May 27, 2008
By Lane Murphy
Would you buy insurance from this guy? A lanky 32 year old with a cartoon character-inspired hairdo, David Crowder was supposed to go back home to take over his father's insurance business in Texarkana, Texas, when he finished his studies at Baylor. Instead, God is using him and the band that bears his name to connect a generation to Himself.
While students at Baylor, Chris Seay (now pastor of Ecclesia, a church in Houston) and Crowder realized that many students weren't connecting with local churches. They started University Baptist Church (UBC) in 1995 to give students out of tune with church culture a place to find a community of faith and to provide space for life's difficult questions.
"We fell in love with being in the college setting," says Crowder. "I really enjoy the constant interaction of ideas and people struggling with questions common to man. UBC is just filled with a lot of people that had a similar experience as myself, who came away to school, went through a lot of moments of crisis as far as faith is concerned and wound up with the decision to not chuck the whole thing, [but] maybe try to reconstruct it in a way that seems to fit our current culture."
Meeting in various locations near campus, UBC began as a mission of Beverly Hills Baptist Church. The Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Waco Baptist Association stepped in to help the church find a more permanent structure to house UBC's growing congregation. The church now meets in a converted grocery store. Its interior is adorned with a variety of artistic renderings not typical of Baptist churches, or any church for that matter. Crowder serves as music and arts pastor at UBC, where one of the church's goals is to "integrate the Christian faith into all areas of life... to utilize and value art, beauty, creativity and diversity as coming from our Creator."
His tall frame, spiky hair and bushy goatee have become iconic symbols of the electric authenticity that exudes from Crowder and his band. The Baylor-educated group (Jack Parker, BBA '96; Jeremy Bush; Mike Dodson, BA '99; Mike Hogan, BA '00; and Mark Waldrop) is passionate about worshiping God through dynamic musicianship and soulful lyrics.
But however poised and savvy Crowder appears leading worship these days, he says it wasn't always this way. The eclectic worship leader recalls a hair-raising experience that defined his transformation from a volume-insensitive youth group keyboardist to one of the world's most creative corporate worship leaders.
The stage-shy Crowder says it "fell in my lap to pull the music together" after Seay grew weary of leading the band and preaching each week. Terrified and desperate for material, the newly christened worship leader fled to a local music store and spent the church's entire music budget, "probably all of $50," on praise and worship CDs. As Crowder was sampling the music in his apartment, a non-churchgoing neighbor (who later became a roommate) walked in.
"He was the stereotypical person that we were hoping to provide a space for at UBC. He had grown up in a Christian home, but by the time he got to school he hadn't set foot in a church very often, yet we shared this common appreciation for artists like Dave Matthews Band," says Crowder.
"He's backlit, the door is open, and his cigarette smoke is curling up into the sunlight. He takes a big draw, exhales, and then releases a string of very colorful modifiers, and asks, 'What in the world is that you're listening to?' And he leaves and what's left is this little puff of smoke.
"At that moment I just hit pause and thought, 'I know him, I know me. Why don't I just try to articulate in a way that is common to our experience and our love for current popular music?'"
That epiphanic moment inspired Crowder and friend and fellow Baylor student Jack Parker to pen and perform their first original worship song, "You Alone." The UBC congregation loved it, and the tune quickly spread to sanctuaries around the country. Crowder and the band didn't stop there. What has followed includes 12 albums and EPs written for the corporate worship experience, four 2008 Dove Awards (including Rock/Contemporary Song of the Year for "Everything Glorious" and Worship Album of the Year for Remedy), not to mention sold-out tour stops in San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Seattle, just to name a few.
Near to Crowder's heart is making God accessible in the most relevant manner possible. Like worship leaders in most churches, Crowder faces the difficulty of continuing to find fresh ways to approach God with congregations in mind. Crowder says today's generation lives in a society prone to consumerism and self-service, but the band wants to point students away from that mindset, which Crowder acknowledges is challenging. Musically, that means his band is in an interesting space.
"We try to help people realize that we are called to live for something bigger than ourselves. We're constantly trying to find a new place to take people musically and lyrically. We have to continue to develop new sounds, new ideas, and a new experience for people to be able to realize that they're living in the very presence of God. Most of our lives don't speak of that, and I think that's the beautiful thing about our moments of corporate worship and singing--that our reality gets a bit more in line with what we read of in Scripture."
But yet, Crowder is ever suspicious of musical moments. He sees worship as much more than music and instead gravitates towards Paul's description in Romans of offering ourselves as living sacrifices.
"Paul's words help put music in its place. It minimizes music's role. These moments in music to me are not completely trustworthy, just because there's so much emotion--you can go to a concert or be in a musical environment that is not intended to be a corporate worship experience. You hear people say, 'Wow, that was a spiritual experience. Man, that was otherworldly,' very transcendent language.
"I trust musical experiences less than I do moments stuck in traffic and moments when you're encountering someone you might not like to be around all that much. I think that's when we're able to see our true intentions and motives and what's inside us perhaps better than when we're all together singing. I think Paul might've had something there."
Crowder's creative pen is led by his love for good, truthful stories. While a student at Baylor, Crowder developed an insatiable appetite for literature and theology and has been particularly inspired by German theologian Jnrgen Moltmann. Like many college-age students, the musician was on his own quest for truth.
"You get away from your folks and in a new environment, and especially in an academic environment you've got a lot of questions that come up. It was the kind of stuff that kept me up at night so it seemed like I was just grabbing and reading anything I could get my hands on. I just love the way words are put together in ways that stick around," he says.
All the reading influenced Crowder's writing, which is his favorite part of the worship process.
"I want to write songs that help us gain perspective and say corporately that this God we pursue and who pursues us is so massive that it sometimes makes our heads swim."
Crowder might deny the claim that he has developed into one of the most influential storytellers of the world's most important story, but the true measure of a good storyteller is the number of listeners and how often they come back. Great numbers of people see the truth of God in the David Crowder Band's (DC*B) music. And though Crowder says he doesn't know why so many people listen to his band, he says that whoever creates art must be present in it for it to be authentic.
"I think the music of corporate worship is a similar thing [to genuine art]. We're just trying to allow this experience to then be accessible for a large group of people. I think that's a lot of why we're living and recording in Waco. We want to be who we are rather than go to Nashville or New York or Los Angeles. I think you would have a different self emerge in those settings. This just seems like more who we are, and I think that translates."
Whether he is sitting in awe of the student performances during All-University Sing, mountain biking in Cameron Park or stopping by Dr Pepper Hour in the Bill Daniel Student Center, Crowder is truly at home in Waco. The band plays all over the country and occasionally overseas, all while ensuring they still lead Sunday morning worship at UBC about 75 percent of the time. He still believes his primary calling is ministering to college students.
And when the Center for Christian Music Studies (see story page 30) approached Crowder to join its advisory board, he jumped at the chance. Crowder sees Baylor as an appropriate launching pad for sending balanced and well-educated worship leaders to churches near and far.
"Even the fact of this creation shows that Baylor wants to always be looking forward. That's why when I was approached about it, I just felt things inside me getting really excited, like 'Wow, this is really significant.' What are the tools and what set of ideas will these people need to have encountered to allow them to bring the people of God to better articulation than what we currently can see? To try to look at the current landscape of things and what will people need, not in the next year, but 10 years down the road, that's just grueling. These concerns, the forward thinking, has a lot to do with why I wound up at Baylor and why I'm still such a fan of the environment.
"[Being involved with The Center for Christian Music Studies] is broadening even my perception and understanding of what the church looks like and is. The church as a global unit is much more diverse and colorful than we initially have in our heads, and that's another thing they're really holding up in front of people."
David Crowder and DC*B are focused on forming worship experiences that are about so much more than the music itself, no matter how compelling it can be. Crowder's mission is creating authenticity, retelling the old, old story in a relevant way, and most importantly, connecting the hearts of college students to the heart of God. Few are investing their lives in this pursuit as artfully as Crowder and his band.
"I think if we're gonna try to tell the story of God or paint the story of God we ought to use as many colors as we can find, or at least try to add them to our palette," says Crowder.
David Crowder might have made a good insurance salesman back in Texarkana, but thankfully he is providing a more permanent kind of peace to Baylor students and worshippers around the world.