Grammy-Award Winning Band Casting Crowns
Up Close And Candid With Casting Crowns’ Mark Hall
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Mark Hall is the lead singer/songwriter for the beloved multi-platinum, Grammy-award winning band Casting Crowns. With more than 20 years in youth ministry, he, along with all six other band members, is still currently active in student ministry in the Atlanta area. So it’s not surprising that their latest album, Thrive, was born out of a mission’s trip Hall’s youth group took to Alabama. With such a heart for Jesus and reaching the youth, a few things might surprise you about this solid front man. Like the fact that at one point in his teen years he thought about ending his life, or that he didn’t talk about his learning disabilities until his twenties. Risen had the privilege of getting a first-hand account of Hall’s upbringing, decision to go into ministry, transparency with struggles, and the success that comes with trusting the Lord.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen MagazineRisen Magazine: There isn’t much background information in the press about your childhood. What was your family like growing up? Was music a part of your household? What role did faith play?
Mark Hall: I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. I would have been about seven or eight years old when a church in the area did a VBS [Vacation Bible School]; they sent a parade of kids that came through the neighborhood inviting kids to come and I begged my parents to go. My parents let me go, and at the end of the week, the worship leader was the guy at the church that followed-up and he met my parents. His name is James, and James ended up leading my dad to the Lord at our house. When Dad asked Jesus to save him, he brought the whole family. It was just like you hear in the Bible, he was saved and his whole household. We all came to church. Dad was about 31 or 32 years old when he got saved and he started singing in church, serving, and always helping. At about nine years of age, I started seeing that I was a sinner and I needed God to make me right with Him through Jesus. So I trusted Jesus to save me.
Risen Magazine: When did you know that ministry was where God wanted you to be?
Mark Hall: I was about 20 years old, I had grown up in church, I didn’t really have my own walk with Jesus; I kind of had a “church-Jesus,” if that makes any sense. I was a believer but I didn’t really have a lot of roots in my faith. I followed the teen leaders of my culture and did the whole dating thing and built my life around relationships.
It was a really hard crash and burn when I was about 19 – it almost ended things for me. I was kind of done with life and I was as close as you can be to calling it quits. I was in a friend’s car and he had a gun in his car.He went into a store and left me in a car for a minute. I held that gun and I remember the only reason for not ending things right then was that I didn’t want to mess up his car. At that moment I realized I’m in trouble if that’s the only reason I have to stay alive. I was asking God, “There has got to be more to you than church. There has got to be more.” Then I started getting into the Word. I’m dyslexic, I don’t read well, and the fact that you have to talk to God through a book, I thought was just cruel so I always stayed away from the Bible as a kid. But, I went to the book of James because it’s two-and-a-half pages and I thought, “I can do this.” So that is where it all started. It started with me getting into the Word myself, and just starting to understand that Jesus did not live at church. Jesus is not a book; He is a person. He is a person who is coming after me and pursuing me. He’s not waiting on me to find Him, he’s not waiting on me to figure Him out, He’s not waiting on me to get good; He’s coming to me.
That’s when it all started changing and it was about at that age, 20, in three-month’s time, that I not only started walking with Jesus and having my own friendship with Him, but I felt I needed to do something in the church. I didn’t know what that meant but I needed to do something to help believers get what I just got. And my best friend of 10 years in the youth group was a girl named Melanie, and God let me start seeing her as the person I needed to spend my life with. And right at that same time, I started singing songs in my head when I would drive. That was the turning point for me in ministry. I went to Bible College to major in music because I guess I thought that was what I was supposed to do in ministry. But I was about a year into school when I realized I needed to be spending time with teenagers.
I held that gun and I remember the only reason for not ending things right then was that I didn’t want to mess up his car.
Risen Magazine: You mentioned dyslexia and I read you were also diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). How did you combat that to read scripture, develop your sermons, and write and perform music?
Mark Hall: I still don’t read well and ADD is an everyday part of my life. The thing with ADD and dyslexia is that it gets you down really bad in school. Because if you are in a public school setting and you don’t keep up with the herd, you just get tossed into a smaller pen. That was the problem I had in school, but when I got into my life, when I got into doing what I wanted to do, I started seeing that each thing that I thought was a limitation was really what God was going to use to help me speak to people and love people. And that He would fill my life with people that had gifts that I didn’t have.
For me, sermon prep and that kind of stuff is still tough. If you look at my sermon notes you are going to see scripture… skip three lines… story about the bird… skip three lines… here are three points… because if I’m talking and I’m looking at a crowd and then I look down at my notes, it takes a minute for me to figure out where I am on the page. I can’t have a lot of notes so that kind of changes the style that I speak in. But God gave me a personality type to where that isn’t a problem for me because just talking to people comes natural. So while school made me feel like I wouldn’t be effective, God is showing me it works just fine.
I was asking God, “There has got to be more to you than church. There has got to be more.”
Risen Magazine: It is so powerful when talented people in the spotlight share their struggles. Was that something you were always comfortable talking about and how have you seen lives changed through your transparency?
Mark Hall: Let me tell you, I didn’t say the word dyslexia until I was probably about 21 or 22 years old. I thought that no one in my church had any problems from what I could tell. Everybody was pretty quiet. We were always praying for sick people – everybody was sick – but nobody had problems. [Laughter] I thought, “I must be the only messed up person in this whole church. I have got to keep my mouth shut.“
My wife and I had gotten married and a week later we moved down to Florida, and started Bible College. I remember a year after that starting in this small church as a youth pastor. There were about eight or ten kids and I took them to a conference. There was a speaker named Dave Edwards who is a great guy and loves God and really weighs things out. Dave was telling his testimony and he said, “Oh by the way, I’m dyslexic.” He continues talking and is telling jokes about being dyslexic and I’m sitting there thinking, “You have got to be kidding? I can’t believe this guy is telling everybody that he can’t read.” In my head I’m thinking, “Now no one is going to listen to you. No one is going to care what you think because they all are going to think you are stupid,” because that is what the world had been telling me my whole life. But what I was seeing was that my students around me were identifying with him because suddenly they thought, “Hey, there is not a perfect person on stage. This guy has problems just like me.” So that just revolutionized the way I see it. And then I got into the Word and I started seeing how Paul said, “I’m boasting in my weakness because it is the power of Christ that rests in me.” God does not need me; God wants me.
I started being more real and tearing the plastic off and I said, “You know God, I don’t do this right all the time. I still struggle with fear.” And it was like the teenagers just ran to that because finally somebody was real at church. One of my goals all the time is just to keep it real. Just talk straight about who God is, and talk straight about whom we are, and it’s made a difference.
Risen Magazine: Your latest album has such an important message, so talk to me about the need to thrive, instead of just survive, and why it was important to you to make this now?
Mark Hall: About six to eight years ago I took my teenagers on a mission trip. We were down in south Alabama in a city named Geneva where two rivers join together at this park where there is a tree that is 300 years old. It was amazing because of how big it was. It took six or seven guys to reach around the tree – the limbs were so big they were coming down and touching the ground before they came back up. I had 60 kids there for the trip and we were trying to back up to get all the kids in the picture and by the time you backed up enough to get the tree, you couldn’t see the kids anymore. While we were there, this farmer who was our guide was telling us about the tree. He said that [the area] was a flood zone in Geneva and it had flooded twice since he’d lived there, and he was pointing to mud lines on the tree where the water has risen up. He said if you were to tear all the dirt up from under this tree, you would see just as much going on under the surface as you do above it, and that’s what is holding it together. It’s not the strength on the top of the ground; it’s the strength under the ground.
We ended up talking about Psalm 1 for quite awhile with our students. We busted it open and talked about being a tree planted by streams of water. We talked about digging down deep into the water and then reaching out to the world. For me, I see different kinds of believers in our church. I see believers that are all roots. And they want to know more, and learn more, and read more, and listen and critique and find their favorite preacher and find something wrong with him, and then find a better one. They want to find more stuff to talk about. But it seems that they are all roots. They don’t love people a lot. So, roots without a tree are just something to trip over. But then again you also see believers who are all reach. They are feeding, and rescuing, and doing, but there aren’t roots in their faith. So when life hits them, it just knocks them right over. What we are looking at here that God has given us with this picture of His work, this tree, is that the way this life works is that you need to stop trying to be awesome for Jesus. Jesus does not need you to be awesome for Him. If I reach more, God will love me. If I’m taller, God will love me. If I’m stronger, God will love me. But if I’ll just dig in and make my effort in the digging, instead of the reaching, what will happen is that as I dig into the Word, God starts defining Himself to me. And now that I know Him, I’m not trying to hang fruit on my life. If my effort is to know God more, what’s going to happen is that I am going to be so full of Him, and understand Him, to where now I am ready to go out and love people even if it is uncomfortable. And now the fruit in my life is as it should be; it’s fruit of the Spirit.
What we have done here is that we have written an album where six songs are all about digging deep into your faith; what does God have to say about your family? What does God have to say about your past? What does God have to say about your weaknesses? And then we have six songs about reaching out. Now what do you do based on what God has done?
I started seeing that each thing that I thought was a limitation was really what God was going to use to help me speak to people and love people.
Risen Magazine: You write and sing some of the most memorable songs on this current album. Which songs most reflect where your heart is at right now?
Mark Hall: Well, on the digging deep side, there is a song called “Just Be Held,” that is special to me. One of the songs we are probably most known for is a song called, “Praise You in This Storm.” It’s about being in the middle of craziness and understanding God is going to get me through this and that I can pray and know He is worthy of my praise, even though the times that I am in are not good; I can praise Him in the hard times. “Just Be Held” is about God singing to you in the storm. So to me this is like the other side. Sometimes because we are not in control, we think nobody is in control. And sometimes because we can’t see a plan, we start thinking there is no plan. And also because sometimes we are not in the Word as we should be when life hits us and we want help, but we feel like, “Well I haven’t been really close to God lately, how am I going to ask Him for help with this? I need to get back right with Him first, and then ask how to make this decision.” And all these crazy things we’ve got in our head of working our way to God and proving to Him that we have faith in Him. But what I have to rest in is that I’m His, and He’s got me. And this song is just reminding me that He holds me.
Another song that is a big one for me is a song called, “Broken Together.” It’s a song about marriage and it goes back to the truth about how we are not honest enough in church, and how we need to start talking more about our struggles in our family. A lot of times when you’re in a tough season in your marriage – and that’s what they are, they are seasons – what we have to remember is that yes, we walked the aisle together, we had goals and dreams, and all these fantasies about how perfect it was going to be, but now we are here [and it’s not so perfect]. If we’re going to heal, if God is going to bring us together, He’s going to have to take us from where we are now; we can’t go back to there. And that is what “Broken Together” is about. Risen Magazine: Your fourth book, like your album, is also called Thrive. When it comes to growth, what stretches you?
Mark Hall: How I’m handling life, you can link directly back to where I am in my walk with Jesus, as far as my fellowship with Him goes. When I’m in the Word and I’m digging deep, I’m daily reminding myself of who I am, like Colossions 2 says, “If you’ve been raised in Christ, now you need to set your mind on those things where He is.” And if I’m doing that, then when I get to friendship, I’m full. I’ve got nothing left to do but love people because I’ve got all I need from the one source that is really going to do it for me. But when I am sort of coasting, which all too often happens for me, because the enemy is coming after your time with God – he’ll get your Bible away from you and he’ll sure get your prayer time away from you. Now when I’m not in the Word, or digging in, I need my friends to appreciate me a little more, understand me a little more, love me and I need grace from everyone else. When I’m not drawing from Jesus it affects my friendships. I guess in every area; in my work, in my performance with my job and songwriting. If I’m living off some other person, I’m in trouble. For me to grow, I always go back to [ask] where I am in my time with God. Am I spending time with Jesus? I’ve got to keep digging in, and reaching out. Risen Magazine: Your first studio album was co-produced by Stephen Curtis Chapman and then almost a decade later he had a role in the adoption of your youngest daughter. I think the way God places individuals in our lives is incredible. What would you say about the importance of allowing the Lord to use others in your life, or use you in the lives of others?
Mark Hall: When you think of the whole difference between thriving and surviving, when I’m just surviving and trying to get through the day, or the weekend, or the storm, I’m going to miss countless opportunities to love the people around me. I’m going to miss God saying, “Sit by this person at lunch.” Or “That person that is crossing your mind when you’re praying, I’m putting them on your mind because I’m doing something in their life.“
But when I’m digging in the Word, and reminding myself daily who I am, I start seeing things like God sees them. Here I am trusting God and knowing that He is letting me in on stuff. When God pops a name in your head while you are praying, please understand that is big stuff. That is eternal, crazy, up-in-the-Spirit realm type of stuff. We are looking for signs whether or not we should take a job and God’s like, “You know that person I wanted you to witness to today, he was going to offer you a job. Follow My lead a little bit more.” A lot of times we are looking for the big things for God to happen, and big things for God is the person that works next to you. Where you are, blooming where you are planted, showing your scars, telling your story – that’s why we are here. Ministry doesn’t happen on a stage; it’s not singing or talking in front of crowds. There are people that are never going to go to a church, but they are on your jobsite, or in your school project group, they are sitting next to you and it’s for you to reach them; it’s your turn.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2014