Friday, October 18, 2013

Chris Tomlin's Lessons for Worship Leaders

“This is about all of us singing”

On Wednesday, Oct 16, I went to the Q-Arena in Cleveland to hear Chris Tomlin. He is by far the biggest artist in the contemporary Christian Praise & Worship industry. Back in 2006, TIME magazine announced that he was “ the most often sung artist anywhere.” CNN recently backed this claim with their own math:

In 2012, Christian Copyright Licensing International 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, [Howard] Rachinski [CEO of CCLI] 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.”
As the most successful songwriter and worship leader in the church today, a master of his craft, I want to present some of the lessons for church musicians that I drew from watching him work.
1. Being a musician and worship leader is about Congregational Singing
Despite the rock concert aesthetic of Tomlin’s show -- the big stage, light show, massive PA and strange skippy dancing around -- as the words to the first song appeared on the huge video screens, it was obvious that we were expected to sing.  
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about his new album, Tomlin said “songs of worship are meant for community and are meant for the people coming together to sing.”
In a sound bite from a
televised interview on CNN, Tomlin said: “I strive to write [songs] that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing.”
2. You need to encourage the congregation to sing
Sing with me!
Many things in the show let us know that we were not singing-along to the songs but that the songs were for us to sing. Throughout the evening Tomlin encouraged us to sing. This should come as no surprise from the man whose biggest hit “How Great is our God” includes the injunction “Sing with me!” in the chorus.
How did he encourage us to sing? Well in a few different ways:
3. You need to choose/write singable songs
Whether you like Tomlin’s style of soft pop/rock anthems, you have to acknowledge he writes a catchy singable chorus. He told CNN “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?”
Two days after the concert, the chorus to “Indescribable” is still stuck on constant play in my head.
4. You need to teach them the new songs (and worship God while you do so).
For me the most interesting moment came early in the night. Like in any rock concert, Tomlin played the material from the new album early in the evening. “I promise to you at some point we will sing ‘How Great is Our God’” he says to reassure us.
He then eases into the new song “Lay Me Down” singing the chorus with muted accompaniment.
“I lay me down I’m not my own . . . “
At the end of the chorus he addresses the crowd. “This is a new one so we’ll do it again.” And the band repeats the chorus.
This is a revealing moment. Tomlin clearly understands himself primarily as a song leader. He wants the audience to sing along to every word and he is following the basic rule that when you introduce a new song to a congregation you must teach it to them. The band then ploughed ahead into the Mumford & Sons-y foot stomping guitar strumming number with the congregation singing along lustily.
5. You must make space for singing
Of the sixteen songs Tomlin sang that night, ten were specifically arranged to accommodate and encourage congregational singing. (And three others had intentional audience participation - dancing, waving flags and bouncing balls!)
a) in arrangements
Chris Tomlin’s band is loud and the crashing wall of ringing guitar that kicks in on the choruses of the U2-ish praise rock anthems is overwhelming. (Just listen to the chorus of Awake My Soul, or Whom Shall I fear [God of Angel Armies]).  Even in these full on rock numbers, Tomlin created space in the arrangements for the congregation to hear ourselves and that clearly signaled to us that we were expected and needed to sing.
There was significant dynamic range even in the loudest songs but his most obvious device to get us singing was stopping the band completely. The second song of the night--the Coldplay-esque I Will Follow--had crushing power chords and pounding piano in the chorus but Tomlin inserted an acapella final chorus (immediately followed by a drum solo!).
But singing to this level of noise is not satisfying for a congregation and Tomlin the song-leader knows it.
b) by dropping the volume
Of the sixteen songs in the set, six of them were played by smaller acoustic ensembles (2 acoustic guitars, solo piano, acoustic guitars and cajon) --and these were the moments of greatest singing and emotional connection between artist and audience.
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns” Tomlin reflects--perhaps unintentionally--on congregational singing and the volume of the band:
‘Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but it’s own.’ It just cannot be written any better than that. When I think about what we’re doing as worship leaders, when we’re bringing a song of praise, a heavenly anthem of praise, it drowns out all music and drowns out all other noise … That’s why there’s so much peace when people come to sing; God drowns out every other competing thing.
I think worship leaders (and church sound engineers) need to ask themselves, ‘Who is being drowned out?’
6. You should love the voice of the Church (more than your own)
It was fascinating that Tomlin, the king of the contemporary praise song, used old hymns, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” and “Amazing Grace,” to create the emotional touchstones of the evening. After leading us in a simple arrangement of “Nothing but the blood,” during which he stepped away from the microphone, Tomlin said “There is no other sound like it on Earth: when the people of God sing the praises of God. It is a special thing.”
In his recent interview with CNN Tomlin reflected on his concert at Madison Square Gardens and his desire to step away from the microphone:
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.


  1. Pete, I have not worshiped at an evangelical service for several years. I like that your reflections on the experience leave me feeling a lot more positively than I would have expected. Thanks for processing, analyzing, and sharing.
    xox always

  2. I saw Chris in Nashville on Oct. 11 and came away filled with love and awe for God. It wasn't about Chris; it was about God and Jesus. Thank you for letting me relive it through your article.

  3. Very Informative Blog..!!
    Thanks for sharing:)
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