Casting Crowns is not only one of the top-selling Christian bands of all time, but they're also one of the top touring bands--including mainstream bands--in the U.S., according to Pollstar magazine. Yet another example of how gospel acts are exploding across the country, the band has been playing sold out shows across the globe, recently headlining three concerts in Africa. This year, they received a Grammy for Best Pop/Contemporary album for their sophmore release, "Lifesong." (click here to listen to it on Beliefnet). As if the band wasn't busy enough, lead singer Mark Hall, who is also a full-time youth pastor, recently released the book "Lifestories," which tells of the people and events that inspired Casting Crowns' songs.  

Hall spoke with Beliefnet about the band's ministry, the importance of worship, and using music as a tool to relate to young people.

What’s your favorite thing about being in Casting Crowns?

I would say the people and seeing what God’s doing in other places. I’ve been a part of ministry for 15 years, but it’s always been one church and one group of people--which has been pretty awesome too. It’s just a different kind of ministry to say hello and goodbye in one night. It takes a little while to get used to. I’m starting to see that people are people everywhere. They’re all dealing with the same stuff. We’re all struggling and worrying about the future. To come into a city in one night and join in with what God’s already telling people there--that’s pretty awesome.

Is it hard for you to say “hello” and “goodbye” to people in the same night?

At first it was because it felt like you’re not really connecting with people. But what I’m starting to understand is that it’s just a totally different side of ministry because the church is already in that city. God doesn’t need me to go in there and be the church. God’s calling me to go into that city and pour water on the seeds that are already planted there. We’re not bringing anything into town on our bus that wasn’t there before. We’re not saying anything new that hasn’t already been said. We’re just reaffirming what’s already going there.

Do you ever feel the pressure of having to do so much at once? You seem to be balancing a lot with being a father, a husband, a pastor, and being in a highly successful band.

I think we all do what we can do. I think everybody will tell you there’s moments where they’re like, “Ok. I’m out of here.” I think we’ve all been to the limit.

What do you do when that happens?

When that happens, you’ve got to be very careful how you think. If you’re not careful, you’ll do that age-old [thing] where you say, “Let’s sit down and do a pros and cons list and figure out what we’re able to do,” which is just not a life of faith.

What you’ve got to do is just skin it all down and say to God, “What are you calling me to do? What is your purpose for me here?” When you break it all down back to what your calling is, you’ve got to start from there.

A lot of the struggle in ministry is that everything is a good thing. So all the opportunities that come to you are good. They’re not asking you to go burn down a playground. People are coming to you and saying, “Hey, can you come help my church? Can you come help my missions group? Can you come help my school?” Saying no to that you’ll feel like you’re not doing what God wants you to do. So you end up saying yes to everything. That’s something that we in ministry deal with all the time. What you’ve got to do is stay on task and say, "God, this is what you want me to do. You want me to love on these teenagers in Atlanta [where he is still a youth pastor] and you want me to be a part of what Casting Crowns is doing.”

So we keep [touring] to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The other rule is that my family goes with me. I’ve got to be a daddy before [everything]--before even the church. The moment that [being a pastor and being in the band] gets in the way of the family, it goes.

Can you explain what you mean by the title track off “Lifesong.”

All the songs you ever hear from us are songs that we’re talking about in our church, things that we’re talking about and dealing with in people’s lives and as a group. We started talking about worship and about the fact that to think that we can live our lives however we want to all day long and then wander into a church at night and read a bunch of words off a screen--to think that’s worship is a misunderstanding of what worship is.

Colossians 3 says that “Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all for the glory of the Lord.” So everything I do is to bring a smile to his face.

The song started when you woke up this morning. Today is your song. Everything that you’re doing. I remember at a prayer time one night, saying out loud, “God, let my lifesong sing to you” and I knew when I said it that it was something that we would hear again. This has kind of turned into a theme for us.

So living your song through your life?

That’s right. In Matthew 6, Jesus really starts getting into our motivations. He says, "It’s good that you pray, but are you praying to be seen, or are you praying to talk to me? It's good that you give to the poor, but are you giving to be seen? Why are you fasting? Are you fasting and then putting sack cloth and ashes on and walking around all mopey, because, 'Yeah, I’m fasting this week,' or are you really doing this for me? Because if you’re doing it for you, you’ve wasted your time. Your reward was right then."

To me, God is saying, why you do what you do is almost more important than what you’re doing, because he wants to know your motivations behind what you do. Our motivation behind worship is important to God, it’s important to what we’re doing and if my life doesn’t glorify, how is singing somebody else’s song off a screen bringing him glory? It’s just asking some hard questions.

You’ve been quoted as saying, "All of life is worship, and if we’re not careful, we won’t praise worship and we’ll worship praise.” Explain this.

Well one of the neat things about worship, and one of the really cool things about God, is here is a moment that is supposed to be all about him. We’re singing to him, we’re lifting our hands to him, and at the same time that we’re doing this thing just for him, he’s just pouring out love on all of us. But if we’re not careful, worship will become more of the experience then what it was really for.

You hear people say, “I just didn’t get anything out of worship today.” That’s a dangerous thing to say because it was never for you to start with--it was all for him. If you’re not careful, it can turn into an experience-based type of walk--"I want to go experience worship, I want to see God do this great thing"-- instead of just, "I want to love on Jesus."

To me, worship is praying without asking for anything. So really, I’ve got to be able to know that I’m doing that and I’m loving on him, just to love on him.

Do you find that to be true among other Christian artists? That they might be doing it for all the wrong reasons?

Well, I can only answer for myself--there are a lot of artists out there. I don’t know their hearts. God tells me I don’t even know my own heart. If your heart is desperately wicked, who would even know it? God has to show me my own heart. At times I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I was about one thing or another, and he shows me there's an underlying problem [I'm] not thinking about. There are times when I put on a happy face when I'm really not happy or my head’s not in the game.

In your song "While You Were Sleeping" you say that Bethlehem missed the birth of Jesus and Jerusalem did the same with Jesus’ ministry. Then you sing, "The United States of America looks like another silent night, as we’re sung to sleep by philosophies that save the trees and kill the children." What inspired that song?

To me, it’s just amazing to see how quickly we change tracks when we talk in media and on television. I just remember watching a talk show one day and the host was talking out of both sides of her mouth, on one side saying, “We need to protect our environment and we need to be kind to animals”--I can’t remember the exact quote--but then came right back and talked about our right to abortion. I just thought, "How do you become that backwards?" You’re negating everything you’re saying.

The only reason I can recognize it in that host is because I’ve seen it in my own life. I say, “Here’s what I believe, and you ought to do this and this and this.” And God turns me around and says, “Well what about this area?” That’s what I see in our culture. We have strong convictions in one area, but we totally contradict them in another place. And to me, someone who is passionate about saving dolphins and saving trees and then applauds someone who is killing their child--and to do it with a straight face--it just shows you how far away we are.

To look back at Bethlehem and to look back at Jerusalem and say, "How can they have had Jesus with them face-to-face and still miss it?" I think we have even more than that. We have Jesus’ people all around us and we've got the signs. We’ve got all the scripture that they never had back then. And here we’re going to miss it again as a country.

When you sing “sung to sleep by philosophies” did you mean that America needs to find religion and not look so much toward New Age philosophies or spirituality?

I’m sure. Even Paul said to Timothy, the time is going to come when people are going to surround themselves with teachers that are going to tell them what their itching ears want to hear, and what our philosophies tell you today is, “I’m OK, you’re OK, don’t believe anything that has any sort of accountability to it. Just take some from here and take some from there and just be Do whatever feels good to you."

I believe it may have been Philippians where he said, "Their God is their stomach--whatever feels good at the time." And that's taking us desperately the wrong way.

What inspires you to keep going with the band and your music ministry?

What inspires me is an everyday walking around relationship with God. Not coasting on something really cool that happened a year ago, or writing a song and just sitting around listening to it over and over again. I’ve got to have today. I’ve got to sit down today and spend some time with God.

Ministry is not the end to me, it’s the overflow of what happens with your one-on-one time with God, and when it’s not, it becomes a job--and that’s when you’re done.

What is it about music that you think is a good tool for young people to relate to?

I think kids are into music more than they’re into anything. So I think music has always been a great tool, [whether] your agenda is negative or positive. Musicians are being elevated to talk about things even when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When you get a teenager listening to a song, it's almost like little mini-contract because you're saying, "I’m going to talk to you about something but I promise you it's only going to be three and a half minutes." If the music is the style they like, you can talk to them about things that you might not ordinarily be able to say. I’ve just seen with our CD and what people are saying to us. They’re using the CD as a tool to talk to their friends. “Listen to this song. What do you think about this?” It gets conversations started. I’ve always done that in my life--growing up with Christian music.

Did you listen to mainstream music when you were younger?

I [did] but I started listening to Christian music exclusively, I’d say about 12 years ago--I was probably 20, 21. I just thought, I am a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come. If I am trying to live a life that honors Jesus, I don’t understand why I would listen to music that doesn’t. So I just decided whatever kind of music it is, if it doesn’t agree with the life I’m trying to live then it’s not really helping me. It's not a genre issue. It wasn’t really an issue of if it’s a sin or not, it’s more along the lines of, is this wise for me to listen to? Is this helping me or not?

What about mainstream bands who aren’t necessarily preaching a negative message but who aren’t Christians?

When I’m talking to my teenagers, I [tell them] whether Christian music or secular music is bad or good is not the question. The question is, is this band saying things that are helping me in my walk with God, or not helping me on my walk with God? It’s not a question of, Is this going to be a sin for me? Is this an evil band or a good band? It's more about what’s wise for me in light of what I want to see in my life. I want to honor God with my life. What's wise for me in my entertainment? What’s wise for me in my dating relationships? Because if you’re not careful, you start becoming the music police and the movie police and the friend police and everything else?

How do you handle situations where your students tell you, "Hey, I like this band," and because you're in the industry, you know that the band in question doesn't have a very good message.

I just tell them what I know. I ask questions. What are they about? What does the music say? What are these guys about? Because your music is or who you want to be or who you wouldn’t mind being. You're saying a lot with what you put in your head. I wasn’t out listening to scary, horror-movie music when I was a teenager. I was listening to love songs and Top 40 radio. When your head is full of, “If I don’t have you, I don’t have anything" and "You’re my life, you’re my everything" when that "everything" breaks up with you and that’s all that you’re surrounded with in your head constantly, that can put you in a dangerous place.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

Probably my most popular prayer right now is just, “Father, I want to honor you with my day. Is there anything in my life right now that’s coming between me and you and our fellowship? I want to honor you with everything I do. And just give me wisdom for the day. Help it not to be about myself today."

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