Zach Williams’ Story of Redemption

Zach Williams’ Story of Redemption

Traveling along the coast of Spain on a European tour with his Southern rock band in the spring of 2012, Zach Williams was finally ready to face the music.

After more than a decade of alcohol and drug binging, Zach’s partying lifestyle had decimated his marriage with his wife, Crystal, who was pregnant with their second child and raising two more from a previous marriage.

 Unfulfilled promises to stay clean and sober consumed Zach with shame and guilt. Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, the 33-year-old Arkansas native had squandered away his life on riotous living while abusing the unconditional love and grace bestowed on him by his family.

“I realized that nothing in my life represented a walk with Christ,” Zach tells Decision. “And I just remember saying, ‘God, if You’re real, and You’re who You say You are, and You can prove it to me, I’ll leave this lifestyle behind, and I’ll follow You.”

Then it happened.

“I was looking out the window of our bus, and the driver was scanning radio stations, and I remember taking my headphones off, and all the other guys were asleep,” Zach says. “And out of nowhere, I heard this song by Big Daddy Weave called Redeemed that came across the radio. 

“I was like, ‘Man, this is not a coincidence. You don’t hear a song like this in Europe, of all places.’ I had never heard Christian music over there, and I went back to the hotel and listened to the lyrics of the song, over and over. I felt like God was saying, ‘I see you in a way that you’ll never see yourself,’ and it was the same way that my mom and dad saw me, and my wife and children saw me. I remember calling Crystal, and I said, ‘I’m done. When I get home, I’m going to cancel my shows, quit my band, and we’re going to find a church.’”  

The morning after Zach returned home from his month-long tour, he got on his knees in his bedroom closet—while Crystal had taken their children to school—and begged God to help him follow through on his prayer of repentance in Spain and his promise to quit his rock band and follow Jesus.

“I had no fancy or flowery words,” Zach writes in his memoir, Rescue Story: Faith, Freedom and Finding My Way Home, published earlier this year. “I had nothing left to give except an empty heart. The only thing remaining of a broken and desperate man. … But I knew in that moment, this was finally right. I knew that I knew I was saved. Jesus had rescued me.”

Raised in a home by godly parents who led worship in their church, Zach grew up immersed in church life and Christian music. His One Hundred Highways album includes a song titled, Like A Billy Graham Revival, that pays tribute to the late evangelist his family watched on TV. 

But as a teenager in Bono, Arkansas, a town of about 1,200, Zach aspired to be an NBA player. As a high school standout on the hardwood, he set a team record for making eight consecutive three-pointers in a game. The 6-foot-6-inch sharpshooter was being recruited by Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi basketball programs until he was banned from playing on his Westside High School basketball team his senior year for smoking marijuana in the school parking lot. 

Humiliated and rejected, Zach dropped out of high school, earned his GED and went to work hanging drywall for his dad’s residential construction company.

Before long, a junior college in northwest Arkansas offered Zach a basketball scholarship after he wowed them in a tryout. But he was sidelined for the season before even playing a game when he tore all the ligaments in his ankle after accidentally stepping on a teammate’s shoe during a walk-through practice. 

With a lot of extra time on his hands, Zach decided to pick up his roommate’s guitar. Soon music overtook his obsession with basketball as he began teaching himself to play his dad’s guitar, the same one he had watched his dad play while leading worship at church. “Every little moment that I had in between classes, I was on that guitar,” Zach says. “I carried the guitar with me everywhere I went for the next 10 years.”

Photo: Courtesy of Zach Williams

A college creative writing class that focused on poetry awakened Zach’s passion for songwriting, but it wasn’t until he had surrendered his life to Christ that he discovered music’s true purpose for his life. And having exchanged his rock star ambitions for an audience of One, his career as a Christian recording artist began to defy industry expectations.

Zach served for a few years as a worship leader in Jonesboro, Arkansas, near his hometown. In 2015, he was invited to participate in some songwriting sessions in Nashville after a Christian songwriter and producer saw him lead worship during Christmas services. 

At the end of an exhausting, four-day songwriting session during Zach’s third trip to Nashville, his first No. 1 song, from his debut album, Chain Breaker, was written. 

“That song wrote itself in 15 minutes,” Zach says. “It was like the Lord just showed up in that place and took the pen and paper and wrote it for us. When we were done, I tracked the vocal that ended up being the vocal on the record that day. I went back three more times in different studios after we tried to make that record and tried to re-create that day and could never do it. Like what happened that day was so special.” 

Chain Breaker aired on Christian radio in June of 2016, eventually staying at No. 1 for 15 weeks. His second single, Old Church Choir, became the most successful Christian radio single in over a decade after being at No. 1 for 20 weeks—the second-longest stretch ever atop Billboard’s Christian radio chart. His back-to-back chart toppers are the first ever for a debut Christian artist. In 2018, the record won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Christian Album.

Zach, who does about 80 concerts a year, considers the prison outreach he began with his wife early in their ministry as special among the venues where he’s led worship. 

“I’ve got just as many things in common with prisoners, probably more than I think I do,” he says. “I’m just lucky enough that I never ended up there. Nobody’s worthy of anything that God’s done in their life. That’s the way I feel. I don’t deserve anything that He’s done for me, but the beauty of it is we don’t. He freely, willingly, does it for us.”

Having performed at The Grand Ole Opry with Vince Gill and sung duets with Dolly Parton, Zach says he never shies away from talking about how Jesus has set him free from sin’s death grip on his life, no matter the venue or music genre he performs. And he couldn’t be more grateful for parents who dedicated him to the Lord when he was an infant and continued to show grace and love throughout his season of rebellion, while holding on to their pastor’s proclamation that one day their son would be “a voice for his generation.”

“When you see God take a song like Chain Breaker or Fear is a Liar, or any of those songs and just blow it up worldwide, and people from all over the world are hearing these songs and sending you stories and messages about what it’s done in their lives,” Zach says, “it’s like, wow, God can take a small-town kid from Nowhere, Arkansas, and use his music to reach the world for Him. It’s mind-boggling to me.”  ©2024 BGEA 

Photo: Courtesy of Zach Williams

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