- credit Billboard.com
When a band is hammering out its record deal, it's not unusual to have the group's manager in the room and, likely, the act's attorney. But who brings a pastor?
For lead vocalist Mark Hall, 44, and the members of Casting Crowns, it was a no-brainer. Tim Dowdy, 52, is senior pastor of the 6,000-member Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church outside of Atlanta, where Hall and members of the band have continued to work while building their music career."When we sat down with them at Provident [Label Group], Mark's very first question was, 'Can I still be a student pastor?' " Dowdy recalls of that seminal meeting in 2003. "It was an interesting conversation because they never knew anyone who had continued to do that, so there were a lot of questions in the air. Mark said, 'Well, if I can't continue to be a student pastor, I don't want to do it. This is who I am and what God has called me to.' "
Although most aspiring artists can't wait to give up their day jobs as soon as they sign a record deal, Hall and his bandmates have kept their church jobs while simultaneously developing one of the most successful careers in the history of Christian music.
Casting Crowns' latest album, "Thrive," arrived Jan. 28. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Christian Albums chart and No. 6 on the Billboard 200, selling 45,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Promoting the new album, Casting Crowns opened a tour on Feb. 20 at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., booked by Jeff Roberts and Associates.
"Thrive" is the band's fifth top 10 on the Billboard 200 -- more than any other Christian act in the SoundScan era. Click HERE to watch Casting Crowns perform at Billboard studios.
The group's self-titled debut, released in 2003, has sold more than 1.9 million, and the band's career since has continued to thrive. In a little more than a decade, Casting Crowns has placed 12 titles on Top Christian Albums and racked up some impressive statistics. The band's 2005 sophomore album, "Lifesong," spent two weeks at No. 1 on Top Christian Albums and has sold 1.4 million. "The Altar and the Door" (2007) spent 13 weeks at No. 1 and has sold 1.2 million. In 2009, "Until the Whole World Hears" spent 18 weeks at No. 1 and has sold 1.1 million. "Come to the Well," released in 2011, spent 14 weeks at No. 1 and has sold 779,000. Casting Crowns' sales stats are even more impressive considering the band has succeeded without the help of a crossover hit at mainstream radio, often what propels Christian acts to platinum status.
While the group has never scored a pop hit, it's a staple on Christian radio, placing nine No. 1s on the Christian Songs chart, including "Who Am I," "Voice of Truth," "Praise You in This Storm," "Does Anybody Hear Her," "Until the Whole World Hears," "Courageous" and "East to West," which spent 19 weeks at the summit. "Thrive"'s lead single, "All You've Ever Wanted," is No. 13.
Every Casting Crowns album has been produced by Mark Miller, frontman for veteran country group Sawyer Brown and chief of Beach Street Records, the imprint he launched to sign Casting Crowns. Beach Street then partnered with Sony-owned Provident to market and distribute the band. The band is published by Sony/ATV and represented by Mike Jay of Proper Management Group.
Casting Crowns has won a Grammy, 17 Gospel Music Assn. Dove Awards, two American Music Awards and a pair of Billboard Awards.
So exactly how did a worship band from Georgia become the hottest thing in Christian music, topping Billboard's year-end Christian/Gospel Albums Artist tally for six consecutive years, beginning in 2007?
Well, it all started at a basketball camp in Florida. "We made some CDs," says Hall, who was encouraged by church members to record some of the songs he was writing and singing. "A college kid in the youth group had one of those CDs and went off to basketball camp at Flagler University, and while he was there met Mark Miller, who was passing through town on the way to the beach and thought, 'Hey, I'll meet up with an old coach of mine.'
My college student, Chase, and Mark meet and start talking about basketball. The next thing you know, Chase says, 'You need to hear my youth pastor,' and gave him our CD. Mark Miller ends up going on a trip with his close family friend [and Christian music star] Steven Curtis Chapman and [they] listened to these songs together. They called us from the beach and asked if we wanted to do this on a larger scale. It was crazy."
Hall had been working as a youth pastor and although he'd considered taking his music beyond his home church, he admits he had reservations.
"I remember being in Bible college and playing the song 'Voice of Truth' for that crowd and seeing how God was letting the songs that I was writing connect with people. I remember wondering, 'God, is there something else that you want to do with this?' That was in the back of my head, but the problem was I knew that the local church was where I was supposed to be, working with families. That's how my wife Melanie and I have always done [our work]. I couldn't imagine just traveling around saying 'hello' and 'goodbye' to people on the same night. I didn't see how it would ever in a million years work together. There are Christian artists out there that go back to their church on Sunday and who will lead worship, but I'm a youth pastor. This is weeklong stuff. I'm living in the trenches with them. I didn't see how it would work."
It hasn't been an easy journey, but it's worked out surprisingly well. The band has become Christian music's biggest success story of the past decade while Hall's work as a youth pastor has continued, and the two vocations are intricately intertwined.
"I'm sort of a life coach for our students," says Hall, who has been a youth pastor for 22 years and has been at Eagle's Landing for 13. "My focus is when families come to our church, to connect with teenagers, have activities for them, youth camps and that sort of stuff. I form small groups where they can meet with kids their age. I write curriculum and Bible studies so we can help them with whatever they are going through with their family, whatever is happening at school. I help them see what their gifts are and help them grow in their understanding of who God is and what their relationship with him can be."
It's easy to see why Hall is so effective at working with kids. He's pretty much a big kid himself and a self-professed geek who sees himself as the antithesis of the hip rock musician type.
Backstage at Casting Crowns concerts he meets with other youth pastors to share information and encourage others. His interactions with journalists are often fun and unconventional, including taking a group on the "Star Wars" ride at Disney World after a press luncheon. (A well-known "Star Wars" fan, Hall recently auctioned off some of his memorabilia to donate to charity.)
When Miller launched Beach Street, Casting Crowns was the first act he signed, and Hall says Miller and the folks at Provident have always been supportive of the band's church obligations.
"When I said, 'Can I stay a youth pastor?' he said, 'Well, I'm sure you can, but your youth group is just going to be a lot bigger,' " recalls Hall. "We didn't get anything but support from the label."
Five of the seven Casting Crowns members work at Eagle's Landing and two others work at different churches. "Juan [age 38] and Melodee DeVevo  lead our worship band and lead our student bands," Hall says of the husband-and-wife team. "They also teach small groups of different ages.
Josh Mix  is our new guitar player, and he helps lead worship and is a huge part of what we do at Eagle's Landing. Chris [Huffman, 33] teaches small groups of students. Brian [Scoggin, 31] is our drummer and a middle school youth pastor and leader at a church down the road from us. Megan [Garrett] married a former student of mine who is a youth pastor about an hour away from us. So it really is what we do all week."
For Hall, that includes working at the church all day on Sunday and then again on Monday and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He then pulls a 13-hour day on Wednesday that starts early and ends that evening with a weekly youth gathering.
"I'm in the office through the week, meeting one-on-one with the students and meeting the parents, working on mission trips and projects and all kinds of things that they can be a part of," says Hall.
The band members schedule their recording and touring around their church commitments, usually heading out on Wednesday night around midnight to play concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then returning in time for Sunday morning services -- typically rolling right off the bus and into church. It's a grueling schedule made all the more complicated by having children who they take on the road and home school. When the group heads out on tour, it's almost like a moving circus.
"It's crazy," says Hall. "We have four kids, the DeVevos have two and Megan has three. The youngest out on the road with us would be Megan's son Eli, who is a year-and-a-half, and the oldest is my son John Michael, who is 15. We have five buses on tour. We have two buses for all of us -- the seven members -- and two crew buses, and one for the support act as well."
The label and management company have learned to work around the band's church responsibilities. "It takes more effort on everyone's part to fit the business component and the music and all the elements of making and marketing a record into [Hall's] ministry schedule, particularly in the summer when there are camps and things like that," says Provident Label Group president/CEO Terry Hemmings. "His ministry schedule doesn't fit into his record career and vice versa, so it causes us to have to work differently. For example, on Wednesday, Mark is just not available. That's his biggest teaching day, so we honor and respect that, but when you are trying to get approval on a mix or are up against a deadline and need an answer, that could be a challenge. But it's well worth it. His ministry and the band's ministry and their positions in the church are essential to the success of the band. That's what informs them, feeds their drive and provides them the energy to do this."
Likewise, Hall's songwriting is fueled by his work as a youth pastor, and "Thrive" is a prime example of art imitating life. "The idea of 'Thrive' came out of our student ministry," says Hall. "The songs always start out with what we're teaching, and for years I've been using Psalm 1 in showing [students] what a believer looks like."
Although the songs on "Thrive" were inspired by Hall's church work, one doesn't have to be a Christian to appreciate them.
"A lot of the people that I talk to these days are barely surviving their lives. They are just trying to get to the weekend," says Hall. "I hear people say, 'If I could just get to the weekend,' or, 'If I could just get to vacation,' If I can get this next promotion' - it's always something they're trying to get to. We're just surviving each day so somehow we can get to something and it's going to be better. I feel like God has so much more for us than just surviving our lives. He wants us to thrive in our lives."
"Thrive" includes songs that cover a variety of relatable topics to music lovers both in and out of the pews. "Broken Together" speaks to the challenges of marriage, while the title track is a Celtic-flavored anthem of encouragement about leading a more fulfilling life. "Waiting On the Night to Fall" is a cautionary tale about addiction. Hall says he's been getting a lot of feedback on "House of Their Dreams," a poignant track about a family for whom the American dream has become an unsettling reality.
In addition to the new album, Hall has authored his fourth book. "Thrive -- Digging Deep, Reaching Out" was published by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian. The band has embarked on the "Thrive" tour with opening acts Laura Story and For King & Country.
In analyzing how Casting Crowns has become so successful, despite operating differently from most major-label acts, Dowdy says it comes down to the simple fact that the band members are the same people onstage and off.
"They wake up every morning and say, 'This day belongs to Jesus. We're going to live for him.' And that may be on a tour bus, on a big stage somewhere or it may be sitting down with three teenagers," says Dowdy. "They are just the same people."
Hall is appreciative and humbled by the band's impact. "To me, it's totally a God thing," he says. "I don't think we're superior to any other band. I don't think we're saying anything different than other artists who are way more talented than we are. I can't put my finger on it other than to say God is allowing us to have the ear of the church right now and speak into people's lives. We want to keep doing that, and we're grateful for the songs that we get to write and the people we get to meet, but I'm as baffled by it as anyone else, and just really humbled and thankful.
"I look in the mirror and I'm thinking, 'Wow, I don't necessarily have the look that a label might be looking for. We're not cool. I'm not young.' Maybe people just realize that we're normal, everyday, real folks, and maybe that's something that's reached them."