Content warning: This episode contains mention of suicide and traumatic events.
Chris Tomlin: I think for me, it’s always been about trying to help people connect to God in music. And even from a young kid, I just wanted people to worship God. I didn’t even know what all that meant, but I’ve always tried to write songs that help people worship God, and write those kinds of simple songs. I never would have dreamed it would have taken me to places it has taken me, but I’m so grateful for it.
When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, God Will Provide Direction: Chris Tomlin and Kelvin McElroy – Episode #338
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Have you ever been driving somewhere, or even walking in the city or on a trail, and found yourself hopelessly lost? In the era of smartphones and GPS, this has become a lot less likely, but we can all recall moments where we didn’t have the tools to lead us back to where we needed to go. We ended up wandering, trying to remember where we came from and figure out how to get back to that spot. It’s a scary feeling, not knowing where you’re going, and even more scary when life presents situations where we’re just not sure what to do or who to turn to for help us to get where we need to be. When we feel lost in life and confused about what to do next, God promises that “He will stand by us and strengthen us, so that through us His message can be fully proclaimed” (2 Timothy 4:17).
GRAMMY-winning worship leader Chris Tomlin knew from a very young age that he wanted to connect with the people around him in meaningful ways by playing and singing music, but wasn’t exactly sure how that would pan out in his life. As a young man, he found himself speaking a prayer that he didn’t really understand at the time, but has been a constant throughout his life: “Whatever You want, for the rest of my life, I’m available and will follow you.”
Brigadier General Kelvin McElroy was raised to believe that committing yourself strongly to anything you wanted to pursue would get you where you needed to be, but he still needed a nudge from others who believed in him when he couldn’t see his own potential. Both of these men would go on to powerfully lead others into lives of service and commitment to God, using what God gave them to point people in His direction.
Let’s start with Chris’ story.
Chris: My name’s Chris Tomlin, and I grew up in a very small town in Texas. The town is called Grand Saline, it means “big salt.” We have the Morton Salt mine there—you know, the salt shakers with the girl with the yellow umbrella. And it says, “When it rains, it pours.” That salt shaker comes from my town.
My dad was a pharmacist, but he also had a little guitar shop, a little music shop, in the pharmacy. He loved music, and he played guitar, and he taught me to play.
[Growing up] baseball was everything to me, playing Little League baseball. But I got mono one summer, and the doctor said, “You can’t do anything for the summer.”
My dad said, “All right, you’ve got to learn to do something. You’re in the house all day. I’m gonna teach you how to play guitar.”
Every morning, he would write out the notes about the strings and the notes and the guitar. He’d go to work, and I would just work on it. He’d get home, and I was like, “What’s the next thing?” We just worked on songs. He loved Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, The Outlaws. He loved those guys. I did not know how cool my dad was at that point.
My parents have strong faith. I grew up in church, and even as a young kid, I had a real sensitive heart to God. I was getting opportunities to play hymns at my little church growing up, and I loved that when I got to play at church, people would sing. I loved when they would sing with me. I would even tell my mom, “I just like it when people sing. I don’t really like standing up there and playing with everybody watching me. I like when people join in.”
“I just like it when people sing. I don’t really like standing up there and playing with everybody watching me. I like when people join in.” – a young Chris Tomlin, to his mom
I never heard the term worship leader. I never heard any of that. I just was like, Wow, I just want people singing. So I started trying to write songs, and sing songs people would sing.
A Teenage Singer Steps into His Destiny
I’m going through high school, and there’s a guy in my church. His name was David Crane, and he was just Texas. Like, he traveled around playing music, and he played in all the Texas churches and things like that. I thought he was so cool.
One day he called me, and he said, “Hey, I talked to your dad. I’m going to play about three hours down the road. You want to go help me set up my guitar and sell tapes in the back?” That kind of tells you what year it was. It was selling tapes. And so he’s like, “You want to go out?”
I was like, “Yes.” I thought, Man, this is my big chance.
So I get in the car, we drive together for about three hours. I help set up his guitar, his keyboards. I’m in the back selling the tapes. In the middle of the concert, he just stops and goes, “You know, I’ve got a good friend here, Chris. He came with me, and I think I’m going to have him finish this concert. I’m just going to have him just play a few songs for you guys.”
And I was like, We drove three hours. He did not tell me a word of this.
It’s all youth. Kids my age, they’re all staring at me, turning to look at me, the kid with the tapes in the back. And I just kind of walk up there, not prepared, don’t know what I’m doing, scared to death, and I play a couple songs. It was awful. People were clapping like, Bless his heart.
I get back to sell the tapes, and this youth pastor comes out and says, “Hey, I really like what you do. You want to come play at my church?”
And I was like, What? This is crazy.
He goes, “Yeah, we’re doing this youth thing in the summer. You want to come play?”
And I was like, “Sure.”
So I agreed to play this thing. It was for a week, this youth week thing. And when I got home, I was like, Oh my gosh. I just said yes, I think I only know three songs. What am I going to do?
And I get a call right before this event. The guy’s name is James, has this low voice. He said, “Hello, my name is James.”
I was like, “Hey, James, I’m Chris.”
And he said, “The reason I’m calling you is I’m speaking at this youth event, and I’ve never heard of you, and I’ve never heard of your music. So I’m calling because if we’re going to be together for a week, I wanna see how this is going to go.”
I was like, “Well, James, the reason you’ve never heard of me is I’ve never done this before. And you’re calling me at my parents’ house, I’m in high school.”
You hear the pause on the phone. He’s like, “Okay, what kind of songs do you play?”
And I was like, “Well, James, I know three songs.” Now, looking back, it’s like, Oh my gosh.
He said, “Well, can I send you some music?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
So he sends me these tapes and CDs of these early new worship songs that were coming out. And I fell in love with these songs, and I started learning them.
I came ready for this event with notecards. I had written everything on notecards, written all the lyrics and all the chords. I had my guitar, and I walked up to this youth event, 500 kids, almost as big as my town. I was scared to death. I had all my notecards, I set them on the stage. I walked up, never looked at anybody, never greeted anybody, never said hello, I did not know what to say. I walked up and just played my songs on these notecards every night.
And at the end of the week, James looked at me and he said, “Here are two things I want to tell you. One is you have no idea what you’re doing.”
I was like, “Wow, thank you. God bless you, that was very direct.”
“Number two, you have no idea how God is going to use your songs in the world.”
And I was like, “What? I don’t even have any songs, I’ve been looking at notecards. What do you mean?”
He said, “No, I’ve been praying for you this week. And God has impressed upon me that you’re going to write songs, and the world is going to sing them.”
And then he put his hand on my head, and he said, “God, would you make Chris Tomlin a writer for his generation?” And it was like lightning went through me, and I was like, Wow. What? What is this? And it was a marking moment in my life.
I wasn’t trying to do it. Never looked to do it. Wasn’t something I set out to do. God was just opening up the doors in an incredible way. All that to say that this is definitely not anything that I could have planned or ever dreamed up. But [I’m] so grateful to take the steps of faith and saying, “Okay, God, what’s the next step?” It’s just these little steps. It’s been years and years and years of like, “Where is this all going?” And to see all these things happening in the way God puts all the pieces together, it’s been pretty amazing.
“I wasn’t trying to [become a worship singer]. Never looked to do it. Wasn’t something I set out to do. It was just God opening up the doors in an incredible way.” – Chris Tomlin
Worship Songs That Spring from a Grateful Heart
I always say this, that worship comes from a thankful heart. That’s where it comes from. We have a lot to be grateful for, of the things in life, and worship comes from that place when you realize, Wow, I have so much. God’s done so much in my life.
Prayer is a constant thing for me. And it’s just something that most of the time, for me, if it’s intentional prayer, it’ll always be walking. I have to go walk. And I just talk and listen, you know, I listen, pray. And most of the prayers for me is just gratitude, thankfulness.
It was like this ancient monk theologian who said, “If all you ever say in your prayer is ‘Thank You,’ it will be enough.” And I thought, That is it. Because to me, that’s what prayer is: “God, thank You for all the things I don’t even know You’ve done, and the things You have done, and Your grace in my life.” I find that that’s where most prayer comes from, is just gratitude for my family, for everything that He’s given me. And then obviously, bringing our needs and our hearts to Him. But most of it is a thankfulness, a thankful heart.
And so when you hear my music, when you hear my songs, that doesn’t come from just making something up. It really comes from God. I’m praying that I’m connecting with you. Some of the prayers come out in public because they’re my songs.
“When you hear my songs, those don’t come from just making something up. It really comes from God. Some of the prayers come out in public because they’re my songs.” – Chris Tomlin
I love the word always. When you think about how powerful that one word is, if you could title a record with just one word, you know, it’s hard to do. But always—when you think about worship and you think about the word always, you know there’s not a lot of things in this world that are always. Most things fail, but our hope, and my hope, is pointing people to something that is forever, that is everlasting, that is eternal. And what I try to say in my music, in my concerts every night and with these songs, is that this is different than just singing along with the latest radio or pop song. I say it’s better, but it’s different, because it’s your soul connecting to God. And it’s eternal.
The Scripture says there is an eternal song and everlasting song, and that song is, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” And if the Scriptures are true, which I believe they are, they say day and night, [the songs] never stop. It never stops. It’s been going on way before us and will go on way after us, and everybody who’s been a part of this faith joins in that song.
Even when we are faithless, which is a lot of the time—I love the Scripture that says that God is faithful when we are faithless, because He cannot deny Himself. In other words, that’s who He is. He is faithful. That’s just His nature, can’t be anything else. And so pointing people to that always kind of God.
Jesus Listens, May 29th
My loving Lord,
Let the morning bring me word of Your unfailing Love. Help me to put my trust in You and enjoy Your Love shining upon me—even in the midst of my troubles. When I’m struggling with discouragement, I need to affirm my trust in You and remember who You are: Creator and Sustainer of the universe, as well as my Savior, Lord, and Friend. I know I can count on You because Your Love is boundless and steadfast. It never runs out or grows dim, and it doesn’t depend on how well I’m performing. Your perfect Love never changes because You are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
I’m blessed when I take time to lift up my soul to You—waiting in Your Presence with no pretense and no demands. As I devote time to worshiping and waiting, You work within me and prepare me for the day. Then You show me the way I should go—step by step. I’m grateful that You are my God forever and ever; You will be my Guide even to the end!
In Your guiding Name, Jesus,
Narrator: Be sure to watch Chris as the host of Season 3 of the Jesus Calling: Stories of Faith TV show, airing in April 2023 on UPTV—check your local cable listings for days and times. You can also get Chris’ latest album, Always, wherever music is sold.
Stay tuned to Kelvin McElroy’s story after a brief message.
Follow the Bible in a year with Jack Graham!
Begin your New Year’s Resolution with the Bible, and see why millions have already started Bible in a Year with Jack Graham. This podcast was created to help you solidify your faith as you experience the story of the Bible through live-action recordings and emotional, orchestral music.
Listen to Bible in a Year with Jack Graham on the iHeart Radio app, the Apple Podcasts app, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Narrator: Our next guest is United States Air Force Brigadier General Kelvin McElroy. Kelvin’s mother instilled in him from an early age the values of working hard, leaning on faith, and always showing up, which led to Kelvin’s promise to himself that he would commit himself fully to every area of his life—sports, school, and eventually a career in the military. Through the Air Force, Kelvin has formed bonds with people all over the world, and lets his principles and his relationship with God guide him as he leads airmen through highs and lows in their lives and careers.
Kelvin McElroy: Greetings, my name is Kelvin Darnell McElroy. I am currently serving in the military. I’m married to my wife, Maria, and I have two beautiful children, Kelsi and Kelijah. Kelsi is twenty, Kelijah is nineteen. I’m currently serving with the Department of the Space Force and also with the Department of the Air Force. And my military rank is currently a brigadier general.
An Early Commitment to Faith & Duty
I was born and raised in Macon, Georgia. I have a brother and two sisters, and I was raised by my parents, my mother and my father. When I was a little kid, I saw my mother, she was a worker, and she believed in working hard.
So when I had an opportunity to play sports—because I didn’t have a chance early on in my life—I made a promise to myself that if I ever had a chance to play, that I would play every sport I could. And so when I did, at the same time, I had a job. And at the time, I couldn’t afford to give up that job. So I committed to school. My mother always told us, “You will go every day. You will do your best, you will be respectful, and you will show up.” And I made a commitment to myself that, you know, I said I wanted these things. I prayed for these things. Now it was time to put in the work.
Anytime something would face our family, the first thing our family would do is we’d pray. And from there, they would start taking actions, trying to figure out what was the next step. But the first thing was always prayer. I saw it modeled each and every day with my grandmother and my mother in their prayer walks. They would always pray. They would always teach us to pray.
I’ve seen some trials, some ups and downs in my life, and watching my mother get on her knees and pray for hours, and my grandmother at night reading her Bible, and the things that they would demonstrate—they walked it like they talked it. They would demonstrate to us that faith is the foundation, and that our willingness is our wealth, and that our soul is the soil, and that God’s Word was the seed.
“Our willingness is our wealth, our soul is the soil, and God’s Word is the seed.” – Kelvin McElroy
A Diamond in the Rough
[In high school] I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I really wanted to go into the military after I finished high school, but I hadn’t pursued it yet.
I was walking through the hallway, and this teacher just saw something in me. He pulled me to the side and said he saw the potential in me. Ge said, “Hey young man, where you headed?” He looked at a piece of paper I had in my hand, which at the time was the curriculum for our high school track. We had three tracks. It was vocational, general, and college prep, and as a kid, I was trying to find my easy way out. So I took the general right?
And he looked at me and said, “No, you’re not. You’re better than that. You’re going to take college prep.”
He put me on the right academic track so that I could have an opportunity to go to college and the rigor of studying and preparing. When I’d speak with him—he’s passed since then—he would always say, “Hey, I knew you was a diamond in the rough. I could see your potential.”
I also had a football coach. And because I showed up to work, showed up to practice every day—I didn’t miss a day. I gave 100% on every drill. And when I got to my senior year, I wasn’t trying to get a scholarship. He said, “Hey, I know the head coach at Fort Valley [State University]. He wants to offer you a scholarship.” So basically, those two gentlemen opened the door for me to get to Fort Valley.
Making Family Wherever You Go
The Air Force has taken me to many different states. I started out in Biloxi, Mississippi, then from there, we went to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. We’ve been stationed in Niagara Falls, New York, then over to Dover, Delaware. I’ve been to Germany, I’ve been to Korea, I’ve been to the Middle East—Qatar deployed—I’ve been to the Netherlands. So all over the world. The Air Force has really given me an opportunity to see the world.
And what I noticed in all those different places—you know, my wife and I have this thing where we always meet friends who become family. And we say we don’t leave family behind. And so our family is all around this world now, because of our ability to serve and our ability to meet people of similar ideas. And we call them family.
When you serve others, you will always find that no matter where you go, there is someone of similar means, just like when I was raised in Macon, Georgia, that there is family and people who are faithful and willing to pull you in and take care of you.
“When you serve others, you will always find that no matter where you go, people are faithful and willing to pull you in and take care of you.” – Kelvin McElroy
Leaning on Each Other Through Tragedy
As a commander, I would go around to different sections of the group and meet different airmen and try to listen to their stories. And this young man at the time was out in the unit, he had found his niche, and he was happy. We were in the reserve command. He was on orders. So he was there with a team, he had a support system. And so he had been on training orders and he was coming to the end of those, his commitment as far as training. Right?
He had to return home and then just come for drill And so at the time, I didn’t know it, but he was an only child and the military was his family. Right? And then one day we got a call that he was having some issues, that the police had found him out of the state, on the side of the road with a weapon in his car. And so being the commander, we had to reach out to the police department and figure out what to do. So the police did locate him, and when they checked him, he had a right to carry his weapon, and so they let him go. So we reached out to him, we made contact with him, and he said, “Yeah, I’m coming home.”
And something happened. We don’t know what happened on his way home. And he took his life. I really had to lean on my faith, because I felt like I had lost one of my children, my family member. God just gave me the poise and presence to not try and brush it under rug and pretend it didn’t happen. We owned our feelings, and we owned what we were going through.
It sends a ripple through the entire unit. We found out that we were his only family. I had to let everyone know that our faith is our foundation, and that we’re going to make it through. We’re here for each other. And so we were able to get through it, and reach out to his family, and walk them through that painful process. You really have to lean on your faith, because it’s like an emptiness when it happens. It’s like you can’t believe it. But God is in it. They say God is in it all.
Because of your faith, because of God’s Word, He gives you everything you need. And when it’s time to put it into action, it all comes out.
Staying Connected to God for Our Spiritual Well-Being
God’s Word is our one. Right? It leads us, it guides us, and if we take the time to listen and apply God’s Word, the answer’s already there. He’s given us everything that we need. So I think it’s important that we stay connected, because there’s a saying that everything that has breath has a spirit, right? And it’s called atrophy. When you don’t use it, you lose it, right? So you have to stay daily connected to your spiritual health and your spiritual well-being, to make sure that it doesn’t atrophy, that it doesn’t get weak, that it’s there when you need it. Just like when you exercise, if you don’t do that, then that’s when you can get caught off guard in life.
“God’s Word is our one. Right? It leads us, it guides us, and if we take the time to listen and apply God’s Word, the answer’s already there. He’s given us everything that we need.” – Kelvin McElroy
So right now I’m praying—I always pray for my family and my nation. We’re not perfect, but we understand that we need each other. And if we stay grounded in God’s Word and we understand and practice and use His Word, apply His word, we can get through anything.
Narrator: Please join us in praying for our military members of every rank, in every branch—that God may protect them, watch over them, and give them strength.
If you’d like to hear more stories about connecting to God and each other, check out our interview with Pentatonix singer Kevin Olusola.
Next week: Cam Ayala
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we’ll hear from lymphedema and amputee advocate Cam Ayala, from ABC’s The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. Cam recently made the difficult decision to undergo a leg amputation after suffering from lymphedema for much of his life, and how that suffering produced growth.
Cam Ayala: As that verse in Romans 5 suggests, there is going to be suffering in your life [Romans 5:3–5]. And through the suffering, you can grow through it. And everything that God gives you, God can get you through it. So if you are struggling with your faith and you’re struggling with your identity because you feel your identity is rooted because of who you were, you are forgiven, you are loved, and Christ has gone before you.