Talk with enough people over the course of a lifetime, and hopefully you'll run into one - a person with such clarity of thought, such focus of purpose, and such timely insight that you'll want to turn to them at every available opportunity. They provide you with exactly what you need to hear at exactly the time you need to hear it.Now take that focus and house it in a person of equal parts humility and honesty, whose self-deprecation and humor only serve to heighten the message. Then wrap the insight up in the musical work of a dedicated group of friends, and shepherd it through the experiences of veteran artists Mark Miller of Sawyer Brown, and Steven Curtis Chapman, and you have a band with the uncharted potential to impact the world in a myriad of ways.You have Casting Crowns.At the core of Casting Crowns is Mark Hall, a man who never would have thought leading a band into the wilds of the business of music would enter into his calling. His place, he thought, was to serve young people."I've been a youth pastor for about 12 years, and every church I've been in, music's always been a part of it," Hall says. "We'd usually start up a band made up of students so we could lead worship in our Wednesday night programs, and as the student ministry started to grow, the band would go off and play and do things in the area.""I had the thought that maybe I could write for other bands," he says, "because traveling around playing was not something I thought I wanted to do."The unit now known as Casting Crowns grew out of two of Hall's stops along his youth ministry path, first coming into being while leading a youth group in Daytona Beach, FL., then transplanting and growing when Hall and his family accepted a position in Atlanta.The band recorded two well-received independent records, distributed mainly in the Atlanta area. "There was the temptation to send our CDs to record companies," Hall says, "but we prayed about it and came to the realization we needed to keep doing our music our way."When you talk with Hall, you come to realize that beyond his self-effacing way, he's an exceptionally bright guy. His speech pattern is littered with exclamatory asides that only serve to punctuate the story he tells you, and most often those asides serve best to praise those who have touched his life."Meanwhile, this college student in Daytona named Chase Tremont -- my new best friend in the world! -- has one of our CDs," Hall says. "He plays basketball at Flagler College in Florida, goes off to a camp there, and finds out his coach used to play basketball with a guy named Mark Miller."It's at this point where one of Casting Crowns' soon-to-be shepherds comes into the picture."Chase and Mark get to know each other, and in the midst of a conversation one day, Chase figures out that Mark is the lead singer for Sawyer Brown," Hall says. "After that, Chase said, 'Oh, you've got to hear this band.' Mark must get a million of these things a year, but he likes it and gives us a call."Miller, the hyper-animated frontman for the veteran country group, doesn't know what he can do for the fledgling band, but wants to be supportive in any way he can. "I could tell by Mark's writing that he wasn't doing anything other than speaking from his heart exactly what he was seeing and what was around him," Miller says. "It didn't surprise me at all when I found out later that he was a youth minister, because basically these were messages to his students.""The first thing you hear, before you sit there and digest the lyrics, is Mark's voice. I knew a couple of things when I first heard it. I knew they couldn't afford to go in and mess with his voice, so what I was hearing was what he could deliver, so I was pretty blown away by that," Miller continues. "Then the songs were really different to me, they came from a different viewpoint than what you would normally hear within Christian music. The lyrics would immediately make you think, 'This guy's a hard hitter.' He's makes no bones about it; he's not hiding from anything. For me, in Christian music, that's a rarity."Miller hung onto the two Casting Crowns independent records, waiting for the right opportunity to tell other music industry colleagues about the band. That right moment came on a spring vacation with the families of two longtime friends, new Provident Label Group president Terry Hemmings and an artist with an equally impressive track record to Miller's, Steven Curtis Chapman."I've known Terry for quite some time, and he's heard some things I've produced for Christian artists, and we'd been talking about doing something together for three or four years," Miller says. "After my first conversations with Mark, I could tell immediately that this was the kind of person I wanted to be involved with, that Steven would want to be involved with, somebody with true Christian integrity, not just a coating you spray on and then wash off at the end of the day.""I collected all the information, talked to Terry and Steven about it, and Terry got real excited about it and said, 'Let's just do something with them,'" Miller says. That something has manifested itself as Beach Street Records, the new PLG imprint captained by Miller.Meanwhile, Miller knew it was time to go out and recruit what would become the imprint's flagship artist. "I called Mark back," Miller says, "and his response was exactly what you'd want to hear. Rather than saying 'When do we leave?' or 'How much money am I going to get?" it was 'Am I still going to be able to be a youth minister?""My response was something like, 'Sure, Mark, but your congregation may be a whole lot larger than you would have ever imagined.'"The pieces fell together quickly for Miller's new venture and the band it is introducing to the world. Casting Crowns entered the studio earlier this year with Miller and Chapman serving as co-producers, and the self-titled result is a rich-sounding edgy-pop record that refuses to shy away from the sometimes hard-to-hear truths presented in Hall's lyrics.That uncompromising spirit is heard on songs like "American Dream," which documents a father's neglect as he chases after the material nature of providing for his family, and "If We Are The Body," challenges Christians in the church to step outside the exclusive circles we are involved in and see the needs of others around us."I really feel a burden for the church," Hall says. "Right after somebody gets saved, right as they're starting to grow, they essentially have the wool pulled over their eyes that tells them that religion is what they have stepped into. 'Here are the laws that relate to this, here are the rules for this other thing, here's your discipleship notebook, here's you T-shirt and this is what you have to do.' And the feeling is that when you come to church; if you did fail at whatever, don't let anybody know it.""So they show up acting like everything is fine and are surrounded by people who aren't fine, and that's what religion is. The world simply wants nothing to do with that. They want to see people that are real. It doesn't bother the world that we mess up, what bothers them is that we act like we don't," Hall says.And even though Hall and his Casting Crowns bandmates are currently in a whirlwind of activity the likes of which they probably couldn't have dreamed, they're not about to take their eyes off the fundamental message they wish to share."I want to shake people up and help them see that Jesus is not a religion, and God is not a book," Hall says. "You can't pray to a book and you can't draw strength from an idea or standard."If there's no relationship with Jesus as a person to you, you're in trouble." It's about life, not religion. It's about relationships, not books. Timely ideas not many of us think about, much less in that way. Casting Crowns is what we need to hear at exactly the time we need to hear it.
"Casting Crowns" self-titled album in audio CD format