Casting Crowns frontman Mark Hall didn’t start writing songs to be a rock star. But that hasn’t kept his Georgia-based band from selling millions of records and becoming Billboard’s top selling Christian act every year since 2007.
“When I get on a stage what you are going to learn about me is that I’m dyslexic. I have ADD. I forget my lyrics to my own songs,” he tells Billboard. “You’re going to know all those things about me in the first 20 minutes because I need to make sure that no one in that room is thinking too much of me that they get distracted and they don’t see who Jesus is because he’s the one that could go home with them, not me.”
That desire to keep the listener focused on the message, not the messenger, is at the root of Casting Crowns’ new album Only Jesus, out Nov. 16. “This record is looking at the idea of a Jesus-centered life where the foundation is him and the strength is from him, the direction is from him and the point of all of it is him,” says Hall, who serves as the student pastor at Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church near Atlanta. “The point of our lives is not for God to come join us in our plans. The point is for us to join him in his plan and these songs all walk through different parts of life where we need to see that.”
The title track and lead single, “Only Jesus,” is already a hit, currently sitting at No. 7 on Christian Airplay and No. 10 on Hot Christian Songs. “It’s not the first song on the record, but that’s the first thing I wanted to get out because the first song the world is going to hear on the record is going to set the tone for everything is going to come after it,” Hall says. “To me Thrive –– that idea of digging deep and reaching out — that was the point of that record [released in 2014] and with The Very Next Thing [in 2016] following Jesus is doing the very next thing he says. That was the biggest point in the record. There are several other themes running throughout the record, but ‘Only Jesus,’ that’s the one I wanted them to hear first.”
Hall and bandmates Chris Huffman, Josh Mix, Megan Garrett, Mark Hall, Brian Scoggin, Juan DeVevo and Melodee DeVevo once again worked with writer/producer/Sawyer Brown frontman Mark Miller, who has helmed every Casting Crowns album since he discovered the band produced their self-titled debut in 2003. Since then the Grammy winning band has won four American Music Awards, 18 Dove Awards and two Billboard Music Awards while populating Christian radio with such hit anthems as “If We Are the Body,” “Who Am I,” “The Voice of Truth,” “Praise You in This Storm,” “Lifesong,” “Until the Whole World Hears” and “Thrive,” among others.
In writing songs for the new album, Hall collaborated with his usual crew, including Bernie Herms, Jason Ingram and Matthew West as well as writing for the first time with Seth Moseley, a Grammy winning writer/producer whose credits include For King & Country, Brandon Heath, Mandisa, Colton Dixon, Newsboys and other major Christian acts. “I was at the KLOVE awards and met Seth,” Hall says. “Because I live in Atlanta, I’m just not in the loop with who’s who in the music world and I didn’t know much about him, I just clicked with him and said, ‘Yeah man, let’s hang out sometime.’ Then I go to his house and he’s got this big studio and I see all these records on the wall and I go, ‘Oh cool! This is awesome,’ but it just started with me just liking him and saying, ‘Let’s try it.'”
West and Hall have been collaborating for years, but the new album marks the first time they’ve sang together on a record. “We’ve always wanted to do a song together and we talked about me joining him on one or him joining me on one and this was just the perfect song,” Hall says of the uptempo “Nobody,” which he co-wrote with West. “He and I were singing it with a guitar when we were writing it and he’s singing his line and I was singing a line and I said ‘Dude, you really should do this with me,’ …. and he says, ‘I’m in.'”
Another highlight on the album is the thoughtful “One Awkward Moment,” a song inspired during a conversation in Bible study. “We were talking about sharing our story with people. Your story is who you were before you met Jesus, what happened when you met Jesus and what’s life been since you’ve met Jesus. That’s your story and we should all as believers be able to tell our own story,” Hall says. “We were talking about how there is something that gets in our head right before we share the gospel with somebody that tells us, ‘You are just about to blow this. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not a smart enough Christian. You’re not a good enough Christian. Just keep your mouth shut,’ especially when they are friends. When it’s somebody we love, we’re scared to do it.”
While discussing it with the group, the nucleus of the song began forming. “This is what happens with songs,” Hall sighs. “I didn’t plan to say it. It just came out. I said, ‘The people that you love, if you really do love them, they are worth one awkward moment.’ Aren’t they? Aren’t they worth one awkward moment, just pushing through and saying, Look I love you, but you’ve got to know that I’m praying for you. I’ll tell you right now, I’ll be the biggest train wreck in heaven but God loves me and I know he loves you, and if he can save me, I know he can save you.'”
Hall looked at the teenagers in the Bible study and could tell he was striking a nerve. “Teenagers tend to look at the ground a lot, but I saw heads come up when I said that,” he recalls. “I knew this is something that needs to said and it’s probably the strangest song title I’ve ever had,” he laughs. “When people saw the title and hadn’t heard the song they were like, ‘One Awkward Moment?’ What is THAT about’? I think it could be a movement of just saying, ‘Hey what if you just took three minutes of courage and just shared the gospel with somebody you love? What would happen?'”
Hall has been a youth minister for over 25 years and the other band members work at their local churches as well. They’ve always scheduled their recording and touring responsibilities around their commitments to their church work. Hall says it’s the church ministry that fuels Casting Crowns’ creativity. “These moments are happening in our church with these families and these songs are like journal entries,” he says. “These are the things that everyone is dealing with. These are the things that are on everyone’s mind and you get a chance to speak truth into that. As long as I’m in the church and as long as I’m pouring into people, these things are going to rise to the surface. So Crowns is not something I have to do, it’s something that I get to do. I used to think that the church ministry was the main thing and Crowns was the side thing because that’s how we do our schedule. We form Crown’s schedule around what’s going on in the church, but now what I’m seeing is they are both really the same. Songs are going to happen and then I can share them with more people, so I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Hall is thankful for the dual career he’s enjoyed for many years, and he admits the timing of his success likely had an impact on his attitude and perception. “Maybe if Crowns would have happened when I was younger, I could have gone rock star with it,” he says. “I think if I was younger I wouldn’t have been able to handle the success and all of that, but I was 34 when this started. I was a pastor and I knew that this is a lot bigger than songs, a lot bigger than music. This is four minutes of someone’s life. That’s what a song is. It’s just a blip on the radar. What I understand is that people right now are running their race and when they listen to one of my songs, I get to run a lap with them. Just four minutes of their race, I get to run with them, and if I get to run a lap with this many people what am I bringing to them? What am I saying? I don’t need to write riddles. I don’t need to be vague. I need to get to the point because life is hard and people are hurting. They need hope and sometimes they need challenge. Sometimes they need truth and it might even be hard truth, but they need it in love. And if I’m going to get to run a lap with them, I’m not going to point them to me. I’ve got to point them to something bigger and that’s what I see our music as. It’s us getting to run a lap with you in your race.”