Interview: Louie Giglio on Chris Tomlin and the Worship Diet

Back from a 22,000-student conference, stepping off the Grammy red carpet in Los Angeles, and after a couple of days of rest amid a rigorous winter tour schedule, Louie Giglio, founder of Choice Ministries, Passion Conferences and sixstepsrecords, says he and his team needed those two days of rest. After meeting Giglio and his family of rising worship artists, including Grammy nominee Chris Tomlin, at one of their stops in Fairfax, Va., during the “How Great is Our God” tour, The Christian Post caught up with Giglio over the phone to talk about Tomlin, the worship diet, going global, and astronomy.

CP: You've been going around on tour with what you call your 'family' this winter. When I saw all of you, it really did feel like you're a family, like brothers in a band traveling the country. Would you say you're at a different level this year with the success of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman and the growth of your ministry?

Giglio: I don’t know if we’re at a different level or not. I do know that each time we stop somewhere and look out, there are more people sitting there than there were the time we came before. I think that’s just a reflection of the fact that what God’s doing is really touching the hearts of people and making a difference in their lives. That’s kind of the best things you can do to promote anything, I think, is to really just have God present. People walked away talking about Him and the difference that He made in their life. They know friends that they want to experience the same thing that they experienced and so the next time there’s an opportunity there, they’re bringing four or five of their friends.

I got an e-mail from a guy that was there Sunday night in New Jersey. He said, ‘I went to Passion. God did so much in my life. I went back to my church and started talking about the How Great is Our God Tour and I just stepped out in faith and rented a 47-seat bus and bought 47 tickets.’ And he said he went to his church and said ‘I want you to experience this’ and he wrote in the e-mail that they had sold all 47 tickets and the whole group was there. That’s not so much about us being at a different level. It’s just ... God doing something significant in somebody’s life and then them wanting the people that they care about to make sure they experience it as well.

CP: Chris Tomlin got his first Grammy nominations this year. Would you say that's a huge achievement, and where does this take you and your ministry? Or is this something that you weren't really focused on but it just happened?

Giglio: I think somewhere in between the two. We definitely did not set out as the goal to get Grammy nominations or to win a Grammy. What we set out to do, especially with Chris was to write songs that connect people to God and that will give voice to the church here in America and around the world in their worship. That’s the main thing we’re focused on doing.

The flip side of that is we’re in the music business. We make records, we sell records to people. To be recognized by that context in that community of artists, songwriters and musicians, it’s exciting. That means that other people have seen what’s going on in Chris’s life and through the music that he’s writing and God’s giving him and they’re recognizing that and recognizing him for what’s going on. The interview that he did last year with Time magazine, they came back and said more people are singing your songs around the world than any other person’s songs in the entire world. And if that’s true – it probably is true – then he should be recognized. It’s kind of a natural thing. It would be great if you were to be recognized in the writer field or in the journalism field, you know, if that’s your place and that’s where God planted you. Whether it’s an attorney or a bond trader or a journalist, or a musician or pastor, you want to do your best. You don’t want to seek acclaim. You don’t want to seek awards. You want to seek to do your best at what God’s given you. But at the same time I haven’t met very many people that would say in the process of doing their best that they don’t want to be recognized.

The beauty of it for us was, we went out to LA, we went to the Grammys, and we had a great time out there. We kind of kept looking around like ‘Are we really out here?’ but at the end of the day – I say this with great humility – we felt very good about what happened – not that we lost or that we didn’t receive the award … but we felt great that we left there, got on a plane, went straight back on to the tour and went right back to doing what really matters. And that’s leading the church in worship and we did that the night before the Grammys and we set out to do that the night after the Grammys (laughs). That’s the real stuff. If we received the award, that would’ve been fantastic and I promised we wouldn’t have sent it back and said we don’t really need this or want it. We would’ve said ‘thank you very much’ and brought it home and put it on a shelf somewhere. But it was just awesome to get back to pursuing … I know it sounds like a cliché, but what we’re pursuing is such a far greater prize than anything on this planet. And we’re about doing that today and humbled and excited to be able to do it.

CP: So what is it about these songs that are drawing more and more people and the local churches?

Giglio: I think it’s a couple of things. One, Chris has a tremendous ability to write songs that people can attach to really quickly. And that’s important when you’re writing songs for the church. And that doesn’t mean that every song has to fall into a certain format. It’s just that when you’re gathering people to give them voice, you want to put a song out there that people can latch onto the first time they hear it. I’ve always been amazed to watch Chris leads songs, especially when he comes [out] with a new song. At the very first time people hear it, they sing it. And something in them, most of the time says, ‘I think I’ve been singing this song all my life.’ And so that’s a very special gift. And that’s one of the reasons I think the songs have really caught on.

But I think another reason is the songs are really rooted in a desire to make much of God. That’s been our theme through the whole Passion journey and we’re trying to inspire people to the greatness of God so that their lives will reflect that in everything that they do. Chris, with ‘How Great is Our God’ and ‘Holy and Created One’ in his new album, the songs ‘Famous One’ and ‘Not to Us’ … you know the songs as you go through them. They’re just mirrors as Chris is just holding up a mirror to the greatness of God so that people can see that and respond to it. I think God is into that, because God wants to see how great He is and because it gives Him freedom to breathe on the song and to breathe into life. The fact that people can grab them easily is that they’re not simple. They’re easy to sing, but they’re not simple little songs. They have depth and theological content that can become for people, I think, an anchor in the good times and in the bad times in life.

CP: How would you respond to criticisms that are coming out from the more traditional churches where they sing hymnals and say those have theological depth but say contemporary songs are shallow?

Giglio: I think all of us in the church have a responsibility to give to people in worship a balanced and a healthy diet. And that doesn’t mean that everything has to be liver but it means that you can get people fluff all day long. So what I would do, as opposed to saying all the hymns have great theological content and all the choruses are shallow and simplistic, [is] I would rather as a pastor or a worship leader evaluate every song to say ‘Does this song mirror theology in a very good way? Is it theologically true?’ And secondly, I would say ‘Does it serve the purpose we’re trying to go for on our journey as a church right now?’ This isn’t an anti-traditional church statement, but one of the things that’s completely unfair and has never really been mentioned about – the traditional side of the argument – is that the hymn book is really like the platinum best of the best collection of hymns. It’s not a reflection of hymns. It is … comparable to the best of Passion CD or the Worship Together Platinum Greatest Worship Songs of all time CD. It’s a collection of thousands and thousands of hymns over hundreds and hundreds of years sifted down to the 250 best hymns. Even out of those 250 best hymns – and I’m a lover of hymns; I have a hymn book on my desk – Chris and I and Matt are writing from the hymns and trying to update the hymns all the time. But of the 250 hymns that are the best of the best, there are still some pretty shallow songs in there. And there are some songs in there that theologically might not be right on the money. But people just assume, it’s the hymn book and the songs are old so they’re theologically deep. Whereas I would say, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ is a deep song and is theologically right on the money, but it’s not any deeper than ‘How Great is Our God.’

I think it’s less helpful to say, ‘If it’s old, it’s good and if it’s new, it’s bad.’ It’s more helpful to say, ‘If it’s good, it’s good and if it’s bad, it’s bad’ (laughs). I want to be part of a church that stands on the shoulders of men and women who’s gone before us, and I don’t want to throw songs out because they’re 300 years old. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. I want to balance the diet with people and say, ‘This hymn is worth holding onto, it’s part of our heritage. But at the same time, let’s put a little refrain with it.’ Even like Chris dared to do with ‘Amazing Grace’ which people say, ‘That’s sacred territory, you can’t touch that hymn. That’s the greatest hymn in the Christian church.’ And then Chris is quick to mention, ‘Well, when we’ve been there 10,000 years, the last verse that everybody cherishes so much was added to the hymn 100 years after it was written.’ So someone already messed with the hymn (laughs). And to come back and put a little refrain that people can come back and sing more than one time and can really begin to lose words; they don’t have to be reading something on a screen, and their hearts can be connected to the Lord. I think it’s a perfect blend to get the old and then we get something that we can really easily express to God. And when that happens, I think we’re getting to a pretty good place in the worship diet.

CP: You recently came out of a huge Passion conference and next year you're planning to go global with the conference. You've even taken that initial step toward global outreach this year with your global awakening campaign. Why the move toward global outreach?

Giglio: Simply because we’ve been getting invited by college students primarily from countries all around the world for the last 10 years to come to their country and we’ve had a lot of e-mails from someone that’s in Singapore or Malaysia or Ireland and an e-mail often ends, ‘Is there any chance that Passion would ever consider coming to our town?’ And we’re always like, ‘Man, we’d love to come to your town.’ It’s a big enough challenge to do the big event in America every year or several events in America. So we’re just turning our focus and wanting to be able to say ‘yes’ to more of those people. We’re going to do seven regional events in the United States this coming winter and then in 2008, hopefully, we’ll be able to be in about 20 cities around the world.

CP: I hear again and again from Christian leaders that this generation of young people wants to engage in God's work and God's mission more than just talk about it or contribute financially to it. It's a passionate generation, as your conference name entails. What would you say is contributing to that passion?

Giglio: I think that there’s an underlying disillusionment with the status quo. That is cyclical in a way but it’s always, I think, a part of the idealism of being 21 years old. And you want your life to count, and more than ever in the last five years I’ve seen that emerging more and more on the college campus and students are figuring out that there’s nothing wrong with getting a great job and making a bunch of money. But what they’re also figuring out is that those two things don’t equate to your life counting for something. So I think the greater prize for people is that their lives make a difference that’s lasting.

So when they hear an opportunity that has eternal significance and a real direct connect like going to help translate the New Testament for a people group in Indonesia or going to build an orphanage for AIDS kids in Africa, they’re like, ‘Okay, I can easily make a connection from “a” to “b” – that if I go and invest my life doing that, it is going to cost me something in terms of the American dream. But it’s going to make an eternal impact and I can see that.’ So they’re a lot quicker to say, ‘Yes, I’ll go do that.’ And then the questions come back, ‘What about your career and your job opportunities and income and status?’ They say, ‘Well, I don’t know about all that. I just know that this is a need. This is God’s heart for the world. He’s looking for people, He always has been and I’m saying “yes” to Him and following Him without necessarily knowing what all the outcomes are going to be.

CP: You're running Choice Ministries, Passion conferences, sixstepsrecords and traveling on tour. When did you have time to learn all that astronomy and science and figure out all that math that you preached about last Friday (in Fairfax, Va.)?

Giglio: That’s the good thing about life. You can research anywhere you are. I’m just constantly gathering little bits of information all the time. I think any good communicator or songwriter for that matter is just paying attention all the time. I’m always grabbing something out of the headlines, out of the news or reading a book about astronomy and just trying to figure out how to get my head around the facts but the bigger stress is trying to connect those facts to normal life situations and our relationship with God.

CP: Where do you see Passion Conferences and sixstepsrecords in the future?

Giglio: That’s a tough one. We are so focused on the immediate year and a half in front of us, it’s hard to know what the future’s going to be. I do believe though that if we will follow God in the present that He will lead us into an amazing future. And I don’t know what that future is for Passion; I don’t know what it is for Chris Tomlin or David Crowder or even for sixsteps as a label. I do know though that God is leading us today. In the Old Testament – and I’m not comparing myself to Moses and the rest of the people of Israel coming out of Egypt – there’s a pillar of fire at night and then there was a cloud in the day. I like the fact that there were two different things. So even from morning to evening, God’s presence was new again for Israel. And that’s just something that we’re clinging to.

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