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Chris Tomlin: On Top of the World
Image: JoshArdie Photography / Flickr

Chris Tomlin is the most-sung music artist in history, and recently wrapped up the last leg of the most successful tour of his 13-year career. The Burning Lights tour, launched early in 2013 following the album's number 1 debut on the Billboard 200 chart. At the start of the new year, he will return to Atlanta to lead worship at Passion City Church and the 2014 Passion Conferences in Atlanta (January 17-18) and Houston (February 14-15).

Some things have changed for the Grammy-award winning artist since CT last talked with him, including the addition of a daughter, Ashlyn, to his family with Lauren, his wife of three years, but others haven't—like his commitment to leading the church in worship across the globe. Here's what Tomlin had to say about leading people to experience God in worship around the world.

You're wrapping up the most successful tour of your career, and have been playing in a lot of arena spaces. How do you discern the difference between performance and worship?

You're on a stage and I take it as that. Anyone can be on a stage, but God's put me here for whatever reason. He has given us favor with people, and we always try to take that and give it to God. We try to point people to Jesus in every way. It's continually saying, God, I want to humble myself before you, I want to humble myself before these people, and I want to lead them to you. I think it's wrong to walk up there, hide behind the drums, and act like you're not on stage. That's not leading anybody. You don't want to go into a war with some general who says, I'm not sure if I want to be here, I want to hide behind all the troops. That's not leading. You want somebody to walk out there and say, This is what we're doing, this is how I'm going to lead, and this is where we're going. That's my job—to lead people. But it's not to lead people to me, it's to lead people to God. That's what a pastor does every Sunday. It's just the nature of being in front of people. You see it all through Scripture—God uses people to lead people, so that's what we try to do. I know God has put us here, and he continues to use us because our heart and motive is to help people experience God. You could easily just take all that for yourself, but again that's pride coming up. I think the minute I start leading them to myself, all this will start being taken away, because that's not what it's about.

What's the difference between leading worship in a church sanctuary and in a concert hall or arena?

In an arena the goal is the same as it is in a church—to lead people to worship God, and to connect with people. It's a weird thing when the spotlights are on you, but we want to have something that people enjoy, and we want to do it excellently. We try to do it in the best way we can—with cool lights and video, stuff that speaks the language of the day. It's different in an arena because you can shape the night the way you want it with your music, while for the church you're constantly putting forth new songs and new music. Our church [Passion City Church] sometimes has to be the guinea pig for all this new music. Out here on tour I wouldn't do that, because I want to play the songs and the music people have come to love. That's why they bought tickets to come to the show, because they want to hear those familiar songs, but if you just did all the old songs at church, they'd say, Okay Chris, let's hear something new. So it's a bit different in song selection, but the idea is the same, and the heart is the same. Also, concerts are the one time I have with these people in a year, but at church it's the same people every Sunday, so you're really walking in saying, God, how do I lead these people to you this week? It's a different mindset in that way.

How has your theology of worship evolved over the years in your global travels?

As I've traveled around the world, I've found the poorer the nation, the richer the faith—every time. It's been amazing to see the expressions of worship, and the freedom of people expressing their hearts to God. There's a need, a hunger. We've also definitely seen worship and justice being married together. My friend Louie Giglio, who's on the road with me, says in a way it's like a penny: you've got worship on one side, and justice on the other side. It's still one cent, but it's representing two different things. It's not enough just to come and sing songs, then not really take care of people and help people who are in need. We're all called to do something with the platform God's given us, and God's given us a platform with a lot of college students through Passion. We rally them around a lot of the justice pieces that have come with human trafficking, but there are so many different things people can help with.

You've written hundreds of songs—how do you keep your music fresh?

I'm always trying to write songs to help people worship God. It's interesting because these songs are played on the radio now, so people are like, Wow, you're writing radio hits now. But that's secondary and has come along after writing songs that hit their way in the church. My friend Matt Redman's song "10,000 Reasons" is a perfect example—it's a song that has exploded. It's won every Dove and Grammy award you can imagine, and is a humongous radio song—one of the biggest of 2013—yet it was in the church first. That "success" was all secondary. The greatest songs of worship come from that pure place of trying to help people sing, then all the other stuff comes. I think a lot of people say, If I could just write a hit song, then the church will start singing it. But it doesn't work that way. It's just the opposite.

As a worship leader, how do you engage people in worship, and what do you think holds people back from worshipping authentically?

Pride is the root of everything. In worship to God, in anything in life, it always comes down to pride, and it makes itself known in so many different ways: I've got it all together, I can do this, I can carry this all on my own strength, I've got my life figured out, I can do this. Pride really holds us back. Worship is also about seeing. It's not about singing, it's about seeing. When you really see where you are, where you'd be by yourself, and the depravity of that, then you see God's greatness when you look at Scripture, that causes worship. Singing really brings about seeing God. When we don't see God for who he is, our worship becomes God. If we have small worship, it's because we're seeing a small God, and when we have big worship, it's because we're seeing a big God. That's what you see, especially traveling around the world.

How have your wife and daughter changed the way you experience worship?

My wife is awesome because she's not into how it all produces out. I hear how a song is going to be—oh, the drums are going to do this, etc.—but she doesn't care about any of that. She's perfect because she's like the average person out there listening to music. She's like, "How does it hit me?" She's got a good little gait of music—I'll play something for her, and she'll be like, "Eh, it's okay," or I'll play her something else and she goes, "Oh my gosh, I really love that." It's fun to have someone to bounce things off of like that. My daughter is two years old, so she'll jam out to anything. It's more Dora the Explorer than my songs right now, but she loves dancing, so "God's Great Dance Floor" is one that she likes.

How do you most often meet and commune with God?

It's different in every place. On tour we're in a rhythm, and I don't have any special thing that someone else doesn't do. Right now I have a little book a friend of mine has written of devotional stuff I'm going through, but a lot of it is my thoughts—just resting and thinking about what we're doing out here. All the time. I've taken a massive responsibility for what's going on the road. It's not just going through the motions—it's people coming and really needing something from God. I take that seriously.

Marriage has been awesome, too, because my wife is good at listening. Especially in prayer—just being in a state of listening and being quiet. It's easy to just get flying, and never pause to really listen. My wife's really good at praying and listening, and teaching me to ask God, Okay, what do you want to say? What's in my life right now what are the roadblocks? Really listening and asking God, God, speak to me, and, I'm struggling here, what's causing that, what's in the way? In marriage, we're really able to sharpen each other.

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Chris Tomlin: On Top of the World