It's been more than a decade since Casting Crowns first topped Billboard's Hot Christian Songs and Top Christian Albums charts. Since then, much has changed for the Georgia-based worship band. Though they've won a Grammy, four American Music Awards, 17 Dove Awards and have been Billboard's top-selling Christian act since 2007, the members of Casting Crowns are raising families and keeping their day jobs at local churches. Amidst that multi-tasking, Casting Crowns just released their eighth studio album, The Very Next Thing, on Sept. 16.
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"These songs are coming out of what I'm teaching," lead vocalist/principal songwriter Mark Hall tells Billboard. Hall has been in youth ministry for 25 years. For the last 15 years, he's served as youth pastor at Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church outside Atlanta. The other members of Casting Crowns -- Juan and Melodee DeVevo, Megan Garrett, Brian Scoggin, Josh Mix and Chris Huffman -- each work at their respective churches, so music and ministry are deeply intertwined for Casting Crowns. Particularly for Hall, as the lessons he teaches his youth group inform the songs he writes for each record.
He admits that after the band's last album, Thrive, which was accompanied by a book he wrote, Hall wondered what he could do next. "I felt like, 'What can you possibly say after Thrive?'" Hall says. "There were times I thought I guess I'll probably just go to heaven after this record. I don't know what else to tell people."
Yet, in time, he found a new message to address with his students and it led to new songs. "We are always looking for what is off in the distance and God has placed you right where you are, to bloom where you are planted, to love the people around you and point to the people around you to the God that you know," he says, encouraging people to just do the very next thing God is calling them to do. "People that won't go to church, people that probably won't go buy a Christian record, they're not going to click on YouTube and watch a bunch of preachers, but they'll sit next to you in class. They'll ride with you to work or they'll sit at your table during your lunch hour and God has planted you there -- not so that you can get a better job one day -- it's so you can know Him and make Him known right where you are. That's what I've been trying to pour into my students and pour into people and remind myself is that [accomplishing] big things for God is really just reaching the person sitting next to you right now."
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Since arriving in 2003 with their self-titled debut album, Casting Crowns has built a solid career on anthems that unashamedly target the church with messages that challenge and inspire. The band's break through hit, "If We Are the Body," took church-goers to task for being judgmental and not doing enough to reach out an helps others. It may have stung a little, but nevertheless proved to be a big hit. Since then the band has followed with such potent anthems as "Who Am I," "Voice of Truth," "East to West," "Praise You in This Storm," "Until the Whole World Hears" and "Courageous," which was the title track for the popular faith-based film.
"When it's time to make a record, I know what we need to say because I know where we are as a church. This is what I'm dealing with. This is what people are dealing with. This is what we need to talk about," Hall says. "Musically, I never really know what I'm walking into. It just sort of happens. I don't try to go for any kind of a certain sound, but I try to build a sound around a lyric that doesn't get in the way of it. With this record, we decided to go in a little bit of a different direction with a few of them, just to try some different styles and have a little bit more fun."
Mark Miller, lead singer for the veteran country band Sawyer Brown, produced all songs on The Very Next Thing (with the exception of "Hallelujah," which was produced by Bernie Herms). Miller discovered the band when someone gave him a tape and signed them to his Beach Street Records imprint (marketed and distributed through Provident Music Group.) "Mark is good at what he does," Hall says. "He knows me. He's a big brother to me. He believes in me like nobody else and he knows when I'm in a good spot to sing and when I'm not. He knows when I need a little pressure and when not to give it to me. I trust him fully and he'll always be my guy. He'll always be the guy that does our records."
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Hall says sonically the new album is a bit of a departure. "It's the first Crowns' record that doesn't have a string section in it," he says. "Normally there are strings all the way through our record. Now there is violin throughout the record because Melodee plays violin, but we've always had an orchestra here and there. We just decided to take a break from some of that and make a few changes. I just wasn't feeling it this time. I wanted to do some things different and I don't miss it."
The Very Next Thing is the first Casting Crowns record since Hall's battle with cancer. During a routine trip to the doctor to deal with acid reflux, Hall's doctor decided to do some scans and found a tumor on his kidney that turned out to be cancerous. He admits the diagnosis caught him by surprise. He was attending a funeral when he got a text from his doctor asking him to call. "When I read that, it was just that feeling you get when you look up and see the blue lights in your rearview mirror," says Hall, a married father of four, who worried about breaking the news to his kids. "It stopped me. Everything around me stopped and in that very moment all I could think was, 'This is about to happen. This is about to happen to me. I'm the youth pastor. I'm the guy that helps everyone else get through their stuff. I'm the encourager. I don't know how to do this part.'"
When asked how his experience affected the music on the new album, Hall replies, "When I hear people going through cancer and other health storms, I see it a little different. I've always seen it as the one who has a loved one going through it, but I've never been in it before, so that's been new for me. I didn't want to write the post-cancer record, but I did want to talk about it and to me, 'Oh My Soul' just drew the picture perfectly of where I was and where I am now, but I think you'll always hear a little bit of that in anything I do. I've never been able to hide my heart very well, so it always comes out when I'm writing."
Hall wrote "Oh my Soul" one quiet night in his office at church. "I've got a little keyboard in my office," says Hall, who had his kidney removed and is now cancer free. "I remember sitting down and the only scripture that would stay in my head was [in Psalm 42:11] when David said, 'Why so downcast oh my soul? Put your hope in God.' That verse has always stuck out to me because he was talking to himself. We all talk to ourselves, but we don't want to tell anybody that we do and there he is saying, 'David, what's wrong with you man? Come on!' I remember sitting at this piano and that chorus was starting to come out. Some of those verses started to come out. It began with 'Oh my soul!' and so the song is really an argument with myself. I'm speaking truth to myself. The roots of my faith are talking to the storm in my life and that's where that battle began."
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Casting Crowns will share songs from The Very Next Thing when they hit the road this fall with opening acts Matt Maher and Hannah Kerr. The tour kicks off this Thursday (Sept. 22) in El Paso, Texas. Hall, who jokes around during the band's shows about his ADD, credits his bandmates and his wife, Melanie, for keeping things running smooth with Casting Crowns. "I have some amazing people around me. Melanie still runs Crowns and there would be no Crowns without her. All the members of the band still work in student ministry, so we've all got the same heart. As long as I'm still in the church and around people, God is going to sing me songs and as long as He sings me songs, we'll be singing them."