Many people know Mark Hall as the lead singer and songwriter for Casting Crowns. What many may not know is this award-winning artist also spends his time as a youth pastor and an author. Earlier this year, Casting Crowns released their latest album, Thrive, while Hall also released a book by the same name. We sat down with Mark Hall to discuss the new album, his book, and his role in student ministry in Georgia.
Q: Both your new album and book are titled Thrive and discuss the importance of digging deep into the Word and reaching out to others. What was your source of inspiration for these new releases?
A: All of the songs we write come from our ministry in the local church. I’m a youth pastor in south Atlanta, and our songs are just Bible studies set to music. About eight years ago I took my kids on a youth trip to Geneva, Alabama where there is a tree that is 300 years old. There are other places where those exist, but not here, so the kids were freaking out. One of the farmers told me, “If you wiped away all the dirt from this thing you’d see just as many roots as you do limbs.” It has just as much going on under the ground as it does above the ground. Our passage for several years with our students has been Psalm 1—being a tree planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in its season, digging into the Word, and reaching out to the world. That’s where it sort of started.
Our youth ministry is called “Thrive Student Ministries.” The picture I’m trying to draw for students is that some believers tend to be all roots. They want to know more, learn more, and read more, and they want to sit around and talk about theology. But they’ll let five people that need Jesus walk right by them while they think-tank, because they don’t have any reach to them. They’re not loving the world. On the other side, you have people that are all about feeding the homeless, saving the whales, and getting out there and knocking on doors, but they don’t dig into the Word for themselves. When a life-storm hits, it just floors them. There has to be a tension of getting into the Word for yourself. You can’t take the pastor home with you. It’s just going to be you and Jesus. When you get into the Word, God starts to define things for you. If you’re not in the Word you will come up with a god in your head who’s always mad at you and whose team you will never be good enough to be on, because that’s the way the world works. But if you get in the Word you see a God who loves you because He is love. Then, you have to define you for you. You need to see what God says in His Word about how He’s bought you and how you are His. That’s what the roots are. Six songs on the record are all about the roots.
The other half of the record is the reach—reaching out and loving the world. A lot of times we feel the pressure to go out and be awesome for Jesus, and that’s just not in the Bible. God says, “You need to work out your salvation in fear and trembling” because it’s He who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure. He’s starting the work and will complete the work. We need to start digging more into the Word, and the result will be the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of Mark. I get a chance to be patient today, and I get a chance to share the gospel today.
The book is just the blown-up record. Tim Luke transcribed all my sermons from Wednesday nights and we glued them together. We’re trying to draw a complete picture that’s pointing to God’s Word and saying, “Let’s start off with knowing Him, and then we’ll look at what it means to make Him known.”
Q: One of the aspects of your book that is most interesting is your discussion of your early college days and how you struggled to keep your head above water. Can you discuss that struggle and how you eventually overcame it?
A: I’m dyslexic and I have ADD as well. I had ADD before it was cool to have it. I was in the LD [learning disabled] classes. I did not thrive in school; I survived school. It was awful for me. I drew pictures and did art work so I thought, “I’ll just do art.” Then God really started hitting me with this crazy idea that I needed to be doing something in the church. I dove into music because I thought, “Well, I sing with my dad. Maybe that’s it.” I got married, moved out of the house, moved to Florida, and started school at a Bible college, all within a week’s time. I did all the placement tests my first day in the music school, and that’s when it all hit me: “I’m not any good at any of this.” It was really, really tough. I was there for about five and a half years, and that’s when I started seeing that God was going to have to do something through me; it wasn’t that I was going to go do something for Him.
Q: In your book you also mention that it’s really easy to compare our talents to those of others and let that drive our insecurities. What advice would you give to people involved in ministry who are prone to play that comparison game?
A: I wanted to be Roger Glidewell. He was a youth speaker/mentor/Moses-type in my life when I was a young youth pastor. I was 21, and when this guy talked it was like the earth moved. I would write down all his sermons and try to be him, and I stunk at it. Now I have kids that want to do that with me. I have about 150-200 students who are now in ministry, and they’re all like, “I need to be more like Charles Stanley and be more scripted,” or “I need to be more like Louie Giglio,” or “I need to be more like Mark.” I’m a humor guy, but it’s not because I went and found the humor guy; it’s because that’s how I gather my thoughts. Well, there’s a kid out there that can’t do it that way, but he’s going to see the way I do it and he’s going to try to be funny. If God had wanted somebody else in your ministry, He’d have put him or her there. He put you where you are, so there’s something in you He will use. There’s also something bigger than you He will use.
I spent about four hours of training with my youth workers [recently], and I told them there’s a danger in your “backpack.” If you’re not careful you will build your philosophy of ministry around your personality. You’re not going to hear an introvert say, “You guys need to hang out more when you do ministry.” That’s not going to be his philosophy. His philosophy is naturally going to be, “You need to get in the Word; you need structure.” Mr. Cartoon-Bouncing-Off-the-Walls-Guy is going to say, “No, dude. You need to be playing dodgeball in your circle of small group. You need to be throwing balls at their faces and yelling and screaming and wrestling them to the floor.” Why is that his philosophy? Because that’s what he does. And that’s cool. That’s where you start. But you can’t say, “This is just me, so I don’t need to be more organized” or “I’m just hard truth so I don’t have to be soft.” No, we don’t get to do that. You have to get out of your “backpack” and do ministry.
The same thing is true with your theology. A lot of our theology is built around what we’ve been through. There’s a tendency to go into God’s Word and pick out the stuff that fits you. You can’t do that. You have to get out of that “backpack” and see that God has a point and He’s going to use all personalities. Don’t get stuck into thinking that only certain kinds of people are used so you have to be that person. Be cool with who you are and be cool with who others are.
Q: From a lyrical standpoint, one of the most powerful songs on your new album is “Love You With the Truth.” What is your inspiration for taking on the difficult aspects of the Christian life in your songwriting, and how did “Love You With the Truth” originate?
A: For me, there has always been a thing of the tensions. There’s a tension between Law and grace. My culture grew up with the Law: “These are the rules; live in the fence or God will kill you.” Now we’re saying, “What an awful way to teach!” And we’re realizing, “God is not wanting you to do this so He’ll love you; He loves you now.” So now we’re over here on the side of grace. The problem is there’s a monster on both sides of this road. The Law monster will eat you, but so will the grace monster. It’s going to chomp you up just as much. You have to stay in the middle of the road and read the whole counsel of God to see that those things come together because of Jesus. He’s holding it together. He didn’t kill the Law; He fulfilled it. It’s still there. God is still just as mad at sin as He ever was in the Old Testament. Jesus just took it for you. Now you live to thank Him, not to appease Him. But it’s still the Law. There has to be a tension there. I attack that tension of Law and grace in the songs “All You’ve Ever Wanted” and “This Is Now.”
But there’s another tension that exists when it comes to speaking the truth in love. There’s a culture that just says, “Get out there and scream the truth and tell it like it is.” However, I’m seeing this other cloud over us that says, “You can’t speak truth to people because that’s judging.” I watched Larry King Live and saw this nationally-known pastor who could not say out of his mouth that Jesus is the only way to Heaven because he didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. That’s terrifying. So I wrote the song, “Jesus, Friend of Sinners.” I usually get pretty hard with my lyrics but I always make sure I’m saying them about me. “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” is all about judgment and loving people where they are, but I’m talking about me. I’m saying, “This is what I’m doing. I need to stop doing this.” To me, an angry singer doesn’t get his point made very well. But I started getting flack for this song. The flack was, “You can’t say Jesus is a friend of sinners because God is holy and He hates sin.” I’ve heard that, and it’s [partly] true. He does hate sin. But people were saying, “He wasn’t a friend of sinners.” At that point it hit me: I’m not sure we know what a friend is. That’s where “Love You With the Truth” started.
A friend is going to love you with the truth. The little nugget I’ve always used with my teenagers is that when we love we earn the right to speak the truth, but when we speak truth we prove that we really love. Love earns the right to speak the truth. Love on its own is just reach. There are no roots to it. Truth is the roots. But if we only give them truth it will trip them up. There has to be a tension of loving them to something and to someone.
The hardest verse to write in the entire album was the second verse of the song, because that’s the gospel. Putting the gospel into four lines that rhyme is the most dangerous bear trap in writing. I’ve seen a lot of songwriters sacrifice theology to rhyme words. It was laborious for me to get it all in there. I prayed over it and had a lot of people praying for me, just for those four or five lines. But I feel like it’s all in there. I’ve told my teenagers that you need to pray that God will give you the boldness to share your faith with your friends, or you need to pray that God gives your friends better friends than you. That was the last line added to the song. To me, that’s the hug and the punch.
To read the full interview with Mark, check out the Summer 2014 edition of The Brink magazine.