This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.
He first appeared to me last November at a bar where I’d gone to watch the Falcons–Saints game. As usual, there were spirited drinkers with heavy beards milling around and grown-ups playing Golden Tee. In the third quarter a tall, disheveled man in a puffy jacket, with a John Deere hat pulled low over his glasses, ambled up through a halo of smoke and pushed his prophet’s beard into my girlfriend’s face. We were in Cabbagetown, where weirdness is next to godliness, so I reserved judgment. “It smells like french fries, right?” the man said of his facial hair, inching closer, giving my girlfriend an unmoored smile. She nodded, hesitantly. The man looked like he might be homeless, or on drugs. But before I could say anything, he floated away into the hipster firmament.
“That’s David Crowder,” my girlfriend said. “You won’t believe who he is.” Crowder, I soon found out, is one of the most successful Christian musicians in America. Over a fourteen-year career, he’s sold almost 2 million records. A double CD he released last year debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, behind only Adele. Stretching over more than ninety minutes and thirty-four songs, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]) is, like his previous six releases, engagingly eclectic: alt-rock, electro-pop, folk, ambient gospel, country. At the 2012 Passion conference in Atlanta, 42,000 college-age Christians packed the Georgia Dome to hear Crowder and his band. Crowder, the New York Times has written, “is among the most thoughtful, progressive, and exciting acts in contemporary Christian music.”
As it turned out, the Georgia Dome performance was a bit of a swan song for Crowder. Not long after, he broke up his band. “That portion of life was over,” he told me during one of the conversations we’d have after our odd initial encounter. “Period, full stop, end of the sentence.” We were sitting at a bar in Cabbagetown, where most of our discussions would take place. Indeed, since relocating here two years ago from Waco, Texas, Crowder has become one of the most ubiquitous—and implausible—characters in a neighborhood known for them: Christian rock star retreats not to a gated Buckhead estate or a Midtown penthouse, but to a working-class community of struggling artists, narrow streets, and old mill families. Today he rarely ventures beyond the plenitude of his neighborhood: a tavern, cafe, small grocery, and tattoo parlor where he recently had the word Honesty tattooed on his right wrist. Already on his left: I will rise.
The question is, will he rise? And if so, where?
Christian music today has become so huge that there is a Christian version of virtually every genre: Christian rock, of course, but also Christian boy bands, Christian metal, and, most recently, Christian rap. Collectively this has come to be called “contemporary Christian music,” or CCM. Some CCM acts, like Amy Grant (a “white gospel” singer born in Augusta) and Michael W. Smith (Grant’s one-time keyboardist), have made the Billboard 200 charts right alongside secular groups.
In the past two decades, an ambitious new generation of Christian artists emerged—including Atlanta’s Third Day, who have won four Grammys and been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame—that aspired to mainstream success by making music that wasn’t strictly for believers. The members of Switchfoot—a San Diego rock band, active since 1996, that has sold millions of albums and won a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album in 2011—didn’t hide the fact that they were Christians. “But,” said Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, “they also didn’t just play in that shallow pool of the CCM industry, which was a big deal.” In more orthodox Christian circles, this compromise was distressing, if not evidence of outright apostasy: Was there such a thing as truly “Christian” music anymore?
David Crowder grew up in Waco, a Texas town not known for its shrinking violets: Ted Nugent and David Koresh have both called Waco home. As a kid, Crowder played soccer and basketball, rode horses, and staged pellet gun wars in the woods as often as he could. When he was eleven, he started running, deciding that he’d break the four-minute mile and compete in the Olympics. This never came to pass, though he says he got close to the four-minute mark.
These activities had to be squeezed in, however: Raised in a traditional Southern Baptist household, he set aside the majority of his free time for worship. Music, like religion, permeated the hot Texas air of Crowder’s youth. He listened almost exclusively to Elvis Presley, Bill Gaither, Willie Nelson, and, yes, Olivia Newton-John. “That’s everything I’ve done—all of my music, right there,” he said. He played keyboard as a kid, but was no prodigy: “The music director would tell me, ‘David, there’s a slider on the side of the keyboard that says “volume”; if you could turn that all the way down, that’d be fantastic.’” He figured he’d go into the insurance business, like his father. Knowing that, he felt free to study music at Baylor University.
Baylor is a Christian university, but, according to Crowder, more than half of the students there in the early nineties didn’t set foot in a church. He believed this was because of the dogmatism of most Southern churches. “You’re not allowed to really question things: Why are we here? Why is [there] evil? The answers were just coming from a place of certainty.” And by his early twenties, he had doubts. Back home, there had been a family crisis—one he won’t discuss. But in his 2004 book Praise Habit: Finding God in Sunsets and Sushi, he wrote that it was “something very terrible” that made him feel like “God was not there.” He told me, “I decided I don’t have issues with this Jesus guy, but it doesn’t look like this traditional approach is the way to go about worship.” A college friend named Chris Seay, now a pastor in Houston, talked about starting a new, laid-back place of worship for young people. “I had a deep sense that I was called to pastor,” Seay told me. “But, like David, I knew it didn’t look anything like what my dad and grandfather”—both ministers—“were doing. Dave was one of the people that when I’d talk about that, there was deep resonance. We both had the sense that if the time ever came to start a church, we’d do it together.”
As a junior at Baylor in 1995, Seay asked Crowder to be responsible for the music at University Baptist Church, or UBC, which they founded together. (It was abbreviated, Crowder said, “so we didn’t run people off with the Baptist thing.”)
At the end of UBC’s Sunday service, the congregation sang along to hymns backed by a band, but Crowder had a hard time finding traditional church songs that got college kids excited. For a while, he and Seay would close their service with the pseudo-spiritual mid-nineties radio staple “Hold My Hand,” by Hootie and the Blowfish.
During the week, Crowder and Seay would pore over Ecclesiastes, looking for raw material. But what they found didn’t resonate. Seay challenged Crowder to write some songs himself. Crowder did, timidly at first. “The first song I ever wrote,” Crowder said, “was called ‘You Alone.’ I asked my roommate after we used the song in the service how he thought it went. He said it was terrible. It was the same three chords over and over, the same words over and over.”
Most everyone else disagreed. “You Alone” would become one of Crowder’s most enduring songs, and it and dozens like it quickly had UBC’s congregants standing in the halls and leaning into the windows. Three hundred and sixty showed up to the first service, but the church soon moved to a theater that could seat a thousand, where his words echoed: You have given me more than / I could ever have wanted / And I want to give You my heart and my soul. This church was less like a lecture to these college students and more like a concert or a family reunion.
Crowder began performing around Texas, mostly at church retreats; he begged professors to let him miss class. It wasn’t long before Crowder realized selling insurance wasn’t in the cards. “If something feels true, you get into it,” Seay said. “And that quickly began to happen on a large scale for Dave.” Remaining in Waco, but touring regionally for the next few years with a student band assembled at UBC, Crowder put out an independent record called All I Can Say, recorded in Austin, in 1999. It was just him doing what he did at UBC: no official band, no label, no entourage.
A man named Louie Giglio, who had run a Bible study on Baylor’s campus before moving to Roswell, Georgia, in the mid-nineties, loved songs like “You Alone” and helped fund All I Can Say. Giglio set up a small Christian label called Sixsteps-records in 2000 and released Crowder’s first album with a band, Can You Hear Us?, two years later. Crowder had begun touring nationally in 2000 with the David Crowder*Band (the asterisk is an inside joke best understood as “we’re different”), but he still made it back to Waco most Sundays to perform at UBC. Songs like “Our Love Is Loud” were being compared not only to the work of major Christian singers like Matt Redman, but also to Dave Matthews Band. Crowder looked different—like Buddy Holly gone rogue—and told stories that could veer off message.