Casting Crowns / Only Jesus
Describing the members of CCM powerhouse Casting Crowns as “heroes of faith” feels like an understatement. The band has produced mega-hits like “Praise You In This Storm,” “East to West,” “Who Am I,” and “Just Be Held,” broken sales records, sold out arenas, won prestigious awards and traveled the world singing songs of redemption. There’s not much within the realm of Christian music the band hasn’t accomplished. The impact of Casting Crowns is incalculable, the fingerprint of their songs forever imprinted onto the hearts of millions of people.
But for Mark Hall, lead singer and primary songwriter, describing the band’s trajectory as any sort of heroic effort is entirely wrong. When discussing the band’s latest project, Only Jesus, Hall takes great pains to shift the focus off of the band, off of himself, and solely onto the one they sing about—Jesus. The new album digs deep into the who and the why, inviting the listener on a heart-journey of foundational faith, immovable trust and ultimately, freedom in Christ.
Traditionally, Mark Hall’s songwriting inspiration has come from his daily interactions with students and parents as a full-time youth pastor. For every album, Hall keeps a journal filled with notes, lyrics and song ideas as well as voice memos of song ideas and melodies on his phone. While driving to Nashville to begin the recording process for Only Jesus, and immediately after walking through deep trauma with some close friends, Hall’s songwriting journal and phone were stolen out of his car. All of the ideas and lyrics he’d been collecting for the past two years were gone in an instant. “When it was time to write for the record,” Hall shares, “I’d just had to walk through one of the darkest things I’ve ever experienced. And then all of my notes and song ideas were stolen. I had to start from zero.” Without a foundation of ideas to draw from, Hall was forced to delve into the inner-workings of his own heart.
The result is a collection of songs that are more than the life lessons and teachings from scripture fans have come to expect, they’re personal expressions of the need for a savior. “These songs were coming out of the heart,” Hall says.” I wrote the lyric When my world is breaking me / Your love is shaping me (“In the Hands of the Potter”) during that time.” Only Jesus is a labor of love that points people to a savior who relentlessly and passionately pursues. It’s an album full of depth and wisdom with plenty of energy and anthemic praise.
While working on the album, Hall was also wrestling with the unspoken idea that Christian musicians are expected to leave a legacy with their music. For him, the idea of a legacy meant making the ministry about himself, boasting his own name and contribution. “Looking back on my own life,” Hall says, “the people who’ve had the most impact, who shared their story at just the right moment and pointed me to Christ, their names don’t come to mind. It’s the impact of shared truth that leaves a mark.” This was driven home when Hall was approached in a Wal-Mart parking lot by a fan. “He came up to me and asked me if I was the guy from Casting Crowns. I told him I was, and he said, ‘Man, one of your songs, when you guys first came out, it really took me straight to a place I needed to be to trust Jesus more.’ He was trying to remember the song, said it was about God and faith, which, you know, really narrowed it down,” Hall jokes. “I started naming off song titles like, “Praise You In This Storm?” “Who Am I?” The guy kept saying, ‘No, no, no, none of those.’ The fact that he couldn’t remember the song was the sweetest moment for me. Because I see my place in that. I’m not here to be remembered or to be known. Paul said in I Corinthians 2, V. 1-5, ‘When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.’”
These verses have defined Hall’s approach not only to songwriting, but all aspects of ministry—to make Jesus known above everything else. It shows up in songs like “The Bridge,” “Nobody,” and “One Awkward Moment,” with a message to decrease your own identity so that Jesus may be known completely. To live a life in such devotion to Him that no one would be surprised to hear His name from you. “Paul got it,” Hall says. “In every book or letter he wrote, he would stop and say, ‘You do know I was the scum of the earth, right?’ He didn’t want anyone to be confused about his place. He knew that if people only looked up to him, they’d get lost. Because it’s not about the person who tells you about Jesus, it’s about Jesus. As a believer, that’s something I needed to hear.”
Hall found continued inspiration in the story of John the Baptist. “John the Baptist lived his whole life in obscurity. He was known for speaking truth, harsh truth, radical truth, and when the people came to him and asked his name, he didn’t even tell them. In John 1:23 he said, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness.’ And he wasn’t humbling himself, it wasn’t a humble brag because the closer you get to Jesus, the less you have to humble yourself. You are humbled.”
Helping people understand the nature of God’s love, of Jesus’s sacrifice, continues to be the mission of Casting Crowns. Only Jesus personifies that mission. “I want people to see that God is the author and the finisher of our faith,” Hall shares. “He starts the work and He finishes the work. If we could just rest in the fact that He saved us, that He’s got us, we can rest in what He’s doing now and strive for what’s ahead.” It’s a timeless message, and one that’s still changing lives today. For Casting Crowns, there’s one thing they hope people will take away after listening to the new album —only Jesus.