Three out of the past four years, Chris Tomlin has been invited to participate in the Tim Tebow Foundation’s annual celebrity golf tournament. As a celebrity.
And three out of the past four years, Tomlin has been struck by the same thought while teeing up.
“ ‘Why am I here?’ ” said the 44-year-old singer, songwriter and worship leader. “ ’Cause that word, ‘celebrity,’ I don’t ever think of myself that way. It’s never hit me. ... In a lot of circles, I’m not known at all.”
But in contemporary Christian music circles, there is no doubt: He is a star, a guy boasting 15 No. 1 singles; a Grammy Award; the label of “most likely the most often sung artist anywhere” (from TIME magazine), with an estimated 40 million-plus people singing his songs each week at churches across the U.S.; and the ability to book his “Worship Night in America” tour at uptown Charlotte’s cavernous Spectrum Center. The three-hour concert/inspirational event – which also features Phil Wickham (“This Is Amazing Grace”), Zach Williams (“Chain Breaker”) and others – is on April 13.
Tomlin talked about the show and what’s in it at length, but the bottom line is that the audience for “Worship Night in America” is pretty specific. You’re almost certainly already set in either the “interested” or “not interested” category. So let’s get back to the idea of faith-focused “celebrities,” a subject Tomlin had lots to say about.
I mentioned a friend – 33, married, new baby – who recently told me how she and her husband had tried Elevation Church multiple times, but didn’t stick with it because they felt like it was too much of a show, too much about Pastor Steven Furtick and not enough about God.
Then I asked Tomlin, who has spent time as one of the worship leaders at the Passion City megachurch in Atlanta, whether he worries whether religion and fame are too often conflated.
“Sadly, celebrity-ism – that’s a part of our American culture. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think for a lot of young people, if you asked them, ‘What would be the thing you’d want to be the most in life?’ they would probably say, ‘be famous.’
“But to be a good leader, you have to be able to take people somewhere. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m on stage, but I don’t want to lead anybody.’ You have to be able to say, ‘God’s given me this moment, I’m gonna lead them.’ ”
Tomlin said the show, simply put, is about people connecting with God through music. About giving voice to people to worship God. There’s some spectacle, yes. But the substance, he said, is more important than the style.
“If the songs are right, if they’re really speaking to people in the right way, then all the other stuff – the light, the sound and everything – it just enhances it,” Tomlin said. “If you’re just hoping for the lights and the sound to make it all work, then you’re done. It’s always about the song first, and then let’s get the visuals and everything just to enhance it even more and make it exciting and beautiful for people who come to the concert.”
I asked him how he, personally, makes sure he stays on message and keeps any idolization of the messenger from going to his head.
“I always think about the Old Testament, when it says, ‘People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ So for me, I stay in a place of just, ‘What is my motive? Where is my thought process, and why am I doing what I’m doing? Is it because I want people to recognize me, or is it because that this is the gift God’s given me, and this is the moment he’s given me, and I want to use it?’ Only I can answer that.
“What I’m trying to say is it’s people’s heart that matters. Only they know their motives, only I know my motives, and that’s what God sees; no one else really sees that. At the end of the day, that’s what I’ll stand before God for – that’s what we’ll all stand before God for: our motives.”
And he reiterated that despite what he can do as a singer, a songwriter and an inspirational figure, he barely considers himself worthy of those celebrity golf tournaments.
“Look, I don’t have a red phone to God. Steven Furtick doesn’t have a red phone to God,” Tomlin said, referring to the Elevation leader as a good friend. “We don’t have this connection that no one else has. We’re real people with real needs, just like everybody else.”
Tomlin’s “Worship Night in America” show – which also includes CCM singers Big Daddy Weave, Mosaic MSC and Jason Barton – is at 7 p.m. April 13 at Spectrum Center (333 E. Trade St.). $15-$70. 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com.