He was on the road to becoming a doctor, but Chris Tomlin obeyed God’s call to enter into full time worship-leading. The result is many of the world’s most widely-sung worship songs, the best-known of which is “How Great Is Our God”, from his 2004 album Arriving.
“I feel like God’s given me a gift to write songs for the average person that help them communicate their feelings to God… I hope they will be ones that bring people closer to God, so much so that they are sung long after I’m gone.” ~ Chris Tomlin (interview on The 700 Club, Christian Broadcasting Network)
He’s the one CNN calls “the undisputed king of worship music”, but Chris Tomlin did not start out with visions and dreams of having his songs sung all around the world. He did, however, begin worshiping at a young age. Under the influence of his musician father, Tomlin learned to play guitar at 9 by listening to Willie Nelson records, before he was exposed to worship music at a church camp. By the age of 13, Tomlin felt the calling of God on his life to write songs for the church. During his years in high school he began to lead worship in his youth group.
In 1992, Tomlin enrolled at the Texas A&M University to pursue medicine. There, he became the worship leader of his Christian campus group, Breakaway. While in college, he started fielding phone calls from churches across Texas asking him to lead their congregations in worship. Bemused by all the attention he was receiving, he unknowingly found himself at a crossroads when it came to deciding what to do with his life after college.
Doubting the viability of becoming a full-time worship leader, Tomlin initially planned to follow a career in medicine. But a friend challenged him over a phone call, pointing out that Christians only make their own plans when they doubt God could come through for them. Dumbfounded by the accusation, Tomlin took it for the God moment that it was, and vowed to commit himself fully to being a worship leader.
After graduating from college, Tomlin became a worship leader at Christian camps throughout Texas. He went on to release three independent albums: Inside Your Love (1995), Authentic (1998), and Too Much Free Time (with Ross King) (1998) all featuring the modern country Christian rock sound which was to later define his career.
During this time, Tomlin was also approached by and later teamed up with Choice Ministries founder, Louie Giglio. Giglio had just created Passion Conferences, an outreach event targeted at American youths in the 18-to-25 demographic. After leading worship at these Passion conference events, Tomlin was signed to his first national recording contract with Giglio’s sixsteprecords in 2000, with a view to release albums in the future.
Tomlin’s first two albums released on sixsteprecords—The Noise We Make (2001) and Not To Us (2002)—showed a notable improvement in production levels and arrangements from his independent releases. However, it also took Tomlin in a different direction stylistically, with modern rock elements watering down his country music influences. Interestingly, during the time of the release of these two albums, Christian radio stations across America were being deluged with modern worship music albums and with Tomlin’s albums following this particular trend, he found himself with a minor hit with the song “Forever”, taken from his first album.
With both albums receiving middling to favorable reviews, Tomlin’s profile for the most part went unnoticed even as churches had begun using his songs during services. Tomlin found himself in the strange position of people not identifying him with his music. In a 100 Huntley Street interview in 2010, he described his unusual predicament: “No one knew who I was and I would come up and play these songs and people would say, we play these songs at our church and you’re ripping off all the songs from our church.”
Tomlin’s anonymity was about to change in a big way with the release of his third album, Arriving in 2004. With its distinctive album cover art featuring the dawn rising over a lit airport runway, the inspiration for the album’s title came from Isaiah 40:3-5. Tomlin explains: “I feel as though we’re like this landing strip in the desert for our great, incredible God to arrive on; a way for Him to come into people’s lives”.
Helmed by producer Ed Cash, Arriving was also the beginning of a long association between artist and producer: Cash went on to produce Tomlin’s next four albums. With Cash also being a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, his role in Arriving was not just limited to production duties. The backstory to the album’s opening track, “Indescribable”, written by Laura Story, gives us interesting insight into the input Cash had in Tomlin’s work.
Nearing the end of the recording sessions, both Tomlin and Cash felt something was missing from the album and Cash suggested a demo song that Story had recorded but was rejected. Impressed with what he heard, Tomlin re-recorded the song with minor alterations to the original (lowering the key and changing one word) and it became a pivotal song to open the album.
Leading with a country-infused acoustic guitar and a mid-paced back beat, Tomlin’s celebratory interpretation of Story’s lyrics turned the song into a wonderfully powerful praise declaration of how creation reflects God’s splendour to the world.
“From the highest of heights to the depths of the seas
Creations revealing your majesty
From the colours of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings”
With its inspirational tone and anthem-like chorus, the song became a favourite among worship leaders, uplifting congregations and kickstarting church services all over the world.
Speaking on the unique path that her song had taken, Story later shared how God’s plans for the song were different to her own and how she was grateful that God had used her. “We need to always see ourselves as servants. We see people like Chris Tomlin up on stage, but they are just servants, too. And our songs are all just offerings. It’s cool that so many people have been able to hear the song ‘Indescribable’,” she told Worshipleader.com in a 2014 interview.
The song that would come to define Tomlin’s career and the album, “How Great Is Our God”, came from simple beginnings: he was playing his guitar on the couch in his Texas apartment while ruminating over the words, “how great is our God” as he repeatedly strummed a C chord on guitar. Tomlin shelved the idea before later playing it to his then bass player, Jesse Reeves, who inspired further work on the original chorus.
Tomlin told Canadian Musician magazine in 2016 that the gestation period for the song was between nine and 12 months, and during that time, he took further inspiration from Psalm 104, using the imagery conveyed in the psalm to create two verses and a chorus. With his vision for the song met, he recorded the track and played it back to Cash. His producer was not overly impressed and suggested changes.
Tomlin recalled, “I had been working on the song for a while—it’s got the verse, it’s got the chorus—and I remember at the first meeting with the guy (Cash), he picks a guitar off the wall and just says, ‘What about something like this: ‘You’re the name above all names…’ I was sitting there thinking, ‘Who are you? This is perfect for the song!’”
With the song completed and co-credited to Tomlin, Reeves and Cash, “How Great Is Our God” is a piece of music that has come to be known as a worship standard all over the Christian world. Played at an easy 78 bpm tempo, with a gentle and measured tone, the deceptive simplicity of the classic modern worship formula of bass, electric/acoustic guitar and drums, belies the song’s continued ability to renew itself as it circles from verse to chorus, during its near four and a half minute duration.
“Mighty Is The Power Of The Cross” is a ballad in which Tomlin’s melancholic vocals are beautifully matched to the sparse accompaniment of acoustic guitar and cello. In the stripped down intimacy of the music, the listener is drawn further into understanding the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on the cross. Matt Wertz’ backing vocals are particularly poignant here—as he sings “Thank You, Jesus” we are reminded again that his confession is our confession.
On the mid-tempo ballad “Unfailing Love”, Tomlin enlists the considerable talents of Christian contemporary music star Steven Curtis Chapman on backing vocals. The duality of the men’s voices presents a real sense of authenticity and realness in what is being sung, as the lyrics read like a personal prayer of praise to God. Tomlin, taking the lead, speaks of his wonder in how God can be all things to all people, and in the wonderment of that thought, there is a love that touches all mankind. From the intimate to the vast, the music here reminds us of how God can reach so far and yet still know us all.
“And everything You hold in your hand
Still You make time for me
I can’t understand”
The interplay between the two vocalists is a definite highlight of the album, not because of Chapman’s star power or Tomlin’s emerging talent, but because both men give to the song what is required and they never overplay their respective hands.
On the guitar-driven track “King Of Glory”, Tomlin takes a passage from Psalm 24:8— “Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty”—and uses it to pivot from and return to, reminding us of God’s almighty nature. The point is further emphasised as the song’s intensity escalates, and in the final chorus the question shifts to a declaration of God’s standing among us all.
“You are the King of Glory
The Lord, strong and mighty”
FROM GLORY TO GLORY
Arriving peaked at number 3 on Billboard’s top Christian album charts in 2004, and was certified platinum in 2008. Tomlin was nominated for a host of categories in both the 2005 and 2006 GMA Dove Awards, winning Praise and Worship Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year for “How Great is Our God”. In 2006, Time magazine wrote that according to the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), Tomlin had become one of the most sung artists by congregations across the country.
Tomlin’s four subsequent albums—See The Morning Light (2006), Hello Love (2008), And If Our God Is For Us… (2010) and Burning Lights (2013)—went gold or platinum. With this, Chris Tomlin became a global Christian worship leading phenomenon, as his songs were sung in church after church, around the world. His upcoming album Always will launch on 9 September this year.
With all the accolades and the touring, and now being considered a household name in Christian contemporary music, Tomlin said that his proudest moment in all the success he’s had is how his songs have found their way into the church.
As he said to Canadian Musician, “We’ve got lots of awards and accolades… and received awards in every category [but] it doesn’t get close to …how the songs have found their way into the church. Because that’s something we’re proud of because that is God doing [something] in a special way. Nobody voted on this, really—it’s the spirit of God touching the song.”
With his servant-like attitude and his clear love for the church, Tomlin has more than embraced the idea that he is purely a vehicle for God to bring songs of praise and worship to the world. The number of songs through which God has used him to touch and lift up the world is remarkable—’Your Grace Is Enough’, ‘Good Good Father’, ‘Our God’, ‘I Lift Up My Hands’, ‘God’s Great Dance Floor’, and there are even recordings of stars and whales singing “How Great Is Our God”. Given his focus on amassing a generational legacy that ensures these songs will be sung long after he’s gone, the testimony to Tomlin’s musical output will be seen and heard for decades to come.