They are coming to the Molson Amphitheatre on August 20th and their front man wants you to know that, "The same God that used Barnabas to encourage Paul used John the Baptist to scare the snot out of people." If you are thinking that a heavy metal band playing music with Christian lyrics is the group I am referring to, you are going to be surprised to learn that I was speaking to Mark Hall, lead vocalist of the award winning Casting Crowns.
Hall took time out from a busy schedule to talk to me on the phone from his hometown of McDonough, Georgia, where he serves as the youth pastor of Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church. His comments concerned the provocative in your face lyrics contained in many of the band's songs.
Writing songs like "What If His People Prayed" and "If We Are the Body" Mark Hall and Casting Crowns are to Rock Worship what Superchic[k] is to the pop scene and ZOEgirl represents to teenage girls, they are a voice demanding a return to justice, compassion, and integrity in our relations with others. Casting Crowns has become the sonic conscience of a Christian culture too often indifferent, compromised, and silent.
The words to "If We Are the Body" challenge us to examine our motives and the purity of our hearts; It's crowded in worship today / As she slips in trying to fade into the faces / the girls teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know / farther than they know / and then later the words that remind us; Jesus paid much too high a price / For us to pick and choose who should come / And we are the body of Christ / Jesus is the way /
Their producer is Mark Miller who many know as the lead vocalist of Sawyer Brown and co-owner of Beach Street Records; he signed Casting Crowns to his label. "The songs were really different to me; they came from a different viewpoint than what you would normally hear within Christian music. The lyrics would immediately make you think, 'This guy's a hard hitter.' He's makes no bones about it; he's not hiding from anything. For me, in Christian music, that's a rarity," he says in commenting on what first attracted him to the band's music.
"Another thing that I like about the record (their debut CD) is you have songs like "If We Are the Body" that are coming at you but it is within the context of songs like "Here We Go Again" that say, I am struggling with the same thing. While we may speak truth a little more bluntly it is always within the context of our own transparency. With teenagers the more open I am about my struggles, the more I can talk to them about theirs. I don't think I have ever sat down and said I am going to write an in your face song. You just kind of finish the songs and look at them and go wow they're all going this way," says Hall.
"What If My People Prayed" serves as a rallying cry for issues where the church has closed it's eyes in recent years and remained silent: What if the church, for heaven's sake / Finally stepped up to the plate/
"I think for some reason people are connecting with these songs right now and these are the songs that God wanted to use. He will use different songs by different people at different times," he says.
The band was birthed at First Baptist Church Daytona Beach where Mark Hall was serving as a youth pastor. When he arrived at the Daytona Beach church the then engaged Juan (guitar / vocals) and Melodee Devevo (violin / vocals) were leading the teens in worship. That was the first piece of the puzzle. Hall and the Devevos started to build upon that foundation by establishing a team of high school and college students to lead the worship. Bassist Chris Huffman and Hector Cervantes (guitar / vocals) were two of the students from the Daytona youth group. When Hall accepted a position as youth pastor at Eagle's Landing the band members also moved. Eventually at Eagle's Landing they hooked up with Megan Garrett and drummer Andy Williams.
Hall says, "Worship teaches us how to pray. A student needs to be in an atmosphere where they learn how to talk to God and learn that God's not a book, but that he is a person."
As the group got comfortable playing together and Hall's songwriting developed it led to the creation of the group's independent CD. The project was intended as a youth outreach ministry.
"If you open up the CD lyric pages you would find a description of what we do on Wednesday night and on Sunday and how you can get plugged in. It turned out to be a great outreach because the kids were going up to people at school and saying, 'hey come out and hear our band'," says Hall.
In fact it was through one of his students that Casting Crowns first connected with Mark Miller. The student was attending a basketball camp and had taken the CD with him. Miller happened to be there visiting a former coach and the student introduced him to the band's music.
"It really was a God thing because it started out of nowhere," says Hall.
Miller says when he first approached Hall about signing on with Beach Street Records, "his response was exactly what you'd want to hear. Rather than saying 'When do we leave?' or 'How much money am I going to get?" it was 'Am I still going to be able to be a youth minister?"
"My response was something like, 'Sure, Mark, but your congregation may be a whole lot larger than you would have ever imagined.'"
Mark Hall knew that God intended for him to be a youth pastor. He also knew that God wanted him to write songs to inspire and challenge people in their faith but he never imagined it would work out like this. In fact at one time he thought he might be a songwriter creating new tunes for other artists.
The same Biblical principles that Hall uses to guide his own walk with God are the ones he tries to convey to young people through his music and words.
"My purpose in life is not to be a youth pastor, go to college, be a doctor, and get married or to do any of these things. My purpose in life is to become like Jesus because he said (paraphrasing Romans chapter 8), 'I planned ahead of time for you to be conformed in the image of my son. That's what I want you to do.'
He says along the way to becoming more like Jesus some of us are going to become youth pastors, some writers, another a farmer but that none of that was why we were born. "You were born to be like Jesus and to bring him glory."
Hall asks if a person builds his life around being like Jesus, "Are there really any big decisions in my life? No, the only big decision you make is to surrender to Jesus. If my heart is set to please him in everything that I do, is he going to steer me off a cliff?"
He says that too often we fool ourselves into thinking there are a lot of major decisions to make in the future when really the only big decision is whether or not we are going to surrender to Jesus and become like him today. "If I start focusing out in the future about some possible big thing that is going to happen I am going to trip over what today is about. Today is about whatever sits in front of me and the very next thing. That is the name of a song that I am going to finish, The Very Next Thing."
Hall has never doubted that first and foremost his place in life is serving youth. "I think when God gifts you, the passion for those things come along with it. For me it was about the journey you go on with a teenager to earn their trust to the point where you can talk to them about their friendship with God. To me it is the biggest thing in the church."
Under Hall's leadership JumpStart ministries was started which is a website that helps equip and provide resources to youth leaders and pastors free of charge. The web address is; www.jumpstartresources.com . The material is designed to support and encourage youth leadership where the resources and funds are simply not available to develop their own material.
Halls sees Casting Crowns as tying into that greater ministry, "What has happened is Casting Crowns has exploded and it has taken JumpStart to all these places."
Mark Hall meets with youth pastors prior to the bands concerts and prays with them. He also makes them aware of JumpStart Ministries, a website designed and maintained by various Casting Crowns members. Its sole purpose is to equip and enable youth leaders and pastors who may not have the budget or resources to put together quality material of their own.
Visit www.castingcrowns.com for more information.
Writer: Joe Montague