A Conversation with Chris Tomlin


As a new record label emerges from the Passion Movement, a leading voice in progressive worship begins a new chapter in his life. Worship leader Chris Tomlin talks about how his past is merging quickly into the future.

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! -Psalm 95:2 (RSV)

To the 40,000-some students who participated in last year’s OneDay event, Chris Tomlin is the energetic worship leader and writer of “The Noise We Make,” “America” and “The Wonderful Cross.” Churches that have added “We Fall Down” and “Be Glorified” to their worship services may be familiar with his work, if not his name. On March 13, artist/worshipper Chris Tomlin’s solo debut, The Noise We Make hits the shelves. FamilyChristian.com spoke with Chris about his involvement with Passion, his new record label and the meaning of worship.

How did you get into music?

Chris: My dad taught me to play the guitar. We grew up with country music. We had every Willie Nelson record (laughs). I was saved at a young age and had a great desire to follow God. I was really focused on that through my whole life, even as a kid and through high school. I played at my church every once in a while, but that’s not a good gauge, because everybody loves you at your church. All the grandmas are like, “Oh, he’s great!” So you don’t know if you’re any good. But there’s a guy at my church who traveled as an evangelist. He’s a good friend of my family. He took me with him one time and said,” You can help me sell tapes and set up.” So I went and there were about 500 youth there. It was enormous to me. I live in a very small town, about 2000 people. In the middle of the concert, he said, “I have a good friend here, Chris, and he’s going to play for you a little bit.” We had a three-hour drive there and he never mentioned it to me. He had his keyboard up there and I was just learning to play the piano. I was just terrible. But that started it, and for some reason, God used that.

Later, that guy said that God really wanted him to go pick me up that day. It was just on a whim that he pulled in. I got to college and by the time I was a junior in college, I was travelling all the time and leading worship at different things. I was beginning to understand that I had a gift for leading worship. I really didn’t feel like my deal was to just get up there and sing songs for people to listen to. I felt that I had a gift to connect to people. I remember praying when I was an eighth grader, “God, whatever You want me to do, I want to be available for the rest of my life. I’ll follow You wherever You want me to go.” God honored that prayer. Even when I tried to do other things, He reminded me of that prayer and brought me back to it.

How did you meet Louie (Giglio, founder of Passion)?

There I was in college at Texas A&M, leading worship for a Bible study called Breakaway. Louie was leading a Bible study at Baylor University called Choice. He’s just an amazing person and he’s got quite a pull, especially at that time, in colleges. Everybody knew who Louie was. People would come from all over to Baylor on Monday nights. We got hooked up to do some youth camps together. He was the speaker and I was the worship leader. I was so intimidated. Here was this guru of worship and teaching and I was like, “What am I doing here? But, we just developed a quick, keen friendship.

What were you going to school for?

I went to school for many things. I thought I would be a physical therapist, because I figured I could make a lot of money and I knew how to do it. I had such trouble with just doing music. How do you just do that? It’s not the way you’re brought up. My dad said, “Whatever you do, Chris, just get me a diploma. This music thing’s good. It’s a nice hobby. I’m sorry I got you in it.” It came back to that prayer that I’d do whatever God wanted me to do and I really sensed Him leading.

How did you get involved with Passion?

I graduated college with a Psychology degree, and just started playing and doing things. It was really a step of faith for me, the first real big one. Those two weeks that Louie and I were together that summer, we’d go to the Waffle House every night and I’d just ask him things about ministry and how it works. He kind of poured his life out.

Right along that time, he said, “I have this vision for this thing called Passion. I’d really like you to be involved.” I thought that this would be amazing. The first Passion was in 1997 in Austin, Texas. They’d have these big sessions and then they’d break out into smaller groups of three or four hundred people. I led one of those. It was kind of a time to let what we heard settle and talk about it. I did that each year at the Passion events.

Tell me about the song “We Fall Down.”

I’d written a song from those two weeks that Louie and I were at youth camp. He had been talking on Revelation 4. I remember sitting in this hotel room and something just kept coming out and I just got out my guitar. I went over to Louie’s room and said, “What do you think?” He just said, “Oh man.” I didn’t think it was that good and he said, “Oh, man, we’re going to use that. I’d like to use that at Passion.” It was the song, “We Fall Down.”

Today, almost every single place I go, people know that song and it blows my mind. I walked into Passion ’97 and Sam Perry, who was the main worship leader for that event, started doing “We Fall Down.” When all these people started singing it, I couldn’t handle it. It was like God was affirming that this is what He was going to do with me. He had given me the gift to write music, and I better start writing it!

How ironic that you spend so much time working with students, who are looking for specific direction for their lives, careers, etc., and yet God has directed you down such a non-traditional track?

I live in that world. I live there daily. On the plane yesterday, I was like, “Lord, this is amazing.” I still haven’t gotten over it and I never want to get over it. I absolutely love what I do. God lets me do it and I can be successful at it. I was always thinking that you can’t make a living saying you’re going to play music. I get this question more than any other question, “I want to do what you do. How do I do that?” No one likes the real answer. “Honestly, the reason I’m here is because of God and making myself available to Him.” I always tell people that God will move mountains to put you where He wants you. If God has something that He wants you to say, He’ll give you a platform to do it. That’s how Louie and I connected in the Waffle House.

We were talking about things and he asked how I got there. I said I was just sitting there watching TV one day and God has a guy come by and say, “Why don’t you come with me?” After that, I didn’t start sending out flyers to all the churches. People just began to call. I was just being faithful in small things. God did it. People want a very cut and dry thing. If you follow these steps, this is what you’re going to get. There’s no way you can do that in this, especially as a worship leader or anything to do with God, because it’s not what you expect. It’s amazing.

Talk about the relationship between Passion and Sixsteps.

Sixsteps really came out of a need for us to have a family of guys who had been involved in Passion. It was a way to get our music out there, not just through Passion, but our own records. We have songs that are on Passion, but there are several other songs that Charlie [Hall] has written, that David [Crowder] has written, that people don’t know, because they’re not on Passion records.

What do you think about the term “artist?”

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I guess I am an artist because music is an art — it’s weird to think of myself as an artist — but more than that, we’re worshippers. That’s why Louie changed the wording in our contracts to “artist/worshipper.” Even in the Christian world, we want to have stars. We want to lift people up. I think even saying [artist/worshipper] helps [us to] not do that. Saying artist/worshipper has a whole different vibe, a whole different mindset than “the artist.”

As a new record label emerges from the Passion Movement, a leading voice in progressive worship begins a new chapter in his life. Worship leader Chris Tomlin talks about how his past is merging quickly into the future.

Tell me about the name, Sixsteps.

Chris: It’s 1 Samuel 6 and 2 Samuel 6. David’s bringing the ark back. The long story short is, the Philistines capture the ark and the ark starts giving them plagues so they don’t want it anymore. David comes to get it. They put the ark on carts, but God didn’t say to put it on carts, He said to put it on poles. The Israelites start going with the cart and when people look inside to make sure the Philistines didn’t steal anything, they die. They start going down the road and the ark starts tipping over. The people who try to catch it die. So David was really mad. They leave the ark at this guy Obed’s house. David says, “We’re done with this thing!” Then David gets word that all of Obed’s family is completely blessed in everything they do. So David takes 30,000 men to [bring the ark back to Jerusalem]. They put it on poles like God had said. The Bible says that when they had taken six steps, they stopped and built an altar and worshipped God. They took six steps and [thought] “We’re still alive. God did not strike us dead!”

I think in our worship today, we come to God like He owes us a favor and we don’t really fear God. This is the One. The One I’m singing to gives me breath; He makes the world tilt just right, so it’s not too cold or too hot. He holds all the universe in His hand and we’re just [barely singing]. I think sixsteps is a great picture: one step — we’re all right. Two steps — oh my gosh?Six steps — okay, we’re partying!

How would you describe what it means to fear God?

Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, says that he has had all these things…all the money in the world, all the women, everything the world can give me and I find it all meaningless. He ends Ecclesiastes with “There are only two things I know that are worth anything: fear the Lord and keep His commands.” So what does that mean, fear the Lord? I think a lot of times that we sin so easily because we don’t fear God. Our fear of God is so minimal that we sin easily. I think understanding God is the same as fearing God, because the more you understand God, the more in awe of Him we are. The way we live our life when no one’s watching is our degree of fear of God and our degree of reverence and degree of honor. I think fear and reverence and honor all come together.

Something unique about your album packaging is that you’ve included chords with your lyrics.

I want the church to play the songs. I didn’t write them just to listen to. I want the songs to be used and that’s an easy way to get the songs learned.

Sounds like you’re a good worship leader. How would you define worship?

Everybody is created to worship. It’s created in us and we can’t get away from it. That’s why we have so many stars — especially in America — because we have to worship something. True worship is the worship of the Creator, not the created. Paul said that when you are worshipping what’s created, you’re taking your eyes of your Creator. When we worship God, we’re recognizing who God is and what He has done, truly seeing the greatness of what He has done and responding to that. Worship is response.

The definition that I learned from Louie, is that worship is a response, both personal and corporate, for who God is and what He’s doing, evidenced in and through the way we live. Worship is more than singing songs. Songs have little to do with it. Jesus understood it when he said, “You praise me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.” How many times have I done that? We ought to be pretty serious about what we worship, because it is eternal. Those who worship the created things — which all of us do from time to time — find it so unfulfilling.

The way that we’re trained, worship is Sunday morning from eleven to twelve. That’s not true. That is worship, but that’s coming together. Hopefully we’re coming together to celebrate what we’ve been doing all week. What we mostly do is [consider that a worship service is] our one hour a week. [Then we leave] and don’t really consider God the rest of the week. It should be the other way around. That one hour should be a celebration of how we’re living our lives all week. That’s the greatest form of evangelism in the world. People wonder what in the world you’re connected to, because then they realize that what they worship doesn’t meet their needs. I love the fact that no matter who you are, whether you’re wealthy or poor, wherever you were born, wherever you live, that you worship and you can’t get away from it.

How would you say that someone could cultivate a lifestyle of worship?

Personally, it’s reading the Word. I look at the Word and it makes me stop unlike any other book you read. You just see yourself, and once again, you see God for His greatness and what He’s done. And you see His patience. It causes me to worship. Music is a wonderful way, I do it every day. That’s why I think God is stirring all this up and He’s using music to do it. God made music and made it for His glory. To me, if you’re not truly in the Word, and pursuing God through His word, then your worship is very incomplete.

What else do you like to read?

I love to read! Believe it or not, I don’t read a lot of Christian books, but I love Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. That book and Lonesome Dove. I basically read for enjoyment. I love stories. Lately, it’s been the revival of reading in my life. My pastor, John David Walt, he’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He’s always reading. I read through him mostly. He’s always copying things off and saying that I need to read this chapter. It’s the crumbs off his table I guess. I read a lot of western books. I try to not get too immersed in the Christian culture. I want to know what’s going on in the world. My TV stays on CNN and FoxNews. I don’t want to be so much in the subculture to where I’m just getting the latest Christian thing. I want to read things that help me understand what’s going on in the world.

What is God teaching you now?

I feel that I’m being tested in the midst of all this craze and all these great things. God is asking me: “Are you going to take this for yourself, or is it going to cause more gratitude and thankfulness to me?” Continually, I’m thinking of it, everyday, remaining true to Who has always been there when nobody knew who I was.


Jen Abbas, a writer in Grand Rapids, MI and author of Generation Ex: Adult Children of Divorce and the Healing of our Pain (Random House, April 2004), conducted this interview on April 18, 2003 for FamilyChristian.com. You can visit Jen online at JenAbbas.com.

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