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Hip Hymns Are Him

Most people have never heard of Chris Tomlin, yet millions sing his songs every week

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There are two paths to music immortality: the Prince route and the Patty and Mildred Hill route. In the Prince model, you write a piece of music that people love so much, they seek it out, download it and turn up the radio whenever it comes on. The Hill sisters model is trickier; they composed the melody for Happy Birthday to You. They achieved their fame by writing a tune that people don't listen to so much as sing.

Chris Tomlin belongs in the second camp. People sing his songs a lot, often repeatedly. Specifically, they sing them in church. According to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), an organization that licenses music to churches, Tomlin, 34, is the most often sung contemporary artist in U.S. congregations every week. Since glee clubs have fallen out of popularity, that might make Tomlin the most often sung artist anywhere.

This distinction does not make him the best musician anywhere, as he will be the first to admit. Tomlin's How Great Is Our God (which he co-wrote with Jesse Reeves and Ed Cash), currently the second most popular modern chorus in U.S. churches (after Tim Hughes' Here I Am to Worship), is not particularly profound--the title pretty much sums it up--but it's heartfelt, short and set to a stirring soft-rock melody that sticks in the mind like white to rice. That's Tomlin's gift: immediacy. "I try to think, How do I craft this song in a way that the person who's tone-deaf and can't clap on two and four can sing it?" says the songwriter. "I hope that when someone hears a CD of mine, they pick up their guitar and say, 'O.K., I can do that.'" Which is not the way people react to, say, Handel's Messiah.

Tomlin's third album, See the Morning, released this fall, is doing nice enough business--it has sold about 124,000 copies--but that's not the point of it. Its creator thinks of himself less as a musician and more as a worship leader. Unassuming, single, shortish, Tomlin grew up in a sporty, churchgoing family in Grand Saline, Texas, where he and his two brothers used to play music in the annual Salt Festival. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, but spends much of his life on the road, as a sort of itinerant music minister. "So many songs by Chris have risen," says CCLI marketing manager Paul Herman. "He has really captured the heart of the church."

Tomlin is the chief American practitioner of the pop-sounding "praise and worship" music that has replaced traditional hymns in congregations looking for a younger crowd. (Recently some churches introduced the U2-charist, a Communion service set to the music of U2.) "We've been closing the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station," says Matt Lundgren, worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. "Artists like Chris Tomlin help bridge the gap more and more."

After years of being the guy behind the songs, Tomlin is poised to achieve that more Prince-like status as well. He won a bunch of Dove Awards (the Christian Grammys) this year. He's all over Christian radio. And he's a huge draw at the big annual student gatherings known as Passion conferences. But Tomlin doesn't want to be Prince. Music immortality is fine. It's just not the sort he cares about.

With reporting by Lina Lofaro

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