly without making careful discernment of what is being said. Basically been quick (haste) to make judgements as it's not wrong to judge, but to judge out of context is wrong. I think that is what has happened. Sorry about that.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • CNNReader

      Well said. I've even seen wife against husband, sisters against brother because of the religion.

      If they keep their religion to themselves and other religions alone, there will be significant improvement on world peace.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • thought

      And most non-Christians complain if the Christians aren't doing enough to help society. Can't win. What would like a Christian to do?

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

    Evangelicals just want to be winners I guess.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • clarity

      Lol. Except even Charlie Sheen sounded more sane with his "winning".

      March 10, 2013 at 12:57 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.