Christian Concert – The Chris Tomlin Edition

christian concert - chris tomlinThere are two things that you should know to begin with:

  1. I love our church.
  2. I am not much for “Christian concerts.”

I was at one time. In the old on fire days, I was elbowing my way to the front to see DC Talk, my face red with the heat and energy.

I had a hoarse throat and the official band t-shirt, and I was right in the middle of all of it – faith and music and so much passion.

The first time I ever really danced it was at a Christian ska concert, and I know what that sounds like, but you should have seen it. We were learning to be ourselves, singing out loud, worshipping wild. We were young and awkward, but we were moving to the music, finding our feet strong beneath us.

It was where I was on Saturday nights. Christian concerts. I was one of a thousand screaming, Jesus-loving teenage fans, and we were looking for an anthem.

*

In the Mad Season, I gave up a lot of things from that old, evangelical world.

“Gave up,” is actually maybe too benign of a phrase. Threw across the room, is a little truer. Stomped on in rage is also good.

These things that used to define me are the things that I was most anxious to crumple, crush, throw away. I was angry and I was cynical, and what I needed was a little distance.

I needed to strip away the whole convoluted Christian culture in order to finally understand the heartbeat of grace. I needed to remove myself from the Loud of all that Christian rock and breathe in the quiet of my own desperation.

I didn’t listen to anything “Christian” for years. Then I slowly started adding back a few things. A couple of bands who sang words that felt true and honest. I rarely bought whole albums – but I’d download a song here, a song there. The ones that made me cry. The ones that managed to lift the sheet away from some covered-up part of my heart.

*

Several weeks ago, our church bought tickets to the Chris Tomlin concert downtown. Chris Tomlin is an evangelical powerhouse of a singer, and the concert was sponsored by the local Christian radio station. It is the kind of thing that I never go to. I cannot reiterate this enough.

But I also, somehow, really wanted to be part of it all. I wanted to be on that yellow school bus with the people from our church headed down to the city. I wanted to be crunched in, junior-high-style, driving through snowy April streets.

So, this time, Andrew and I decide to go.

In the packed lobby of the Target Center, there are a zillion people, and I realize immediately that Christian t-shirts still make me entirely uncomfortable. Even the fitted, clever ones. Even the mission trip ones.

I’m on edge when we walk into the auditorium because the last time I was in a place this big for some Christian Thing, it was a Teen Mania youth rally that was a lot about courtship and missions and being really awesome for God.

I came out of that whole experience with cracks rupturing imperceptibly beneath the surface of my soul. And at the steep edge of the second floor balcony, I feel it all over again. So I’m arms-crossed, on-edge, curled up in my stadium chair.

The lovely, brown-haired opening singer says, “Do you love Jesus tonight?” while she strums toward a new song. I offer a wry answer to no one in particular. “Not tonight,” I mumble, because the question feels silly and rigged for applause. But then she starts singing and it’s so damn beautiful that I want to hold my breath.

Chris Tomlin comes out, and I shake my head when his first song includes a line about “God’s great dance floor.” But a few minutes later, a rapper is reading something out of the Bible. It’s that part in Ezekiel when God made a whole valley of dry bones live again.

I am mesmerized by the way he says the familiar words. The ones I’ve read a hundred times. He says them and I feel them in my own dry bones like healing.

There is singing and lights. I listen to the guy on stage, but mostly I’m listening to a thousand people around me, all of them singing along. The woman next to me sings the harmonies and it’s her voice I’m most struck by – honest and quiet, beautiful and strong.

This morning in church, we gathered around her eight-month-old daughter and prayed for healing, and I can’t stop thinking about this baby girl as I listen to her mother’s voice sing the hard, beautiful truth of God’s goodness.

I’m caught off guard when they start singing that one song – the one that does something to my heart – and all of the sudden I’m singing too, my voice disappearing into the ocean of sound like one small wave.

And I would be lying if I say that the cynical part of my heart isn’t prone to cataloging every flaw, every cliché, every bit of jargon lasering through the room.

But also, I would be lying if I say that I am not moved.

This is where I am these days – both fractured and found. Stuck in the tension of my broken-mending faith.

I still have these hard places, but I have been touched by grace. And grace breaks the barrier between us and them. Between church people and cynics. Between all that we are and all that we hope to be.

And we sit in this stadium with all these different t-shirts, and there was a time when I was zoned in on the words people wore. But now, I want to stop with all that and look at their faces instead. I want to see smile lines and wrinkles and piercings and eyelashes. People who, in the end, are just like me.

*

At the Chris Tomlin concert it’s late and I’m tired, and this is not the kind of concert I go to. But he starts singing an old hymn, and I’m singing too, and I feel it all the way through.

I am one of the broken and beloved, and I have been all this time looking for an anthem. And the one we are singing is grace.

42 thoughts on “Christian Concert – The Chris Tomlin Edition

  1. Thanks for writing this. I am struggling with many of these same things. I’m trying to not let the cynicism win. Some days are better than others.

  2. I get all of this. I’m right there with you, rejecting the old while seeking a new anthem. I pray my cynicism and hurt doesn’t blind me to when the old and new are one and the same.

  3. I’m challenged to remember that Christian musicians are often just as frustrated with what they do as we are. Sometimes we need to forgive them.

    1. I’m sure that there’s truth to that — a frustration with the system and the “industry” aspect of it.

      I honestly don’t think that they need to be forgiven for doing what they do. It is so often a really good thing, and there are SO MANY people who connect so powerfully at things like this. Their experience is not less true or real than mine — just different.

      I guess for me, this post was really just about making peace with where I’m at while working — as always — to push myself beyond the cynicism.

  4. This reminded me of something I often feel when I do manage the odd trip to church – it is not always just the lost who need to be found.

    You have touched my heart and soul once again. . .

  5. I used to go to those concerts too – and then, like you, I gave them up. But I love this story of being moved anyway, and the anthem of grace.

    1. Thanks so much Katie. (I really honestly never thought I’d do one of these again. So glad I did though.)

  6. Hi! I think you’re making a very important and honest point. It’s interesting that nothing about the artists or their shows changed, but your experience of them changed in a rather significant way. Is it possible that there are young women in those audiences today who are having experiences like you did as a child or young woman? What is your hope for them?

    1. I definitely think that there many of the people in the audiences that are just where I was at…and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Like I said at the beginning of this post, those concerts were a big part of my high school days, and I loved them.

      Your second question is tougher for me to answer. I don’t know! I think my hope would be that when disillusionment hits and things get hard and complicated and they hit their own Mad Season that they would be able to separate the beautiful truth of those songs from the Christian culture and industry all around them. That when they turn off the music and get quiet with their own desperation, they would still know the truth of God’s goodness and grace and their Belovedness.

  7. I went to the Chris Tomlin concert in Baltimore a couple of months ago, and had EXACTLY the same experience. Or at least, I went into it arms crossed and kind of braced to be rubbed the wrong way by all of the loudness, as you say. Something is all that loud feels false. But, I went because of my mom – because she bought tickets and wanted me to go, and because she loves Chris Tomlin. And when he sang “Indescribable,” when he go to the bit about the heavenly storehouses, I was undone and open. Arms uncrossed. And then the hymn…Oh, the hymn: “Hark, how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.” And then I realized that’s what that concert was about for me. It was about remembering that, and it was about remembering that loud – among a chorus of 9,000 voices. It was about remembering that God shows up even in the places that feel false, if *I* am open to His presence, because I know He is not false.

    Thank you, Addie, for sharing your story and, like I’ve said before, “getting it!”

    1. I love that, Amber. And yes, singing that last hymn was a powerful experience for me too. I love what you said about how God isn’t false…and that message of grace isn’t either. While the trappings around it might feel false to me, for someone else, they might feel powerful and true. And grace means that there is space for all of that.

  8. This is where I am these days – both fractured and found. Stuck in the tension of my broken-mending faith.
    I still have these hard places, but I have been touched by grace. And grace breaks the barrier between us and them. Between church people and cynics. Between all that we are and all that we hope to be.

    THIS.this…… I get this. I’m right there. Like in the in between of leaving the hurtful lies I was told in the mainstream Christianity that I was “born into” and learning to spread my wings, my God given wings and fly. Fly into what I’m learning about who He really is and what it really means to follow Jesus.
    I left behind the Christian music and mostly listen to off the beat Christian musicians who hit my heart and touch my wounded places.

  9. You know, Addie, just when I feel tired of the Internet and all the “stuff,” your words bring me hope. You do such a wonderful job of showing God’s heart with your words. Thank you for being willing to take down our sacred cows, but doing it in such a vulnerable, seeking out kind of way.

  10. I go through such similar experiences at Christian events and when I listen to Christian radio. For me they always make life seem too good, too easy, too polished and I want to smack them and tell them that God’s good but That this very statement is the hardest pill I’ve ever had to swallow…. Dang… I might start preaching.

    1. Yes. I can’t listen to Christian radio for very long before I get really irritable and snarky. I’m with you, friend.

  11. So I guess gathering a bunch of blog-friends-and-families-who-I-would-love-to-actually-meet-someday together for the 4-day Sonshine Festival in Willmar is out of the question, huh!

    Standing in front of those enormous whole-body-rumbling speakers a couple years ago dancing my brains out in the mud with some friends was the culmination of four days of arm-crossing. I had to block out most of the lyrics and listen to the Spirit flowing between them. And seeing one of my best buddies extend her arms to the sky during the closing set and praise the Lord in her own sweet way, and knowing the context out of which that praise arose — her context — made we stop and weep. And even now, the tears still gather in the corners of my eyes. A whole lot of pain and suffering was released during those sacred and precious moments. And for that alone I will endure a whole lot of bad theology.

  12. I…..I….I can’t even say how I feel that you are telling my story and the story of, I hope, countless others. Thank you for writing. Thank you.

  13. Addie, as everything I’ve read of yours thus far, this is brilliant. I don’t mean that just in the “great piece of writing” sort of way, but as in the literal definition of brilliant–full of light. I love how you’ve taken a topic so debated (theology of music and “Christian music” and “Christian concert” etc.), and just covered it in this quilt of personal wondering and seeking and God-awakening experiences. THIS speaks, and moves the conversation in a meaningful way. Clearly by people’s responses, you are not alone in this either!

    I can join the crowd and echo a lot of what you’ve expressed. My “mad season” happened at a younger, less cynical age, however (14/15), so a lot of my cynicism over the following years was tempered by that early experience of grace. Nevertheless, this post brought an emotional response of recognition and spiritual “uh-huh.” I’ve forwarded this on to someone else, however, for whom this sounds even more hard-hitting; a former Christian musician who now can’t stand music at church most Sundays… won’t show up until after it’s finished.

    Anyway, rambling. Thank you for persisting at your craft of unfolding topics in such a magnificent way.

  14. Addie
    As a program director for a local “Christian radio station” bringing concerts like this to town and playing Chris Tomlin (and hundreds of other CCM artists like him) on the radio every single day, I want to say THANK YOU for writing such a detailed and honest account of your experience. We ALL experience that. I know plenty of very evangelical Christians, even pastors, who feel the same way you do about some of the more contrived pieces of the commercial Christian lifestyle (t-shirts in particular). Know that you are not nearly alone. MOST of our listening audience to Christian radio is there, I suspect. And the few that are not, still have their days. I would say it is not important that you like Christian radio, Christian concerts, Christian t-shirts, Christian singers or even other Christians… as much as it is important that you know, love and serve Christ. God bless.
    ~jeff cruz

    1. Thanks so much for writing Jeff and for your gracious response.

      I’m so aware these days of the ways we are all at different stages in our faith growth. And I know that there are people for whom Christian radio is absolutely life-giving.

      For the rest of us, may we learn to live and love well in the tension.

  15. Thanks for sharing this. I don’t do Christian concerts either, but YES, looking past the t-shirts to the faces. In the end, they’re all just like me. Thank you for your humility. I can’t tell you how blessed I am to have found your blog–you feel like a kindred spirit (although I’m sure a thousand people tell you that.) Thanks.

  16. Just reading about going to a concert sort of make me shiver – and not in a good way. But somehow, Addie, you find the grace and you write it out in beauty. “Both fractured and found. . . ” Exactly. Thank you.

  17. I had chills by the time I finished reading this. You have put words to something deeply embedded in my heart.

    I went to my Christian college’s praise and worship service for the first time all semester recently, and my cynicism showed through the cracks, but so did the honesty, sincerity and love of the others participating. I liked it. I was surprised that I liked it. Baby steps.

    Like another commenter said, this is indeed “full of light.”

  18. So awesome and true. Most often reading your blog is one of my favorite moments of the day.

  19. “And I would be lying if I say that the cynical part of my heart isn’t prone to cataloging every flaw, every cliché, every bit of jargon lasering through the room.” This perfectly describes what happens to me basically every time I’m in a church service. But even if I learn nothing from what the pastor says, I do learn how to give grace, because I have to remember that maybe this is for them and not for me but God loves us all. (That doesn’t mean I never feel lonely in the middle of a crowded concert or church service, though.)

    I adored Christian concerts when I was younger. I even went to Creation Festival four times and stayed the whole week twice. But over the past year or two, I’ve been going through the process of figuring out what’s Jesus and what’s just Christian stuff and how much the Christian stuff took over my identity. I went to a Chris Tomlin concert back in March because my mom wanted to go and because I used to love going to his concerts, but it was so different this time. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And I know more than part of that feeling came from the fact that my sister, who is really struggling to find anything in Christianity worth holding on to, was basically forced to come.

    I might go again, though, just because my mom doesn’t really have anyone else to go with and because I’ve learned to do what you’ve described here: look beyond the Christian stuff for the beauty and the grace and the truth in the people and the messages.

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