A few weeks ago, having cleared all of my post graduation obligations, and being fully immersed into my post college work schedule, I started playing in the church worship band – or should I say the local Chris Tomlin cover band. I was linked up to a hyper-organized online planning center with Spotify links to all of the songs. I was encouraged to listen to these specific recordings. I tried my best to get through all of them. (Implicit in “tried my best” is that I did not/could not make myself listen to the entire tracks.) I printed out the charts for all of the songs that were to be rehearsed for our Thursday night practice. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time, but I kept seeing the name Chris Tomlin. I had the six songs that we were going to play and every one of them had his name on it. I had heard the name before, but I work hard to keep the contemporary Christian music world as far off of my radar as possible.
I would not have continued to think about the songwriter/producer/co-songwriter/arranged-by-credits, but on the night of rehearsal an iPhone was placed against a microphone for me figure out exactly what was being played on that specific recording. I don’t really like being put on the spot, or exactly duplicating arrangements in a worship band setting. I did however find the notes that the hired gun on the album played, and made a similar sound with my six strings. I had fun that night, met some really talented musicians, and found my place in the band’s mix, but I left with a slightly unsettled feeling.
I started doing a little research on this Chris Tomlin character. As it turns out he is filthy rich for writing music for people who are, “tone deaf, and can’t clap on two and four.” (His words, not mine.) He has sold 4.2 million albums and 6 million digital downloads. He has had countless sold out tours, but the royalties are the major money makers for Tomlin. In 2012, CCLI paid out over 40 million to Christian song writers for use of their songs in churches. Tomlin had the number one most used song and then another five in the top twenty five. I could not find exact data on what he was paid, but there is sufficient evidence to speculate that he could afford to pay for my grad school without feeling it. (Most of this data was pulled from this CNN article here) That is all fine and good. Right on, man. Pay those bills. Artists work hard, and should get paid. Right?
Somehow, this idea of a worship leader rockstar is still pretty uncomfortable for me. As I have been searching my gut feeling, and sifting through it with data, I cannot find any fault in what Tomlin is doing. I don’t know that I think making money is a problem. I don’t know that I think making lots of money is a problem. However, Jesus had certainly mentioned the difficulties involved in being rich and following him. (That is for Tomlin to sort out, not me) In search of the damnation of Chris Tomlin, I was digging through the enlightening article from CNN’s religion blog. What I found instead was a place to feel compassion and pity.
He said this to the interviewer…
I feel like I have a responsibility, that God has given me a gift to write songs for his church that people listen to and that people are coming to expect now. When I make a record I feel that responsibility that worship leaders, churches are going to say, ‘Hey, are there some new songs we can sing in our church?’
The parts of his statement that really struck me were, “I feel like I have a responsibility,” and, “People are coming to expect.” It seems like in-between the lines, Tomlin is talking about a pressure from his audience to make these records, or produce a commodity. The part of Chris Tomlin making metric-shit-tons of money that bothers me isn’t Chris Tomlin at all. Chris Tomlin’s success is indicative of a much larger problem.What bothers me is the system of consumption within the church.
Here is the problem: We have imposed our American consumeristic culture onto our Church culture. Chris Tomlin was made into a superstar, because we need a superstar. American consumerism needs heroes. It needs something or someone to worship. It just seemed like that someone or something to worship was already built into the Christianity thing. Church and the experience of worship are now a commodity that we are buying up in bulk. We have made an industry out of the whole thing. I wish I could pin it on Chris Tomlin. I wish I could say he is the rockstar that needs to be taken down. I wish I could say he is the anti-Christ behind all of this. That would be much easier to fix. The problem is so much larger than one super star or even many. (There are certainly other names on the tops of chord charts that tour in buses more than they watch their kids play ball.) The problem here is that what we do on a Sunday morning in America is a far cry from what shook out on a day-to-day basis for the new testament church.
I wish I could say that I had a solution to solve the problem. I wish I could say that I knew I properly identified the problem. Somewhere post World War II when America’s powerhouse economy was built on the backs of the consuming public, we brought that attitude of consumption with us to church. We built this machine that now feeds itself, and consumes the consumers. Maybe the church had no business being consumers of anything in the first place.
Consumerism and Christianity just are not compatible. Some times when theology and culture meet, something beautiful happens, and sometimes something awful and seemingly unrepairable happens.
As an important added note to this blog post: I have never met Chris Tomlin, and I have no ground from which to judge his heart. I’ve been very careful not to. It is very possible he is a super rad dude. It is also possible that he is less than rad.