How a Cancer Diagnosis Changed Casting Crowns’ Lead Singer’s Faith

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Mark Hall of Casting Crowns

A cancer diagnosis changed Mark Hall’s faith and his family. A year later, we sat down with Casting Crowns’ lead singer for a candid conversation on faith, fatherhood and what youth pastors need the most from parents.

Husband, dad, youth pastor, lead singer—cancer diagnosis. Mark Hall of Casting Crowns was already wearing a lot of hats when a Wednesday afternoon phone call brought a new one that would change his family’s life. Parenting Teens sat down with Casting Crowns’ lead singer for a candid conversation on cancer, parenting on the road and what youth pastors really want to hear from their parents.

LW: After everything that happened, how will you look back on 2015?

MH: I joked with my students and friends around here about it, and I said, you know I’m really glad 2015 is over. It was probably one of the toughest years of my life. It was a tough year in ministry, being in a local church. And then cancer happened, and that was sort of out of nowhere for me. I’ve been a pastor 20 years. I help other people through cancer. I don’t have cancer.

Yesterday I was walking through my front yard and it hit me. I don’t know why. I mean it sounds so crazy to say this—that I’m a cancer survivor. It didn’t even hit me that I’m one of those. 

We all know that God works all things together for good, and God keeps drawing me to Himself and turning me into Jesus from the inside out. But it still stunk. You’ve got to be real. I’m glad that year’s over and I’d prefer not to relive it. 

LW: You dealt with parts of your illness publicly, seeking prayers and giving updates online. What was it like to have a large network of support?

MH: When I found out that I had cancer it was on a Wednesday afternoon, right before our Wednesday night Bible study. And immediately I did not want anyone to know. And I don’t know where any of that came from. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want a bunch of people coming around me and trying to make it better. 

And it totally made sense in my head at the time. And for several days I didn’t want to talk about it to the world. And God started showing me what that really was—pride. I didn’t want to hurt in front of people. And what God showed me was that this is what the church is for. We’re here to love you and to walk with you through it.

And so it was a Wednesday when I decided to tell the church and tell the world. Up until then only my family knew. And God just sort of blew me away. I mean it just sort of took the world by storm online, as the hashtag #prayforMark sort of went wild. And God really showed me how big the church is and how much I need them.

Paul wrote Philippians from prison, and in the first chapter he says, hey, it’s turned out to be a really good thing that I’m here in prison. The guards here realize that I’m here for Jesus. The other prisoners here realize that I’m here because of the gospel. And the believers in the churches are encouraged and challenged. And what he’s saying is that how you handle a storm in your life will preach louder than probably anything you’ll ever say.

God was showing me that everything in my life has been so transparent in the past. I talk about dyslexia. I talk about my failure. I talk about fear. I talk about everything—I’m a youth pastor. You can’t be fake. You’ve got to be real. So all of my songs are basically saying, I’m a big dork and a train wreck and God loves me anyway. But when it came to cancer, I just shut down. I don’t know. It was weird. I didn’t want anybody to help me.

LW: How did that experience change the way you think about parenting or your kids?

MH: As soon as the doctor said cancer, I immediately thought of my kids. And I thought, how am I going to get them through this? How am I going to pull them together and them not be scared?

And that’s really part of why I shut down. I’m open about a lot of things, but if I tell the youth group how worried I am, my kids are going to be worried. My kids are in the youth group. So I can’t be transparent about this. I can’t talk about how serious it is. I’ve got to be strong for them.

It affected how I see teenagers who have lost parents and who are going through illness. When a kid loses his parents or his family splits up, the ground under him is breaking open. And I could see that in my kids as I’m trying to carefully tell them what’s going on with me. They’re looking at me like everything is about to change. All they could hear is, you’re going to die. That’s all they could hear.

LW: A lot of your songs deal with authenticity in one way or another. How do you think about that when it comes to parenting teenagers?

MH: Kids have a really hard time imagining adults as kids. It’s really hard for a kid to hear from a perfect person because they’re thinking, “Well it’s already too late for me. You’re awesome and you’re just going to keep being awesome.” They’ve really got to know you struggle, too.

My songs started out as just my rantings, me figuring out what God looks like in my life. I knew what He looked like at church. I just wasn’t really sure what He looked like at school and at my job and in my thought life.

I remember the first time I gave my testimony to the youth group and told the youth group I was dyslexic, I thought, they’re never going to listen to me again. They’re going to think I’m stupid now. And everything got real when I started getting real.

“The Voice of Truth” is one of the first songs I wrote. And I started seeing that people—people want to hear this. They want to hear truth, but they want to hear truth from a broken person. And that’s where it started with me.

LW: You’ve been intentional about protecting family time while you’re on the road. What has your job taught you about being a dad that you might not have been able to learn otherwise?

MH: The way my schedule works is that Sunday through Wednesday I’m in the church and at home, doing everything youth pastors do. And then we get on the bus Wednesday night after Bible study and we do concerts Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, then we roll in Sunday morning, because we lead worship on Sunday morning at our church.

My wife, Melanie, runs Casting Crowns. She keeps it going. So, since mom’s on the road, the kids travel with us. When we’re on the road, we do home school, or bus school I guess you could call it, and we do our weekend, just in different cities. We hit the mall, parks, museums, whatever is around.

If you’re going to be in ministry and you’re going to have kids, the kids need to be in the ministry with you. They need to be involved. My son, John Michael, plays bass and helps lead worship here at Eagle’s Landing and he plays a song on the stage with us on the road, which is pretty cool. Reagan, my 15-year-old, works with Melanie and does a lot of the production assistant work and the lyrics on the screen on the stage. So it’s not like they’re just getting dragged around by my ministry. It’s their ministry, too. They’re seeing it as something they are a part of.

Every family looks different. Every family can’t sit at the table together every night. John Michael and I are walking through Galatians this year. We decided, live or die, this year, every day, we’re in the Word. I don’t care if we’ve been up all night and we get home and we are falling asleep, we are getting in the Word before we go to bed. That’s been pretty cool so far.

The important thing for me is just not to sound like a parent who has got it altogether. Everybody in interviews sounds like they’re just killing it and giving all this great advice. But everything I’m saying, I need to do better. I’m fighting my schedule to be with my kids.

It’s a mess at our house, but Jesus lives in this mess.

LW: How has the youth pastor’s job changed in the last decade?

MH: Well, media has changed everything. Everything is different. Bullies are different now. Friend drama is different now. The availability to fall into temptation has intensified. Everything we ever dealt with, the means of it getting to us is multiplied times 10 now. And most parents aren’t educated enough to know what they just gave their kid when they handed him an iPhone for Christmas.

We’re finally in a place where a new generation of youth pastors, sadly, grew up in broken homes. I think a lot of times it’s easy for us when we teach to say stuff that assumes everybody is going home to a mom and dad, when they’re not even going home to either. They’re living with their grandmother.

There’s not a standard family unit any more. We’re trying to do parent ministry to non-parent families. So we’ve really got to broaden our scope of what families really look like. We know what they should look like, but we’ve got to think about what they do look like.

LW: What do youth pastors need from parents in 2016? What can parents do to help you as a youth pastor?

MH: There have been times when I think I know a kid pretty well, and I’m hanging out with him and trying to be a good witness to him, and his parent will say, “Just so you know, this is something that’s going on at home right now…” And it just totally broadens what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. When you can let a youth pastor know what’s happening in a teenager’s life, it helps them love that kid better.

Kids will tell the youth pastor everything, and that’s great. But they tell the youth pastor everything—so now parents are like, “I don’t want to be around that guy. He probably knows all the bad stuff I do. I’m slamming doors and kicking dogs and now the pastor knows about it.” Parents need to see that the youth worker can be an asset to you. You can partner through this. You can do this together. And youth pastors need to understand the same thing. You’re not fighting the parents as much as it feels sometimes. You’re just more aware of some things than they are.

LW: Part of our mission is to equip parents to be the primary spiritual developers of their kids. What does that phrase mean to you?

MH: Well, I’ll tell you what it means to most dads. It means when we hear that, we hear “you’re not qualified.” Because most dads do not feel they know enough about the Bible.

You don’t have to know everything about the Bible, and you don’t have to act like you do. John Michael and I read Galatians last night, and I got to a verse and was like, “I don’t understand what he’s really saying right here.” And it’d be easy just to skip it and talk about something I do know. But I just told him, like, dude, I don’t get this one. We’ve got to look this up.

Being the primary spiritual leader in your home doesn’t mean doing everything perfectly. It doesn’t mean knowing everything. What it means is, I love Jesus. I love you. I’m doing my best.

We’re going to do life together. And we should pray more. We don’t have to be doing everything right to pray. And even if you can’t pull out the theological points from Scripture, your kid grows up knowing my dad sat me down and read the Bible with me.

We weren’t real sure what it meant, but it was a big deal to him and this is going to be a big deal to me now. And it’s just—it’s gold. Your kid doesn’t really mind as much that you don’t know all the answers as much as the fact that you sat down with him and looked for the answers.

Excerpted from Parenting Teens magazine.

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