It’s a phone call more than two decades ago that David Crowder still recalls with amazement.
A seminal moment—a conversation about influencing and mobilizing a generation of young adults for God’s glory.
Louie Giglio, a former campus minister at Baylor University, wanted to reproduce some songs Crowder and his fledgling worship band had written for their new church plant, University Baptist Church (UBC) in Waco, Texas.
Giglio had moved to Atlanta and launched an annual gathering of 18-to-25-year-olds in the late 1990s to worship and rally around God’s greatness. And he wanted to include some songs from the UBC worship band’s playlist on his “Passion Conference” soundtrack.
Inspired by Giglio’s vision for a spiritual awakening and movement among college students and young professionals, Crowder readily agreed.
“I just love that collegiate moment where folks are figuring out what they are going to leverage their life for,” Crowder says. “It was immediately obvious that he (Giglio) had a similar heartbeat for students.”
Ironically, Crowder’s musical ensemble of financially strapped college students had never recorded a song professionally. But unbeknownst to the worship band, churchgoers were recording UBC’s music and sharing it with family and friends around the country, and the buzz had reached Giglio in Atlanta.
About a year later, Giglio and his wife, Shelley, financed the recording of the “David Crowder Band’s” first independent album and soon thereafter added the band to their “sixsteps-records” recording label.
“From the start, Crowder was writing from a different place than most, in what was an exploding landscape of new worship music,” Giglio recalls. “While most songs were coming from inside the church for those who were already within her walls, Crowder was crafting music from within, yet writing with a burden to give voice to those who were skeptical of coming through the door.”
In “Come As You Are,” Crowder soulfully sings: “Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal; So lay down your burdens; Lay down your shame; All who are broken, lift up your face.”
But before Crowder was known simply by his last name, he was a junior music major at Baylor in 1995, where—like more than half the students surveyed at the private Baptist school—he too had stopped attending church regularly.
As a 7-year-old, he had professed his faith in Christ, during a children’s event, following the invitation from an evangelistic puppet named Eugene, and was baptized at his hometown First Baptist Church of Texarkana, Texas. Growing up with his younger brother and godly parents in East Texas along the Arkansas border, Crowder planned to join his dad’s business as an insurance agent.
In his early 20s, however, the opportunity to help build a church community driven by Biblical and relational discipleship resonated with Crowder and hundreds of college students who had been turned off by what they deemed ritualistic, institutional religion.
Although Crowder didn’t start playing guitar until he transferred to Baylor from Texas A&M/Texarkana, years of piano lessons, beginning in first grade, helped him quickly expand his musical repertoire.
“I really fell in love with music when I picked up a guitar, and with all of the music theory I had been ingesting from a young age, then music started to become music is how I describe it,” he says. “I just love steel on wood. Appalachian stringed instruments have always been at our roots given our country side of things. And I love that nerdy arcade music stuff.”
Crowder and Toni, his wife of 28 years, began dating in high school. They never aspired to a global platform of chart-topping albums, Dove Awards and Grammy nominations— which likely explains why they served on staff at UBC for 16 years.
Before Crowder’s career as a solo artist, his church band maintained a busy touring schedule while continuing to lead Sunday worship at UBC.
On a rare weekend away from their church in October 2005, Crowder received another unforgettable phone call. His pastor, Kyle Lake, left a voicemail message on Saturday evening congratulating the band on the release of their new album. As Crowder listened to Lake’s phone message on Sunday, he had already heard the tragic news of his 33-year-old pastor’s electrocution death earlier that morning. The electrical wiring of the baptistery’s heating element malfunctioned when Lake adjusted a microphone while standing in the baptismal pool in front of about 800 people.
“I’d just finished a record called ‘A Collision’ that was all about death,” Crowder says. “It was like the Christian response to death. I was always running the songs by Kyle to make sure we were teaching ourselves and our community theologically sound things. And here we were as a church left with all these songs that would be what we needed.”
Crowder and Toni continued to serve on the church’s staff until 2011. The next year, the David Crowder Band released its sixth and final studio album, titled “Give Us Rest,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Christian chart and No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart.
By then, a demanding concert schedule and leading Sunday worship services in Waco had left the Crowders and their band physically and spiritually depleted. They decided to part ways with the band and UBC and repriortize their lives. With the future wide open, Toni went back to school to pursue a degree in interior architecture design in Nashville, Tennessee.
A couple of years later, Crowder released his first critically-acclaimed solo album, “Neon Steeple,” in 2014 while Toni launched her career as an interior designer in Atlanta. The couple joined nearby Passion City Church, where Giglio is the founding pastor. Two more award-winning solo albums followed with “American Prodigal” in 2016 and “I Know A Ghost” in 2018. The three-record trilogy, produced by Giglio’s record label, celebrates God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“I’ve always believed these songs for His church don’t come from us, they come through us,” Giglio says. “We are not originators; rather, channels or stewards of God-birthed anthems for His people. These weren’t Crowder’s songs, but God’s songs— delivered through the unique fabric and fiber of Crowder to the world.”
Crowder’s songs poetically and profoundly describe a desperation and longing to be reconciled with God, coupled with joyful declarations of forgiveness, healing and victory.
Mix banjos, fiddles, drums, guitars and synthesizers and you get an eclectic sound of country and western, bluegrass, rock, southern gospel and folk music—or what the 48-year-old author and musical artist likes to call “foot and hand music.”
“I’ve always written lyrics from a perspective that the distance between the human and our Maker is vast,” Crowder says. “And the whole story from a meta-narrative is us trying to get back in communion with our Maker. From displacement back to communion is what the whole thing’s about.”
Over the years, Crowder has continued to partner with Giglio’s annual Passion Conference that has reached hundreds of thousands of young adults and raised millions of dollars for both evangelistic and humanitarian efforts around the world.
Last year, Crowder was the headline musical artist for the six-city Graham Tour across Australia and the Decision America Northeast Tour. In June, he joined Will Graham for an online streaming evangelistic event from The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina.
As for Crowder’s reputation as a prolific lyricist and musician, he describes his creative process like “climbing down a ladder at night looking for the next rung.”
Observations of society and culture and meditations from Bible study and devotional reading inspire his lyrics. Then he waits until God begins to stir the creative winds in his head and heart, which often seems to happen on an airplane or his touring bus.
“A lot of that is just paying attention,” he says. “Just seeing, maybe, moments that other people aren’t watching and then figuring out what that does inside me. It’s more like collecting words, ideas, colors, sounds. Then whenever the wind gets here and I need to say what it is that is turning in me, I’ll have more on my palette and more colors to paint with.”
Crowder’s unassuming nature and witty personality belies the seriousness with which he embraces God’s calling on his life. He winces at the label or title of worship leader, preferring to de-emphasize the role music plays in a Christ-follower’s true expression of worship.
“I make church music,” he says. “I view music as facilitating us as a community getting together and voicing what we think God’s doing. I don’t think what I do is as important as it is to see where your heart is. When you’re stuck in traffic, I think, is a better time to examine the interior of your soul than it is when we’re singing songs together.”
Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2020 BGEA