MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 19: CASTING CROWNS

Maybe it’s just me, but often I lay awake and sit and wonder whether all this Jesus stuff is worth it. Not to the point where I am questioning my faith, but at the same time, you can’t help but think that maybe, if you were born to a different family, on the other side of the world, or maybe just born different (a different gender perhaps), maybe what I believe will be different too. Just an initial thought process. But then the thoughts move away and one question remains- do I still believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ all those years ago? Do I believe He came to earth as a baby, lived among us for 30 years, ministered to the folk around the time, healed people and performed other miracles? Do I believe that He was crucified, ridiculed and made a mockery of, because He claimed to be God incarnate, and then three days later after Jesus died, He rose again, conquering the very thing He set out to do- vanquish death itself and an eternity of separation from Him? The very bold answer is this- yes, yes I do believe in the questions that was just put forward to me. And so if I do believe in Christianity, and the way of life as to follow the examples of Christ and to live as He did (though I know I’ll ultimately fail in this regard, because He is perfect, and I am not!), then I guess even if I did have a different family, even if I was on the other side of the world, even if I wasn’t born a man, I’m sure God would’ve seen my heart. He would’ve loved me just the same; and given me signs of His existence, and prompted me, wherever I was and whatever I looked like, to think of the deeper questions and to ask the metaphysical and spiritual things that people should be thinking and having a dialogue about.

For me these last few years, I’ve been listening to a band that is as popular within the Christian music community as they are controversial, they are as biblically sound as they are vibrantly convicting. They have helped me immensely on my own walk with God these last few years, and therefore, only feels fitting to include them on my own personal top 100 influential artists list, not because of any significance and importance to music in general, but in terms of the importance to myself, as an individual. Casting Crowns, a band that has been talked about amongst people who love Christian music (like myself) for ages, this 7 piece band borne out of Florida is one such band that comforts and unsettles at the same time. They give us melodies of hope and encouragement, and other songs, they try to poke and prod, to have a reaction of change in a community that needs it, by provoking emotions of discomfort, as we look and see what is wrong with society and the status quo, and to act upon these convictions, as we try, with God’s help, to rectify what has been shattered and broken, maybe for generations.

One may be baffled as to why Casting Crowns, or any Christian artist for that matter, is placed in this top 100 influential artists list. Because frankly, if you think of the grandest scheme of things, Christian artists are not that influential. Well…except if you’re Hillsong, Chris Tomlin or DC Talk, I guess. Every other Christian band, by definition, aren’t that special. But then here comes Casting Crowns, by no means popular within the circles of mainstream music, not even to the point of currently, Christian artists like Lauren Daigle and NF are. But herein lies the point- Casting Crowns have always been grounded in their local church. While still operating as a full time band, they are still at home at least half of every week. So while I’m sure other bands do around 200+ shows per year, Casting Crowns would probably want to limit the exposure of touring to around half of that. And maybe that’s ok. I’m sure, regardless of touring schedule, and whether a band tours more or less, a band can still be effective- and Casting Crowns have proven, that though they don’t travel as much as other bands do, they still impact and affect the lives of everyday people, myself included.

‘…somewhere in the history of the church, believers got into our heads that to be a good witness and to share Christ the right way, we had to act like we had it all together. I don’t know how we learned it or how we had it ingrained into us but that’s what you see. People are fighting all the way to church in their car, but there’s something about this magic parking lot of the church, when their foot hits that pavement, everything is beautiful. Everyone becomes your brother, everyone becomes your sister, everyone’s having a great day. We’re just “blessed beyond measure.” It’s not real. What happens is we’re portraying something thinking that, “I’ll just fake it till I make it.” Or we think, “If people think things aren’t going well for me today they won’t want to be saved.” Yet, I don’t think it really bothers the world that we sin. It bothers the world that we act like we don’t. It just doesn’t seem real. I want advice from someone who’s been where I am. I want to hear truth from someone who’s fallen a few times and has a few scars. That’s why I think the best gift we would ever give each other, especially in our marriages, is when we come to church, find community. In community we can tear the plastic off and just be ourselves. We can say, “You know what, we don’t have it all together at our house and it’s kind of a mess. But Jesus lives in this mess and he’s walking with us through it.” I think the first need for marriages is true, honest community…’

Oh…the need for us to have things all-together. I love this quote aforementioned by lead singer-songwriter of the band, Mark Hall. Though the quote above speaks specifically about marriage and the need to be honest, not only to your spouse but also to your church family if you’re struggling (and relates to the powerful song ‘Broken Together’ released a few years ago); I guess the quote and sentiment can also be applied to not only spouses but in everyday life as well. We all feel the need to have it all together. But we don’t have it all together- far from it. We have our days where we don’t feel ourselves, where we’re tired, worried, under stress and anxious about the future, when we understand and know that we hardly don’t know anything at all, feeling inadequate because of what we fail to emphasise in, feeling like we’re a failure, either in the eyes of man or in the eyes of God for whatever reason. And then the kicker of all things we often believe about ourselves, but too afraid to say. That we are not worthy of God’s love, that the love we receive from God should be better put to good use on someone else, because what we’ve done and said aren’t worthy of any kind of redemption and love that God gives us freely. And so if we feel like any of that that I’ve just described, and we are a self-professed Christian…yep, you guessed it. We hide it- we don’t let anyone else know.

We have it all together, because isn’t that what Christianity is all about? Isn’t that the picture that the world often sees? That Christians live a ‘great’ life and are sure and certain about everything, and that everyone else is…well, everyone else? But therein lies the fact of, well, the lies about said statements. God doesn’t want our lives all together. And this is where Casting Crowns (God speaking through them, of course!) have reminded me over the years that all we need to do is to come as we are to the One who made us, knowing full well that the condemnation we receive is not from Him, but from our own thoughts, and even Satan himself. And this is what I love about the band- they are raw and honest, they are authentic, and create spaces and avenues for people to become real and emotive alongside them, sharing what their preconceived ideas of the faith are, and really, why they feel the way they do.

This 7 piece band from the easternmost part of America has given to us songs that impact, myself included. Sure, on every other list imaginable, no sort of CCM artist would be on a top 100 artist post. Nevertheless, this is my belief, and if I am feeling convicted by Casting Crowns and their music, then I’m sure others are impacted and affected as well! Christian artists have impacted me and how I view the world and society, there’s no doubt about that. For me on a personal level, to include no artist of whom I have grown up with and been influenced by, may seem only criminal. Casting Crowns have shaped not only my high school years, but also my university years as well. With songs of hope and forgiveness, but also songs of conviction and maybe, positive action; Casting Crowns have always been the soundtrack for people who are searching for inspirational songs, but rooted specifically in Biblical truth, about what we know is said about us, by God Himself!

Casting Crowns began its humble beginnings in Florida, and quickly enough, the band moved to Nashville, Tennessee (home of all things music) to pursue a career in music. Now here in 2019, we see the band become just that- a band with a lot of albums, alongside many awards and opportunities to bring songs to the masses through the radiowaves. To put it bluntly, Casting Crowns write music that is primarily radio friendly and accessible to the average joe person, but all the while carefully crafting some of Christian music’s most emotive and poignant lyrics. In essence- lyrically, the band is top notch, with much of the music, in fact, all of it, grounded in the Word of God, and reminding us of the qualities of God and who we are in light of that. The music as a whole, will leave a lot of listeners to be desired, because frankly, Casting Crowns aren’t as musically risqué or even inventive when compared to many other artists within the CCM community- the likes of Crowder, All Sons and Daughters, Third Day, Andrew Peterson, all these guys have a much more interesting musical backdrop compared to the band out of Florida. And maybe, that’s ok. The band hasn’t really focused too much on the aesthetics and how the music sounds in the grand scheme of things. If the song touches a person’s life, then the band has served their purpose.

After being in the business for 20 years, and having countless of accolades and awards, it can be hard for a band to stay grounded. But for Casting Crowns, the fact that each one of them are still vital and heavily involved in their local church and ministry, makes my appreciation and respect for these men and women grow all the more. It has always been their heartfelt songs, not necessarily about having things altogether, but just songs about life and what has been coming from their own local churches; that has been the source of inspiration for the band, and as much of their musical catalogue suggests, their home-grown church has inspired many a song that has been entering into the lives of people over the years. Quite possibly one of the greatest songs they’ve ever done, ‘Who Am I’ brought the band onto the map of Christian music, as this song is by far one of the standout songs I’ve heard within the 2000s decade. Full stop. A song that really wrestles with the idea of who we are and who we believe to be who God is, and how to reconcile the fact that Christ came to be sacrifice for us when we were most definitely not worth it; ‘Who Am I’, for me personally, is one of my favourites from the band, ever, and a song that I can always come back to if I’m feeling down or worried. ‘Voice of Truth’ is another similar song- one of hope and comfort as Mark Hall, lead singer, relates our own fears and insecurities to that of Peter, disciple of Jesus, and David, who was tasked to protect the city and fight against the giant, Goliath, and his crew of followers. He breaks down the bible characters into people that you and I can relate to, and that’s the beauty of Casting Crowns and their music. Though he’s still talking about the bible, the characters of the bible can seem so far off and not relatable to us of the present day, yet Mark himself brings out the humanity in these biblical characters for them to be people we can see ourselves in at times. And that is what makes, I reckon, most of Casting Crowns’ song much more relatable than arguably any other CCM artist there has been, in quite some time!

While I reckon both ‘Voice of Truth’ and ‘Who Am I’ formed the backbone, musically and thematically, for their debut album that they released in 2003, other songs also charted well on radio and spoke into the hearts of us all- ‘American Dream’, a song about the pursuit of the American dream and our want to be part of the crowd that has this elusive and never-quite-satisfying white picket fence; shows us what really happens when everything we want and achieve is really attained, and the cost that we will have to bear, because what we amass will fall to bits anyway if we don’t involve our family in these decisions. On the other hand, ‘Here I Go Again’ is perhaps the prequel to the new song ‘One Awkward Moment’- in ‘Here I Go Again’, we are met with someone who’s desperate to share the gospel to their friend, but is indeed crippled by fear of what people may think if they indeed share the good news. I know I can personally relate to this song, because in my line of work, I meet all kinds of people, and trying to speak about something encouraging from God (not necessarily the full gospel, but something to make people think about issues other than themselves), can be a little difficult- when all you do know is to indeed talk about the weather. Which is a little sad, because frankly, I haven’t been to church as much as I would’ve liked, and maybe I myself wasn’t as confident as I could’ve been. Nevertheless, ‘Here I Go Again’ can and should give everyone motivation about sharing the things that are on their hearts, and not waiting until the situation at hand has indeed passed us by. ‘If We are the Body’ brings the theme of evangelism full circle and tries to encourage the church as a whole to be the body of Christ, something that is much easier said, than done. Nevertheless, these songs from Casting Crowns make it a solid debut, and with the songs that follow on subsequent albums, more and more messages of hope and confrontation (in a loving way) are shown, as lead singer Mark Hall and co. continue to become a band that is not afraid to shy away from topics that would divide nations in half if it could.

For me the band has always been about the great songs, and songs that stir up emotions in the soul as a result. ‘Lifesong’, title track from 2005 album Lifesong, shows us a theme of letting our lives be the soundtrack of what we as Christians want to sing to Jesus, as we live our lives in such a way that just as a song becomes contagious and everyone sings it, our lives become so joyous and full of confidence and hope that people naturally ask why we are the way we are. ‘Praise You in This Storm’, quite possibly one of the band’s most vulnerable songs to date, states this fact, that we will praise God through the storm, not because we believe or don’t believe that He will come through for us in this time of turmoil, but rather, we praise because of who God is, and what He has done for us. God can and I’m sure He does save, but sometimes God doesn’t and in that moment, we’re asked the question of whether we’ll praise then? ‘While You Were Sleeping’, originally conceived as a Christmas original song, speaks of how cities and places where Jesus was placed in during His time, were spiritually asleep and unaware of the happenings and goings-on when Jesus was around the places He was during His day. First Mark discusses about Bethlehem and then Jerusalem, and then as Mark tackles the U.S.A., his verse utters in a realm of uncomfortableness we as humans may want to shy away from, but in essence, we know we need to face- ‘…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, and while we’re lying in the dark, there’s a shout heard ‘cross the eastern sky, for the Bridegroom has returned and has carried His bride away in the night, America, what will we miss while we are sleeping? Will Jesus come again and leave us slumbering where we lay? America will we go down in history as a nation with no room for its King-will we be sleeping? …’

‘Prodigal’, ultimately sung from the prodigal sons POV before he made the choice to run home and meet his father and ask for forgiveness, is something that I’m sure will strike a chord with anyone who may feel like they’ve lost their way, while a song like ‘Stained Glass Masquerade’ tackles the theme of hypocrisy in the church, and really treads on the uncomfortable/necessary, as Mark himself paints a picture of a happy church that isn’t really as it should. As the chorus of the song suggests, Mark reminds us, ‘…are we happy plastic people under shiny plastic steeples, with walls around our weakness and smiles that hide our pain? But the invitations open to every heart that’s been broken, maybe then we close the curtain on our stained-glass masquerade…’ ‘Does Anybody Hear Her’, the sole music video representation from the album, showcases Mark and the band speaking about a persona who has lost her way, and asking the church what we’re going to be doing about it- whether to shun her from all society because of her decisions, or whether, to love her as Jesus did, and to remind her that she’s not alone- or then again, maybe we as ‘Christians’ don’t even see the lost and hurting at all, and are just focused on our own exclusive clubs we’re building for our own personal gain…hmmm, things to think about! All in all, Lifesong for me was a ground breaking album, that spoke about heavy topics that I’m sure no other CCM band at the time was discussing (well, maybe Switchfoot, but to me, they were never really considered CCM, but rather, rockers that all followed Christ!), and arguably one of my own personal favourite Casting Crowns albums ever!

Casting Crowns never shy away from uncomfortable topics, and though it is often taboo to discuss anything remotely relating to being honest and about the human condition in a CCM community that prides itself in delivering songs that are either of a worship nature, or one that is uplifting; Mark Hall and the rest of the band nevertheless show us that Christians are just people too and we all struggle with similar things. ‘Slow Fade’, quite possibly from the band’s most underrated album The Altar and the Door, speaks of the issue of infidelity and how from being faithful to your spouse to being committing acts of adultery on a regular basis is a slippery slope, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Such a song with such a confronting topic rarely is discussed- thereby, kudos to Mark and co. for such bravery to discuss a topic often swept under the rug, head on. ‘East To West’ speaks of the reality of the lengths that God went, to get rid of our sin, and how far away they are from each other- the east is from the west- is how far our sin is separated from us by God’s grace and power. Songs like ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ and ‘The Altar and the Door’, also from The Altar and the Door, both speak of the tension of living the Christian life, that something happens between the altar and the door that makes us even doubt God’s love for us, or that most days, we are never truly one way or the other, that ‘…somewhere between the hot and the cold, somewhere between the new and the old, somewhere between who I am and who I used to be, somewhere in the middle, you’ll find me, somewhere between the wrong and the right, somewhere between the darkness and the light, somewhere between who I was and who you’re making me, somewhere in the middle, you’ll find me…’

Albums like Thrive and Come to the Well are also personal highlights of mine when it comes to albums from Casting Crowns. Thrive relates to the theme of having roots dug deep into the ground so we can be firmly grounded in what we believe, but also have healthy metaphorical branches, as like a tree, so that we can share our experiences of faith with people around us; and has the standouts songs like ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’, a song that reminds us that all God wants is our hearts, instead of everything else we may think is worthy of His affection, and ‘Just Be Held’, a comforting prayer that allows us to fall into the arms of Jesus and to just be held by His presence, rather than fighting and struggling in a life that isn’t meant to feel like an internal battle. Come to the Well, though released three years before Thrive, really compliments the 2014 album well, as it showcases ‘the well’ as the centrepiece and uses that as metaphorical imagery as we’re reminded that Jesus Himself is the well we need to continuously drink from, our source of hope and strength in a life and amongst people that desperately need encouragement and things we know only Christ can give. Personal standouts for me on that album are songs including ‘Courageous’ (an anthem for fathers around the world as the call to step up as the figurehead of the household is declared in this song), ‘Jesus, Friend of Sinners’ (a powerful 6 minute song that cries out to Jesus, friend of sinners, to open our eyes to the judgement we give people who aren’t Christians, and for our hearts to be changed so we can see that people different from us need not our judgement, but love), and ‘Already There’ (a radio friendly melody that allows us to understand that God, outside of time, already sees the past, present and future at once and knows our own personal futures, yet still give us the choice anyway). It is these songs aforementioned that have resonated the most with me from this album, and has me continuing to listen to the album on repeat after all these years. In my opinion, Come to the Well is by far one of the most cohesive albums musically that Casting Crowns have recorded to date!

Nothing works more to connect someone to an artist/band and have them become effective and influential in the life of a listener than the tool of being vulnerable. To be able to share some of the most innermost heartfelt things going on in your life as an artist, and for listeners to have that sense of relatability to it, makes the message and the themes of the songs all the more powerful and heartfelt. And of late, I’ve found just that- Casting Crowns and their latest 2 albums The Very Next Thing and Only Jesus are two of what I reckon are some of their most vulnerable and emotive albums to date. Released in 2016 and 2018 respectively, both these two albums came out of a season of struggle and trial, namely, lead singer Mark Hall’s bout and struggle with kidney cancer and the aftermath of such a vulnerable moment in Mark’s life being released in a press release statement to the public around that particular time. For we all knew that Mark’s health wasn’t the best during the time of creating The Very Next Thing, but never to that magnitude…at least not until such an announcement was made. Nevertheless, such a vulnerable act can either be met with shunning or an outpouring of love, and for Mark, the latter was what happened. Mark himself gathers his own thoughts about the ordeal which led to eventually a song ‘Oh My Soul’- arguably one of my favourites of all time from the band, and I’m sure a song that will speak to millions of people around the world, regardless of religion- because frankly, when faced with your own mortality, doesn’t everyone get a little ‘religious’ or maybe even ‘spiritual’? As Mark himself divulges, about which song is going to minister to people the most out of every song on The Very Next Thing, ‘…the one that’s probably going to connect with people the most is a [new] song called “Oh My Soul”. It’s the song that I started writing the night I found out I had cancer. So the song, “Just Be Held”, I had written a year and a half, two years before cancer happened. That really became my song as I was going through it. But songwriters, you know, we bleed lyrics. That’s what we do. The very night that I found out I had cancer and my kidney was going to have to come out. I just sat down on the piano and was looking at the verse where David says, ‘Why so downcast, oh my soul. Put your hope in God.’ So the song is me just having a little argument with myself and giving it to Him…’

Then we fast forward to the end of 2018 and their most recent album Only Jesus. I guess if you go through a cancer diagnosis and come out the other side by the grace of God, anything album after is going to reflect the gratefulness and thankfulness that comes along with surviving cancer. For the themes prevalent in this new album is themes of being low so that God can be made great, for declaring God’s fame and understanding that we as mere humans don’t really need a legacy- that Jesus is the only name everyone ought to remember when all is said and done. For I’ve always found Casting Crowns to speak hard truths and to rattle our own preconceptions of what we believe the Christian walk of life to look like and be, and their new album is no different. Mark Hall and co. offer to us heartfelt songs all with a heartfelt message, and while I myself didn’t review the album (the review can be seen here and was reviewed by my brother Josh), I nevertheless heard the album numerous times, and while for me it doesn’t hold a candle to sentimental albums of the past like Lifesong and The Altar and the Door; listeners will be challenged by the themes discussed in the album. Coupled with the fact that the band also undertook a visual journey the album- 11 music video clips spanning 5 decades and 3 generations that told a story about a couple moving and living life in a new area in the country, alongside Mark Hall himself giving devotional talks to every single song from the album as well; Only Jesus is by far the most detailed, thought-out and relevant musical release the band has unveiled in their music career thus far.

Casting Crowns have always been the best at their craft when they speak about things that people can relate to. Are they popular within the Christian circle? Most definitely, with the band earning a lot of Dove Awards (Award ceremony honouring music artists that primarily focus on Christian music) over the years. But popular in a wider sense of the word…that’s harder to figure out. I mean, I’m sure people who aren’t necessarily church-goers will know of the band. Maybe, just maybe, they may react positively when hearing the songs that Mark and co. impart to us all. Not preachy like standard-fare worship music, but rather, having a real-world applicability with the songs delivered to listeners, I myself can say that I have been blessed to be influenced by Casting Crowns throughout my university life. One of my favourite bands for a long time, Mark and co., especially Mark, has a new lease on life, post-cancer. Below is an excerpt of his own thoughts on Only Jesus the album, and how his outlook has changed over the last few years. And it is in these interview excerpts and video devotionals that my respect for the band has skyrocketed, maybe even more so than the music itself.

When you look at Scripture, it makes us look almost upside down sometimes and how we live and what we put first. We’re living in a time of making a name for ourselves, and being known, and how do we want to be remembered, and what’s our legacy going to be? But when you look at Scripture, no hero of the faith ever set out to be one. No leader ever got up and said, ‘I want to be a leader today. I want to be a hero today. I want to have followers today. Everyone in scripture that we pattern our life after got up every morning and said, ‘You’re first Jesus. What do you want? What is your will?’ Not ‘What is your will for my life?’ Not, ‘What can you do for me and how can you bless what I’m doing?’ But they got up and said, ‘God, what are you doing today? I want in. It just reminds me that when I get up in the morning God already has a plan, and this is His story. I’m a part of His story. So I’ve got to focus myself on Scripture and on truth so that when I get out into the world, I’m like, ‘Alright God, how can I show them what you’re doing?’ I don’t need to leave a legacy. I don’t need to be remembered. People remembering me isn’t going to help them. There’s only so far I can take you. You’ll just walk away going, ‘Why, how can I be like that guy.’ But if I do like Paul did and say, ‘Here’s what you need to know about me. I’ve got every kind of struggle and failure in my path. I got nothing going for me. You don’t need to pay attention to me at all. I’ll lead you the wrong way. You need to look to Jesus.’ That’s my reminder that Jesus is the only name to remember!’

Does Casting Crowns make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Has Casting Crowns delivered music that can transcend walks of life and maybe even walks of religion as well? Has there been some songs that have spoken to you about yourself or maybe God Almighty in the process? Famous for songs like ‘Who Am I’, ‘Lifesong’ and ‘Only Jesus’, is there are song that has connected with you that is a little lesser known to the public? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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