Chris Tomlin, And if Our God is For Us (Sparrow)
Released: November 16, 2010
The Passion movement has its stars. Chris Tomlin is its superstar. He has seen the most commercial success, and he is very much the front-runner of mainstream American modern worship. In some respects, it’s very hard for Tomlin to top himself. The enduring success of many songs from Arriving (2004) manifests itself continually on the CCLI top ten list. “How Great is Our God,” “Holy is the Lord,” and (Laura Story’s) “Indescribable” are now mainstay go-to anthems for mainstream contemporary/modern worship. See the Morning (2006) and Hello Love (2008) were great albums but did not yield for the church the same caliber of lasting tunes for the church. And if Our God is For Us is probably also destined to a similar fate, though the album, as a whole, seems to notch back toward greater congregational accessibility as compared to the previous two (See the Morning and Hello Love had its share of more performance-oriented, radio-friendly material). The album’s title gets its name from the moving and raucous bridge of the first track, “Our God,” which made its first recorded appearance earlier this year on Passion’s Awakening.
And if Our God is For Us should not be considered a worship album in the proper sense, but many of its songs are congregationally-friendly and appropriate for corporate singing. The musical production is exquisite, making typical pop songs and arrangements fresh to the ears through interesting and creative choices of color. Theologically, the album is God-centered. As is the case with the other mainstream worship leaders who have come of age (e.g. Redman, Hughes), there is a maturity and biblical overlay to the textual content that was not as present in Tomlin’s earlier songwriting ventures. “All to Us” is a fresh, moving, and powerful song with hints at a new theological focus for Tomlin (ecclesiology). I do hold a mild concern that the Gospel of Christ’s atonement is extremely understated in this album (one could note the same thing about many previous albums). Tomlin is a master of writing broad, sweeping songs of exultation to God, but I wish for more explicitness as to the fuel of what makes that possible for us—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The songs I would incorporate for corporate worship at my church would be, in order: “All to Us,” “Our God,” and “Awakening.”
Because this is more of an “artist album” than a worship album, one should expect that not every song will have singable melodies fit for congregations. The songs that seem more performance-oriented and less congregationally-friendly are “I Lift My Hands,” “No Chains on Me,” and “The Name of Jesus” (though some might view them as fine for congregations). Stylistically, some songs, in melody and arrangement, sound conventional (e.g. “Jesus My Redeemer”), and others are arranged with more forward-looking choices (e.g. “All to Us” [see drum notes below]).
Seven of the eleven tracks were produced by Ed Cash, whose sonic choices I’ve come to admire greatly (the other four were produced by Dan Muckala). The album, as a whole, takes a modern spin on the 80’s production sound: programmed pulses, drum loops, and very airy synths (e.g. the techno-club sound of “No Chains on Me”). I love some of the rhythm choices made by the producers, especially the more unconventional sparse beat-compositions (e.g. “I Will Follow” and “Majesty of Heaven”). In “All to Us,” the snare-kick work, combined with pregnant pause every other measure, is an appealing departure from the typical slow 4/4 ballad drum rhythm.
“Our God” is a beautiful second arrangement of the now popular song which first appeared on Passion’s Awakening (see my review of that album and song) in a more typical arena-band style. The string parts arranged in that song (though obviously programmed) are stirring and creative in their simplicity. Likewise, “Awakening” is a second arrangement from the same album…perhaps a bit less interesting this time around. In short, there is a simple diversity within the wide boundaries of pop music that makes this album a delight to listen to without tiring the ear with a lot of the same.
Great on songs which exalt God. Tomlin seems to specialize in songs of exaltation. “Our God,” “Majesty of Heaven,” “Lovely,” “All to Us,” and “Faithful” are bent toward the transcendent. “All to Us,” in particular, stands out as a worship-gem. The pre-chorus, in particular, is powerful:
Let the glory of Your name be the passion of the Church
Let the righteousness of God be a holy flame that burns
Let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives
We believe you’re all to us
Did you hear that first line? Don’t miss it. Yes, mainstream worship is finally breaking the ecclesiological barrier in their worship-writing. Modern worship, at times, has seemed almost like a parachurch entity that had little understanding of and advocacy for the Church. The “me and God” tenor of their songs lent itself to encouraging church-less Christianity. When modern worship writers are recognizing God’s special place for the Church in the world, I believe it is a mark of maturity. I believe in the statement, which, though it has various forms, probably originates in Cyprian of Carthage: “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside of the church, there is no salvation). This statement can and has been taken to extremes by my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, but I understand it to simply mean that when God saves (by grace through faith alone, of course), He saves you into a community of believers–the Church. To believe that “it’s just me and God” (often called “Lone Ranger Christianity”) is not Christianity at all. So, I’m excited to see that the Church, even for a brief moment, is highlighted.
For Tomlin, the Gospel often equals freedom. I also notice that Tomlin consistently writes from a certain angle of the gospel—freedom—and this seems typical of other mainstream charismatic worship forerunners like Hillsong. For instance, here’s how “The Name of Jesus” progresses:
The name of Jesus is a refuge
A shelter from the storm
A help to those who call
The name of Jesus is a fortress
A saving place to run
A hope unshakeable
When we fall you are the Savior
When we call you are the answer
There is power in your name
So from this, I’m expecting to drive toward the root of that power—the atoning work of Christ. But, instead, it moves here in the chorus:
In the name of Jesus
There is life and healing
Chains are broken in Your name
Every knee will bow down and our hearts will cry out
Songs of freedom in Your name
More Gospel, please. So my question, in a song like this, is, Where does this power and freedom come from? I don’t necessarily think that every song needs to highlight the atoning work of Christ, but I am using this song as an illustration for what I have found under-highlighted in Tomlin’s songwriting—the meritorious life and death of Christ, His active and passive obedience. I would encourage Tomlin to make these more explicit. In doing so, the Gospel will be more explicit, and the result will be that the meaning of all these songs will become that much more powerful. There do exist “cross”-references:
- “up on the cross with open arms” in “Lovely”
- “you paid my ransom / you chose to suffer” in “Jesus My Redeemer”
- “let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives” and “hope and mercy at the cross” in “All to Us”
But I believe there should be so much more. If we are going to truly sing about “Jesus My Redeemer,” we should be singing about blood, sin, death, and imputed righteousness. If we are going to be singing about how “Faithful” God is, we must sing about where that faithfulness was most proven—at the cross. Christian worship is most overtly Christian when it begins, ends, and is saturated by the Gospel.
Nevertheless, the theology in And If Our God is For Us is solid, and I’m probably nit-picking Tomlin simply because he’s, well, Chris Tomlin…perhaps the most influential American worship leader in this current generation. A great album…very edifying…and a gift to the church!