Interview on "Burning Lights"
In May 2008,
Chris Tomlin announced a move from The Austin Stone Community
Church, to start a new church with
Atlanta. It became Passion City Church in
the Peachtree Hills area ultimately launching the Passion
Conference movement which nearly filled the Georgia Dome last
month. 60,000 students attended from 50 states, 54
countries, and 2,022 colleges.
For more on this year's conference,
Q: Your new record
Burning Lights is a little bit of a shift for you in sound,
obviously. So I wanted you to perhaps explain to people who are
longtime listeners to your music, what might they hear that’s a
little bit different than what you’ve done in the past?
A: Yeah I think that I’m
excited about where the sound is, but it’s not a huge departure.
I think what we try to do is keep the songs simple. Not try to
overdo anything or overproduce anything but keep the songs that
need to have some energy to them really fun and keep some of the
beauty as well. I think a lot of that comes from the guys that
helped me produce this music.
I have the very best help with me on this album. Jason Ingram,
who produced most of this record, and I have really bonded
together over the last few years and he really gets what it’s
about for me; he understands how we make the record a connection
even in the studio, how we make this connection to the Church,
and how we make this a way that is exciting musically and
connects to people.
I can see myself singing and playing these songs in my church. And
that’s what I wanted to do. I want this to be a real gift to the
Church and I want people to be able to sing these songs. I think
the beauty of it is just really captured in a lot of these
songs. My friend Ed Cash also produced a few of the
tracks as well and he’s been a big part of my music for a long
time. What an absolute privilege to be working with these guys.
Chris Tomlin talks about "Whom Shall I Fear"
Q: I was actually kind of
surprised. I thought there would be a bigger departure for you,
but there are some subtleties, which are very nice, and I don’t
think people are going to be overly shocked with what they hear
on the record.
A: No, not at all. I don’t want
people to be shocked, that’s not what I’m looking for.
Q: I agree that there’s a
little bit of fun there that might catch people by surprise.
A: I think if you’re blessed to
have a longer musical life and career, you begin trying to make
the records bigger, with bigger production and all of that, but
I just wasn’t really interested in that. I wanted to keep it
what it is and how it naturally comes out of me. I hope people
love it and the way it sounds.
Q: What will always be in a
Chris Tomlin record no matter how long your career lasts? What
would you say will always be a part of what you do when you
A: It’s always going to be for
me songs that are written from the heart of worshiping God:
simple, singable songs that can hopefully find their way into
the Church and that really help people to worship God and give
them a voice to sing. That’s just always been it for me. That’s
the filter I run [songs] through. People hear the finished
product and really don’t know what went into it and what was
knocked off and how many times these songs were re-recorded to
really get the guts of it and make you feel it because at the
end of the day that’s what music does and that’s God’s gift to
us through music.
You feel it in your heart and it helps us respond to God with our
emotions; it’s a beautiful thing. I want people to feel it in
their guts when they sing a song like “Crown Him” or
“Thank You God For Saving Me” or “Whom Shall I Fear?”
I just want that to come out of their guts. That’s what we’re
trying to do in these songs and really capture the emotion and
write them in a way that is singable for people.
Chris Tomlin talks about "Whom Shall I
Q: You’re a servant
particularly to the people who lead the songs. You’re a servant
also to the worshipers, but you serve the leaders almost on a
A: And to elaborate on that
answer a little bit more...I think that I take great
responsibility in the platform that God has given me, especially
the leaders, which are people that are me; I am a worship leader
at my church. I’m not out there trying to just put pop songs
out. I really want songs that can be played on the radio so that
a lot of people hear them and know about the songs, but
ultimately it’s more important to me that a song goes way past
me and finds its way into people singing it at a church. It
becomes a song that they sing at their church. That’s the most
important thing to me.
Q: You have a lot of experience
with live recording with Passion. What’s the difference
between the two as far as a worship approach and why did you
choose to go studio this time?
A: I really like making records
in the studio. I used to not think you could do that—make a
worship record in the studio—but I’ve definitely changed my mind
on that and I really feel that there’s things you can do in the
studio that… you can’t do live.
The beauty of the live thing is that you really capture the ambience of
the room, you really hear the room worshiping God and that draws
you in. That’s a special thing on its own that draws you in that
the studio doesn’t have.
But I still think there’s something special about what studio records
make you feel as well. We do our best for it not to feel like a
dry room and really fill it up. Some of these songs you hear
have many voices on them. Everyone, the band and the producers,
are all singing together in there so you really feel a group
singing. I think that’s important in the song of worship because
songs of worship are meant for community and are meant for the
people coming together to sing and that’s what we try to capture
with these studio records.
Q: Talking about Passion:
What did last month look like for you? What was the ramp up to
A: This is like the 25-minute
break that I’m taking, and it’s an interview. That’s what it
looks like for me and it’s full on. It’s amazing though, I feel
like we were just under a waterfall of songs over the last three
or four years starting with the Awakening album to
Here For You to White Flag to now the Passion
And that’s every year, trying to bring
new songs that are important to a generation of college
students. And I know this music reaches way beyond college
students as well, so I’m trying to write and bring fresh new
worship songs. We could just rehash other people’s songs, but
when you think about the last record and some of the important
songs on there—“10,000 Reasons,” “Not Ashamed,” “White Flag,”
and “One Thing Remains”—it’s just amazing to me to look
back and see what God is doing in our community.
Q: I felt like your record really
complimented the theme of Passion last year.
A: So people might say, “Why
don’t you do this?” But that’s for another time. It wasn’t for
this moment in this conference. And I think you’re right, people
are listening in to an album that really only about 50,000
others have experienced but hundreds of thousands of people are
listening into it, so we’re trying to make it where it really
captures the heart of this generation of students. We want to
make sure it captures what we’re trying to say and [that it]
captures this movement, yet really ripples across the churches
around the world.
Obviously, we can’t do that in our own flesh in our own human ability,
that’s just above and beyond. But even in these new songs, that
I can’t wait for people to hear, we just have to laugh because
it’s like we’re under the faucet and God has given us so much
blessing. I’ve noticed that it’s a moment of the floodgates
opening and it’s a moment in time that we’re standing in, and
we’re really thankful for that.
Q: We’ll keep you guys in our
prayers. By the way, congratulations on the Grammy nod. What does
something like that mean for you?
A: I appreciate it you, thank you.
You know, it’s not something that I aspire to, or it’s never the
goal for me. It’s very awesome to even be in the category of so many
great people and to even be thought of. When people think of all the
songs that have been around for this past year and White Flag
is what comes to people’s minds, it’s like, “Wow that’s amazing.”
And also, last year, receiving the Grammy
for And If Our God Is For Us. Again when people think of all
the albums that were made in this past year and that’s what stands
out and people say that’s what they really love, I really appreciate
that. It’s more than just your friends, especially the Grammy’s,
it’s all these people that I don’t know, and that’s a very humbling
thing. I’m really grateful for that.
Q: On your record, other than
White Flag (we know how great and wonderful that is), what songs
are you specifically excited about or what songs are people already
responding to in your worship leading?
A: The top song for me right now is
“Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies).” It’s the biggest
song in our church right now. We start the opening guitar riff and
the place blows up. They’re so excited to sing the verse, and I
think it’s what people need to sing. This is a song that is needed
in our churches because we are not a people of fear, we are a people
of faith and we live in a world of fear. Everything you see on the
news is about fear of the future; fear of financial collapse, fear
of relationships going down the tube, fear of anxiety, fear of
depression, fear of cancer, fear of everything that’s coming at you,
and life comes at you hard. But that’s not our story, our story is
not to live in fear but our story is to live in faith and to open
2 Kings 6 is really the heart of that song with that story of Elijah and
his servant: this army coming down on their village. The servant
goes to check it out in the morning to see what’s going on and he
sees the army and all their horses camped around. He then runs to
Elijah, scared to death, and says, “What are we going to do?” And
Elijah says, “Do not fear because those who are with us are far more
than they who are with them.” He says, “Lord, open up the eyes of my
servant so he can see what you truly see,” and immediately the
servant’s eyes were opened and he saw this hill filled with horses
and chariots of fire and these angel armies camped around.
I think that’s what I’m praying for in this song, that the Church would
see… that their eyes are opened to see. What Elijah tells us that to
truly see is not just seeing what’s in front of your faces, but to
see what’s really going on when you feel like things are coming
against you. So, I love what that song says.
There’s a song “Crown Him With Many
Crowns” that I’ve wanted to reclaim for a long time for the
younger generations. …The second line of that hymn has always been
something I can’t ever shake. When I’m teaching songwriting classes,
when I’m talking about lyrics, I always bring this line up, “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 was able to write this song with my friend Matt Maher. When
writing, we looked up its history and where it came from. It turns
out there was a little dispute with this song between the Catholic
and the Protestant churches. And here we are: me a leader in the
Protestant Church and Matt Maher, a leader in the Catholic Church.
And we’re just sitting at the piano laughing like, “Are you kidding
me?” …The Catholics have written all of these verses and the
Protestants have written all these verses and they argued over which
verses should be sung. It was one of the few songs that was sung
through all the Church in both Catholic and Protestant churches, and
there’s not many of those, so what’s been passed down to us is sort
of a mixture of the two. And here are Matt and I sitting there
working on this together and I thought how ironic that the Lord
would bring this all around and us not even know that.
I’m just really excited for this song and what that could mean for the
Church. And obviously, there’s a couple songs that were on the last
Passion record like “White Flag,” “Lay Me Down,” “Jesus,
Son Of God,” that were stand outs that I wanted to put on this
record. I know only a certain amount of people hear the Passion
record, so for the great majority of people who buy my music these
will be brand new songs for them. I felt like these were important
songs. “Lay Me Down” has just been one of the songs that
you’re always looking for as a worship leader that has so much
energy, but it’s still saying something. It has so much excitement
and joy to it. We love playing that; we play it every night if
there’s ever a tour. It’s just so fun to play.
Q: Well let me just say “Crown
Him (Majesty)" is definitely a highlight, you guys did a
wonderful job with that, adding to it and giving it a renewed
majesty. Listening to the whole record and I came to the last song
where you get the title of the record: “Burning Lights.” It
takes a little bit of interpretation and I was wondered if you could
explain where that song comes from. I feel it could mean something
even more to worship leaders, but I wanted to hear your take on that
and where your heart was and what that song means to you.
A: Again, speaking to worship
leaders, I feel like I’m speaking to my people here, and they’ll
understand what I’m saying … The first couple lines of the song “I’m
no hero of the faith / I’m not as strong as I once thought I was /
I’m just a shepherd boy / Singing to a choir of burning lights.”
That right there is everything I want to say because anybody who’s
ever been on a platform—which is many of the people reading
this—with a church or some kind of ministry, people look at you in a
different way and think, “Oh you must have it all together, you must
have this direct line to God.” Worship leader’s can really sing that
from their heart and know what it is to say “I’m no hero of the
faith, I’m not as strong as I once thought I was.”
I want to find myself just like David,
long before he was made king, long before there was a platform, long
before people knew his name. He was singing the songs, he was
writing songs of worship, just watching over his little flock. He
was just a humble kid, and I want to be the same way. If no one ever
bought a record again or if I didn’t tour again, I’d still want to
have the same heart. Lord, just find me being that shepherd boy. You
know that’s who we are; I just want to be singing to a choir of
And obviously it’s twofold, the burning lights are just singing to God’s
creation, the stars, but also the people. And Jesus is the light of
the world who we’re singing to, as well. What a privilege it is,
Sunday after Sunday night, that God would give you the
responsibility and give you the platform to sing over people—to lift
people’s souls and lift people’s spirits with a song, and that’s the
heart of it.
Q: I think that that one’s going to
be a special gift to our reader’s in particular so I appreciate you
sharing a little bit of your heart.
Reprinted with permission in
Originally published in Worship Leader magazine
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