History of Hymns: 'We Fall Down'
By Nathan Myrick
“We Fall Down”
by Chris Tomlin
Worship and Song, 3187
The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created (Revelation 4:10-11, KJV).
For the words, see https://genius.com/Chris-tomlin-we-fall-down-lyrics.
To hear him tell it, “We Fall Down” was Chris Tomlin’s (b. 1972) career-defining song. Composed while Tomlin was reflecting on Revelation, chapter 4, in the summer of 1997, “We Fall Down” was Tomlin’s breakthrough hit, coinciding with the burgeoning modern worship movement in the United States. While not released commercially until 2001 (The Noise We Make, Sparrow/Sixsteprecords [Passion]), the song was originally recorded as part of a medley with “My Jesus I love Thee,” a favorite of evangelicals, by William Ralph Featherston (1846-1873), on Tomlin’s independently released Authentic in 1998.
THE ORIGINS OF “WE FALL DOWN”
In numerous interviews and in a “Story Behind the Song” segment by Capitol Christian Music Group on the multinational corporation’s YouTube channel, Tomlin remains consistent in his story telling. He was at a conference at a summer camp in 1997, fulfilling the role of worship leader: “I didn’t have a band, just had a guitar and my Toyota 4Runner”—when he heard the conference speaker, Louis Giglio [b. 1958], preach on the passage from Revelation 4 that poetically portrays the eschatological hope of eternal worship for God. That evening, back at his room, he reflected on the profundity of the passage, and “it opened up to me in a way I’d never heard before”.
Early the following morning—“1 or 2 in the morning”—he started “singing this little song—just right out of the scripture: ‘we fall down, we lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus.’” Excited by what he perceived to be something of merit (“I wasn’t sure if [any of my songs] were any good”), Tomlin knocked on Giglio’s hotel room door “at like, 3 in the morning.” After some initial resistance, Giglio listened to Tomlin’s new song. After a moment of silence—"he was just kinda starin’ at me… which was not the response I had hoped for”—Giglio responded, “’Chris, I think the whole world’s gonna be singing that song.’” Tomlin was astonished, “I was just thinking maybe we could sing it tomorrow night at camp, I don’t know anything about the whole world.”
Indeed, the song has been sung all over the world. Since its initial release in 1998/2001, “We Fall Down” has been recorded several times, including by rock band Kutless (Strong Tower, 2005) Passion’s Passion: A Generation United For His Renown (2008), and as a duet with Tomlin and Steven Curtis Chapman (b. 1962). While not as popular as some of Tomlin’s later releases, “We Fall Down” still commands a pride of place in Tomlin’s catalog; it is included in his “best of” album, How Great Is Our God: The Essential Collection (2011).
Musically, “We Fall Down” is a “simple song.” Centered around a four-chord progression, a simple melody, and little harmonic development, the sparse accompaniment conveys the simplicity of the lyrics: we lay down what we find valuable at the feet of Jesus. While later versions of the song include more lush arrangements (the 2011 version includes the production effect known as “shimmer,” which is now a defining characteristic of modern worship production: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIL5lknwYns), the simplicity of the original is what gives it its staying power—coupled, of course, with its ongoing promotion and distribution by corporate giant CCMG—it has everything: origin story, fidelity to scheme, synchronicity/divine timing and call.
From this writer’s perspective, the song is not distinctive. It is a beautiful song, and it is theologically rich—Tomlin shifts the biblical account from a future heavenly vision in the third person, to a first-person, present-day experience in which we take the place of the “four and twenty elders.” It is also singable, and of unassailable provenance. It is perhaps this unassailability that makes it so undistinguished: what more is there to say about it? It’s the song that launched Tomlin’s mega-career. It was written in an almost stereotypical way, in that the story of its conception indexes many other such stories; it even involves people who are some of the most powerful movers and shakers in the North American evangelical world. The only thing that are missing are some pirates! And that’s just the problem: its story has been told and told well.
INSPIRATION OR CAREER?
But what I am interested in is something that happens right at the beginning of the Capitol Christian Music Group video linked above. Tomlin begins nervously, his eyes darting around the room, glancing down at what I assume are his cue cards. Speaking quickly, his words tumbling out over one another, struggling to convey passion and enthusiasm for not only this video but its impetus (the promotion of his new compilation of greatest hits) he focuses intently, intimately, on the camera, and begins to relate how the song “’We Fall Down’ is really the song that started…”
Pause. He doesn’t blink, but that ocular intensity that conveyed such intimacy and passion momentarily fades, as if he just thought about something else.
In that pause, the viewer can see the room behind him: whitewashed shiplap, a grand piano, windows, green grass and trees visible in the fuzzy glow of the out-of-focus camera lens. But his eyes convey something. I can hear in my head his continued sentence, “…my career.”
But that’s not what he says; he catches himself, “uh, a lot of this…” is what comes out instead. A throw-away line. Another pause. He looks away. He looks down and to his right. And still looking down, he continues, “…in really, in many ways.”
Eight seconds: That’s all it takes for a man’s inner turmoil to be revealed. In 2013, the Christian Broadcasting Network declared that forty million people were singing Tomlin’s songs each week, making him “likely the most sung artist anywhere.” By 2018, he was awarded “billionaire” status by the streaming giant Pandora for achieving more than one billion streams on the channel. He has won Grammy awards, Dove awards, and other unprecedented accolades.
Yet, it appears that he cannot say the word “career.” Perhaps he’s not allowed to do so. He is not restricted by an institution or his or his record label or any such material entity. Instead, he seems restricted by us, the public, his community of faith, from calling his vocation a mere “career.” Perhaps no church musician has suffered the indignation of fame so graciously as Tomlin. Despite persistent attacks on his character from pundits and pulpits alike, Chris Tomlin has never clapped back. Where we accuse him of financial profiteering with songs like “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” (2006) or pursuing selfish ends, he has remained tacit, as if he’s unaware of the criticism. (See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-amazing-grace-my-chains-are-gone.)We do not allow him to have “a career,” because a career is something you do to make money, something you work hard at. If he were to have slipped up and said what it seemed most natural to say, he would have validated every critique of materialism and charge of illicit gain.
Instead, Tomlin continues to take the high road. Despite what might seem to be knowingly dishonest responses, he continues to deflect the praise (and thereby criticism) and redirect accolades toward God; if God is behind it, then the praise and critiques are both God’s. Did Tomlin work hard to get where he is? Absolutely. Is he a talented songwriter and performer within his idiom? Certainly. Has his music been party to God’s ongoing work in the world? Without a doubt. Does he deserve credit for any of this? A resounding yes. Has he had a successful career? I feel foolish even asking.
That’s not to let Passion or Tomlin off the hook. In many respects, the conference cum church cum corporation fails what I would call the ethics test. But Tomlin doesn’t have a choice. I bet it would be freeing for him to say, “yeah, I’ve had a great career. I’m so thankful that God has given me this opportunity and I haven’t blown it yet.” But we won’t let him be that honest, because we need him to be both hero and villain—neither of which hold honesty as a virtue.
Return to the video. The pause ends, Tomlin looks up at the camera, eyes beaming, as he relays the story with all the charm and charisma that has helped make his career the success that it is. The song is God’s; God has done this, and I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of that grace. This makes sense, from a certain perspective: if one holds some notion of plenary inspiration of scripture where God has dictated every word, why shouldn’t a song writer use the same language to demonstrate his close relationship with God?
But there again, the paradox: at 2 minutes and 40 seconds—who’s the songwriter?
Herb Longs, “Chris Tomlin Reaches a Billion Streams on Pandora,” TheChristianBeat.Org. http://www.thechristianbeat.org/index.php/news/5416-chris-tomlin-booked-for-good-morning-america-and-pickler-ben (Accessed February 28, 2020).
Dan MacIntosh. “Chris Tomlin: Songwriter Interviews, ” Songfacts. https://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/chris-tomlin (Accessed February 20, 2020).
“Song Story: We Fall Down,” Crosswalk.Com. https://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/song-story-we-fall-down-1208610.html (Accessed February 20, 2020.).
“Chris Tomlin,” CBN.Com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. October 16, 2013. https://www1.cbn.com/700club/chris-tomlin.
“Chris Tomlin Talks New Album, Connecting Fans, and Stadium-Sized Dreams.” October 25, 2018. https://musicrow.com/2018/10/chris-tomlin-talks-new-album-connecting-fans-and-stadium-sized-dreams.
Chris Tomlin Tells The Story Behind “We Fall Down.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7t4UZYyy7M (Accessed February 20, 2020).
Chris Tomlin, The Way I Was Made: Words and Music for an Unusual Life (Sisters, Oregon: Mulmomah Publishers, Inc., 2005).
Chris Tomlin “We Fall Down.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWVrKOzxuQg (Accessed February 20, 2020).
“We Fall Down,” Songfacts. https://www.songfacts.com/facts/chris-tomlin/we-fall-down (Accessed February 20, 2020).
Nathan Myrick, a native of Warroad, MN, received his M.A. in theology from Fuller Seminary and PhD in church music from Baylor University. His research focuses on musical activity and human flourishing in the context of Christian communities. He has produced two musical albums, and numerous articles and book chapters. He is the author and series editor of “Music Matters” for Ethic Daily, is the author of the forthcoming Music for Others, and co-editor of the forthcoming volume Ethics and Christian Musicking. He is currently assistant professor of church music at Townsend School of Music, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia. He gratefully acknowledges the work of Benjamin Gessner, Graduate Assistant in Church Music, for assistance in researching this topic.