Published January 31, 2008
FAIRFAX, Va. — On one night, youth pastor Mark Hall puts plans together for his Wednesday night youth service at Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough.
The next night, Hall is on stage in the Washington suburbs, fronting his Grammy-nominated band, Casting Crowns.
For Hall and other members of his group, all of whom serve in youth ministry in Atlanta-area churches, middle, and high school students are their top priority. It just happens they end up reaching them both on and off stage.
“Our priority in our scheduling and our priority in how we do things is definitely student ministry because you can’t pop in and pop out of the student ministry,” said Hall, the 38-year-old leader of the band known for its pop contemporary and worship music.
“You can’t just come in for a day and be a youth pastor – or I would hope you couldn’t. You can’t be a good one, anyway.”
Despite the success of Casting Crowns – their latest album debuted at No. 2 in the nation on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, coming in behind the High School Musical 2 soundtrack – Hall said their music and their mission are focused on helping average Christians, whether teenagers or former teenagers, grow closer to God.
The group’s latest album, The Altar and the Door, dwells on the difficulties faced by Christians who are challenged to live life a certain way when they’re inside the walls of a sanctuary but seem to forget some of those lessons once they leave church.
Juan DeVevo, 32, a guitarist for Casting Crowns who works with the student praise band at Eagle’s Landing, said the high ranking on the Billboard chart is a sign that their music also is reaching non-Christians.
“Believers are giving our CD to nonbelievers, and they’re feeling like that stuff can speak to people and help them in their time of need, even though they may not even go to church,” he said.
The band found fame when a college student at the church put their CD in the hands of Mark Miller, the frontman for the country music group Sawyer Brown. He started the Beach Street Records label in 2003 and became the band’s producer.
Three albums later, Casting Crowns took home the “favorite artist” award in contemporary inspirational music at the American Music Awards last November.
Four of the group’s seven members started playing together in 1999 as a band at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., where then-pastor Bobby Welch didn’t even know of Hall’s musical abilities when he hired him. But after Hall moved to Georgia and the band became more established there, Welch invited them to perform at the 2006 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, when Welch was denominational president.
“I don’t think he’s just doing a unique balancing act,” Welch said of Hall. “I think his music and his ministry make each other.”
Tricia Whitehead, a spokeswoman for the Gospel Music Association, said other Christian artists have come out of the church and continued to work as music ministers even as they performed onstage. But Casting Crowns, with its involvement in youth ministry, is different.
“Casting Crowns has set a standard that is fantastic to see, that they continue to be so involved in ministry alongside the huge success they’re having as an artist,” she said.
When Hall meets with youth pastors at concerts, he reminds them that relationships, not lectures, are the key to reaching young people.
“You’ll teach more in the car on the way to Burger King after church than you will in your Bible study,” Hall said. He may spend hours working on “neat, artsy, cool” worksheets for his Wednesday night youth group, but finds teens are more interested in one-on-one time to discuss a personal matter.
Reagan Farris, the other youth pastor at Eagle’s Landing, said most of the students at the church are unfazed by the band’s success.
“Not many students in the student ministry are just in awe that they’re Casting Crowns,” said Farris, 29, who was once a member of Hall’s youth group. “He’s their youth pastor. He’s not Casting Crowns. He’s Mark.”
In addition to reaching students, Hall has tried to help parents understand the sometimes mysterious lives of teenagers – especially the side of kids that’s bared only online. He wrote a song, and then a column in USA Today, after a voyage through FaceBook and MySpace.
“They just want to have a friend to sit with at lunch,” Hall said. “They want to be accepted and sometimes your need for acceptance lures you outside of what you know to be right, what you know to be godly.”
Hall’s life is a constant balancing act. Before hitting the road for the concert in Virginia, he attended a staff meeting and sketched out worship plans. Then he met with about 400 youth for their weekly gathering, and hung around afterward to meet with a parent and help a student in crisis.
After sleeping on the bus from Georgia, he helped home-school one of his three children and also kept in touch with youth back in Georgia.
“I texted 22 students this morning with a sort of a verse-for-the day kind of thing I like to do with them,” he said.
“You don’t just check out of student ministry. It’s impossible.”
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