Listening In: Charles Billingsley


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with musician and pastor Charles Billingsley.

Charles Billingsley has been called one of the most underrated musicians in contemporary Christian music, which is saying a lot given that he has had a career that now spans 30 years and more than 30 albums. He’s had chart-topping songs both as a solo artist and as a part of the CCM Supergroup NewSong.

And I’ll talk with Charles about his career in today’s conversation, but I wanted to have this conversation with Charles for reasons that go beyond his musical career. He’s also been a teaching pastor and worship leader in the local church, and those experiences have given him a unique perspective about ministry and about the music business. And, secondly, Charles Billingsley had a life-threatening encounter with COVID 19. We’ll talk about that experience, and what he learned, on today’s program as well.

I should also add that Charles Billingsley has a new album out. It’s called “I Was Made For This,” and we’ll also hear a bit of that album and how it came together. The album came out in the spring, but because of Charles’s illness, and “Listening In’s annual summer hiatus, we’re just now getting around to bringing this conversation to you, but one of the things we discuss in this conversation is God’s providence, and I think you’ll hear that – given the way the virus and the culture of the country has progressed during this most unusual year – the timing was near-perfect.

Because of COVID, Charles Billingsley and I had to have this conversation remotely. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, and Charles was in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Charles, welcome to the program. I want to talk about your new album and the new music that you’ve got coming out “I Was Made For This,” but I want to back up and talk to you about your health. How are you feeling? How are you doing?

CHARLES BILLINGSLEY, GUEST: Well, I’m doing a lot better than I was. Thank you. It was a crazy month of April, though. I’ll tell you that. 

SMITH: Well, I think I should probably give some context for that question. You were diagnosed positive with COVID-19. You spent some time in the hospital, didn’t you?

BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, it was crazy. It was crazy. I got diagnosed, I guess, officially on April 1st, of all things—April fool’s day—after three or four days of a high fever and just not feeling good. And I got tested negative for the flu. And so, you know, my doctor said, well, we’ll test you for this for fun, but I don’t think it’s it. And sure enough, it comes back positive. And, you know, this thing is a weird deal because you have the high fevers and the aches and pains and I had some severe headaches and things like that. But after like 11 or 12 days, you would think that it’s going to go away. I mean, it just kept hanging on and hanging on. And unfortunately with me and with many others, that’s just when this thing’s getting started. And I ended up in the hospital on April 9th and was there through the weekend and got out Saturday afternoon before Easter. But it was, man, it was quite an ordeal. And actually the week after the hospital was probably the worst week of them all. So, you know, 24 days of this mess. But finally on April 20th, I got the test back that I was finally negative and another week or two of just dealing with pneumonia, but I’m finally getting back to where I’m almost normal again. And I’m grateful.

SMITH: Well, when you say almost normal, normal enough so that you were able to preach this past Sunday. Is that right?

BILLINGSLEY: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, I’m breathing good enough and talking well enough now to where I can do just about anything. I’m even working out again now with light weights and, you know, nothing crazy, but I’m getting there and I’m almost back to where I can sing fairly decent. And so, you know, just baby steps.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, I listened to your sermon and it was an interesting part of that sermon, Charles. And I’m just wondering if you’d be willing to share with our listeners. You were in the hospital. You were not well. I mean, clearly you were really sick, sick enough to be in the hospital and you were praying asking God to heal you. But that didn’t happen, did it?

BILLINGSLEY: No, it was a very, wow, you know, I went in on April 9th and I was really just laying there, you know, of course you’re totally isolated. Nobody can come see you. And so I had tons of time to lay there and think, and I got to reading my Bible and it was reading Luke, and several other passages and realized, you know, I could really, if I just asked the Lord to heal me, there’s no reason he wouldn’t. I mean, I believe with all my heart that he can and that he will. And so I just became convinced that if I would just ask the Lord to heal me, that he would right then and there. And I just became so convinced of it that I even just got on my knees and just sort of sat there on the side of my hospital bed waiting for it to happen. Well, after quite a while, you know, it didn’t and I got tired and I got back in the bed, but as the night wore on I got frustrated and I got disillusioned and upset with the Lord because he wasn’t doing things or healing me on what I figured was a great timetable. You know, what better way to walk out of the hospital? Just a walking miracle. You know, I learned some stuff about faith in that. And I don’t know if you’re okay with me sharing it, but — 

SMITH: Absolutely. Yeah. In fact, I was going to ask precisely that. What did you learn about faith?

BILLINGSLEY: Well, you know, not only is faith essential in all of our lives, but the thing that the Lord finally showed me after several days was, in that moment, what I was doing was I was asking the Lord to heal me so that I could see the results of his healing. And then as a result, not only help make his name famous in the hospital and become this miracle story, but also so that his healing me would deepen my belief in him. And, man, I had it all backwards. And, you know, it’s a little embarrassing for me to tell you this, because I’ve been walking with the Lord for years, but faith is the evidence of things unseen. And what I had to remember in this whole situation is that it’s not about me seeing what he can do for me and as a result believing in him deeper. What he really wanted from me was for me to believe in him more deeply. And then, in his timetable and in his way, he would heal me and I would see the results of his healing in my life. And that’s exactly what happened. The Lord had to do some more work on my heart and in my mind and it was not until another 12 days or so that he healed me. But, you know what, I learned a whole lot and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything, honestly.

SMITH: Yeah. Wow. Oh, it’s a powerful lesson. And I guess one of the ironies of the whole thing is that it would happen during the week of Easter—Passion week, whenever Jesus was you know, 2,000 years ago, was going through such suffering that he could have walked away from and chose not to.

BILLINGSLEY: Yeah. In fact, that Thursday night was the Thursday night before Good Friday. And here I am in just such a frustration and anger over the Lord not healing me from the COVID virus. And meanwhile, I was just sort of vividly reminded that 2,000 years ago, that was the very night that the Lord Jesus spent the night in the house of Caiaphas, beaten within an inch of his life, spat upon, and treated with such severity. And then the next day, of course beaten and flogged and then takes on the rugged cross for our sins. And, you know, it’s a great reminder of what Jesus went through that very night in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked for the Lord to take this cup from him and God said, no. And yet here’s the thing I didn’t pray that night that I needed to pray: Not my will, but yours be done. That’s the words that Jesus prayed. And that’s not the words that I prayed. And even — I’m sorry — even today, I feel such conviction of that. So, I learned a hard lesson there that I’ll never forget. 

SMITH: Wow. Well, I don’t think I will either Charles. And maybe that’s what God had in mind. 

BILLINGSLEY: You just kind of look back and you’re sort of thankful for the whole thing, although I’d never want to do it again.

[BREAK]

SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with Charles Billingsley. His new album is “I Was Made For This.” Let’s get right back to that conversation. 

Well, I really appreciate your vulnerability and transparency in sharing that story. I did not go through all of that. And yet I think I’ll remember the lesson for a long time myself. So, thank you for that. Honestly, whenever I wanted to chat with you and we made the arrangements, I didn’t know that we were going to be talking about that. I thought we were going to be talking about your new album, and maybe about your life and career, but I sure do appreciate you sharing that. And, if you’ll allow me though, I would like to pivot and maybe talk a little bit more about your musical career and then come back full circle because you shared that story when you were preaching at Thomas Road Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the country. Not necessarily a typical path for a musician and singer to end up as a teaching pastor at a big church. And I want to go back to the beginning of your career and ask you some questions that maybe will get us back at Thomas Road in that pulpit and in Lynchburg in a minute. But I wanna start with your career with Newsong back in the early 90s. I mean, you may have been around and doing musical stuff. In fact, I know you were around and doing musical stuff before then, but I think that’s whenever I first became aware of you, Charles, whenever you were with Newsong and that would have been in the early 90s, early-mid 90s. Is that kind of what you consider to be the beginning of your career?

BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, I mean, definitely at the point where I sort of stepped onto a, I guess, a larger platform, you know? I had graduated from Sanford University in Birmingham in ‘92, and I went on the road immediately, just singing in a lot of just, you know, hundreds of local churches and local events. And one night I was opening for Newsong and that’s when we began to talk about joining them because they had just lost Eddie Middleton and Bobby Avon—two of the original members. So they were looking to replace those two guys. And I didn’t know this at the time, but they were talking to me and another guy named Russ Lee simultaneously. And so it turns out the rest and I both joined him later on that spring. And it was a great experience. Those are great guys and, man, what a great heritage of songs. We had a great time

SMITH: Now, Charles, I don’t want to get the history wrong here or be stereotypical, but if I could say this and you can correct me if I’m wrong. But Newsong had a real strong kind of Southern gospel vibe to it. And then when you and Russ Lee came on board, they kind of had a reboot. Is that fair to say?

BILLINGSLEY: Oh yeah, in fact, we added two more guys, Leonard Alstrom and Scotty Willbanks. And they, well, the record company turned us into what they call a supergroup is we all play different instruments and stuff. And so it definitely went way more pop. We went, you know, right after the AC Radio crowd and ended up actually having four number one hits off that record. And it kind of really turned the corner for Newsong in a big way.

[SONG:  “Arise My Love” by NewSong]

SMITH: Yeah. Well, “People Get Ready” was that album. I think the first album that you were involved with, and that’s the one where it had those big hits, including Arise My Love. And I guess that song had been recorded earlier, but y’all did it again, I guess, was that right?

BILLINGSLEY: Yeah. We kind of did a remake of it on steroids.

SMITH: Yeah. So to speak. Exactly right. So you have a good run there, but then at some point you decide, you want to leave Newsong and pursue a solo career. Talk to me about some of the motivation there, why that maybe Newsong wasn’t the right vehicle for you to fully express who it was or you felt God was calling you to as an artist?

BILLINGSLEY: Well, you know, it’s funny because I really loved the experience of Newsong, but honestly I’ve always felt called to the local church. And so I really, even while I was in Newsong, I was still doing a lot of this. But I just felt like I was called to go back into the local church and do local church ministry. Now, by that, I mean on the road, I mean, I’d still be doing concerts and doing all their stuff in lots of different churches, not just one single church, but I really enjoy the church concert and church event experience. And so I left Newsong to go back into that little world. And I knew when I did that I’d probably be leaving sort of that mainstream AC Christian artist circle, but it just felt like it was what I was supposed to do. And I think it kind of goes back to my original calling when I was in seventh grade. I always felt called to local church ministry. And even though I wasn’t on staff at a local church per se, I was focusing my ministry in helping local churches with their events. And so, you know, a lot of people viewed it as a big step backwards, but I viewed it as a step forward because that’s where I feel like I’m most called.

SMITH: So did you go immediately to Thomas Road or were there some interim steps between Newsong and Thomas Road?

BILLINGSLEY: Oh, no. I was on the road full time for about nine years. I averaged about 230 nights a year. And just sang everywhere and did all kinds of stuff. But, through the process, I began to develop a great relationship with Liberty University and Dr. Falwell and all that. And so it wasn’t until 2002 that he called me and asked me to come up there once a month to the church. And then he called me the next day and asked me to come up 40 times a year. And I said, well, I don’t know if I can do that, because I was really booked and it was going well. But when I hung up the phone with him, it was the weirdest deal. I looked at my wife and I said, I think I just made a mistake. And she rolled her eyes like, Oh, there’s no way you’re going to go up there 40 times a year to little Lynchburg, Virginia. And I said, well, I don’t know. And so three days later I called Dr. Falwell back and I said, I think I’m supposed to do this, but I need about eight months to transition. So, you know, being there 40 times a year, it made more sense for us to live in Lynchburg, so I didn’t have to travel there. So I became the worship pastor at Thomas Road in 2002, although I had a staff there so I could still travel quite a bit. And so it was just a great balance. And that’s sort of what began that deal. And then when I went to Shadow Mountain with Dr. Jeremiah, it was the same kind of arrangement. Even though I’m the worship pastor, I have all this freedom to travel and still pursue my concerts and things that I was doing. So, it’s been a great balance. And that’s kinda what I’ve been doing all these years until now this new role at Thomas Road.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, Charles, I want to use some of what you just said to ask this question. This question is a little bit of a pivot from what we’ve been talking about, but I do think it’s a little bit of a piece. You know, you’ve been in the Christian music business for a long time. You’ve been in church ministry for a long time. You’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’m sure. As I have. I’ve seen a lot of people flame out. Especially artists that are on the road a lot, they lose that connection to a local church. They lose the kind of connectedness to their family, just because they’re gone so much. How have you been able to maintain a faithful ministry while doing the things that you have to do to maintain a successful career?

BILLINGSLEY: Well, that’s an awesome question and it’s something I’ve had to find out and live the hard way, Warren. As I told you, I was on the road for about 230 nights a year for a long time—two out of three nights. And I came home one night and my wife was holding both of our little baby boys. They were 14 months apart. One was one and one was two and a half and she looked at me and she goes, look, I can’t do this anymore. It’s either us or that. And when she referred to my ministry as “that,” I knew we had a problem. I knew my life was completely out of balance. And one of the things that was so compelling to me about going to Thomas Road was that it would bring balance to my life. I would be home 40 weekends a year versus gone every one of them but still have freedom in the mid-week to do the travels. And back in those days, you know, Dr. Falwell gave me his plane to fly anywhere I needed to go. And it was just, he was just such a giving and a great man. And I was representing Liberty everywhere I went and all kinds of stuff. So it brought balance to my life. And so ever since then, any role that I’ve had in a local church, to me, is a wonderful thing because it keeps me grounded, keeps me tied on staff to accountability with a pastor. And, at the same time, it gives my family a home base and it allows us to plug into a family of believers. And it really grounds us and keeps us balanced in a sense that this thing doesn’t all become about me. Because with artists, the problem with artists and I’ve lived there and been there is that, you know, if you’re not careful as an artist, the whole world revolves around you—your record, your release, your marketing plan, your Instagram, your followers, how many can you get, your radio play. And suddenly you look up and everything in your life is consumed with you. And I just did not want to go to my grave with that as a mantra and with that as a memory for my family. I want to go to my grave, having been a part of a greater ministry that’s beyond my name and my followers and my record sales.

[BREAK]

SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And you’re listening in on my conversation with Charles Billingsley. Let’s get right back to our interview.

Well, Charles, I want to pivot once again in our conversation and finally get around to talking about this new album that you’ve got out, “I Was Made for This.” Tell me about it.

BILLINGSLEY: Well, it’s a blast of a record. We had so much fun making this project. I had no idea when we made this thing six, eight months ago writing all the songs and everything that so many of the songs would be so poignant and so meaningful for what we’re going through as a culture and as a nation right now. But, you know, just providence and hand of God and all that. I also, when we picked the release date, had no idea that that would be the very, well one of the nights, that I’m hanging out in the hospital with COVID-19. But, you know what, it was all part of God’s plan. And I’ll tell you a man, we had so much fun making this record. It’s really, it’s a full project in the sense that the title is “I Was Made for This” and every song sort of weaves in and out of this whole idea of, Hey, this is what we’re created to do. We’re created to be worshipers, but you know what? We live in a fragile world. We have our weaknesses, we have this, we have that. And so every tune kind of goes along with that theme, but with a different angle. And it’s got a ton of variety on it. And it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

SMITH: Well, I wanted to ask you about at least one of the — several of the songs. Well, one in particular, because you were talking about it being providential that some of these songs really relate to this particular time. And one of the songs is an old Mister Mister Top 40 hit that Kyrie Eleison, which is at least I think I pronounced it right. Did I get close? 

BILLINGSLEY: That’s right. You got it perfect. 

SMITH: Which means Christ have mercy, right? Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. And so what made you pick that song? And did you have any idea that this cry of “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” would be exactly the cry that we need to have on our lips right now?

BILLINGSLEY: Well, I certainly had no idea, but I will say that for years I’ve wanted to do a remake of that song. It’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve always loved, you know, the meaning behind the song and you know, Richard Page and Mister Mister, those guys to me are one of the best bands coming up through the 80s. And so I’ve always loved the song but for some reason over 20 something years, I’ve never recorded it. And this particular record, I thought, you know what, now this is the time. I want to do this. And man, we had a blast making that thing. We added some real edgy brass to it. So it’s kind of Mister Mister meets Chicago. And I did 24 tracks and BGVs on there. And it’s just huge. But you’re right. The message of the song in this day and age is so compelling. Lord have mercy upon this journey that we’re on, this unknown, uncharted territory that we’re walking down. We need your mercy and we need your grace in the worst of ways.

[SONG:  “Kyrie Eliesen” from “I Was Made For This”]

SMITH: Now, there’s another song on the album that I want to get you to talk a little bit about, Charles. I have had Mark Batterson on this very podcast a few times. And we have talked about his books including Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, and you wrote a song or co-wrote a song that basically plays off of that very idea. Talk about that song and the genesis of the song. And I understand that you’ve sort of dedicated this to your boys.

BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, I did. In fact, what I did is I read Mark’s book Play the Man. And of course that phrase is built off of a phrase from a Polycarp, a first century martyr for the church, as he was being burned at the stake. He heard an audible voice say, “Hey, be strong Polycarp, play the man.” And and so he built this whole book around this phrase. And I’ve always loved that phrase. And I loved that book. And so when we were beginning this project, I told my producer, Keith Smith, I said, look, one thing I know I want to do is I want to write a song called Play the Man because my sons are 19 and 20 now. And I really want to write a song that just encourages them to really, really think about and know what it is to go from your teenage years into manhood. What is it like to be a man of integrity? A man of character, a man of righteousness, you know? And so we built the lyric around that idea. And when I sang it, I really literally just sang it straight to my boys.

[SONG:  “Play The Man” from “I Was Made for This”]

SMITH: Well, Charles, as we kind of wind down our conversation. I just wanted to ask. People are gonna get this album, perhaps, and listen to it. And they’ll either like it or not like it. They’ll enjoy the songs. They’ll have a favorite, they won’t have a favorite. But is there an overarching message that you want people to come away from? Is it that idea of worship, that everything we do should be done for the glory of God? Is that the idea? The one you’ve already mentioned?

BILLINGSLEY: It really is. In fact, the further the record goes, the more just straight up worship songs. There are like King of Glory and Spirit of God and some of those. But, yeah, the overarching theme of the record is sort the mantra of my whole ministry. Worship is a lifestyle. We’re all created with a plan and a purpose from God, but it starts at Colossians 1 where everything was created by Jesus and for Jesus. A lot of people don’t realize you were created for the glory of God. And so everything we do, not just the songs we sing, but the way we spend our time, the way we spend our money, the decisions we make, all of this has to do with a lifestyle of worship that we’ve been called to have as believers in him. And so that’s kind of the whole gist behind the record and it kind of weaves in and out everything from Kyrie to big ballads and everything else. But I hope people will enjoy it. I hope they’ll listen to it from start to finish because it kind of takes you on a journey. And I’m honored to do it, man. I’m just blessed to have it out.

SMITH: Well, Charles Billingsley, thank you so much for taking time with me today. I’ve admired your career from afar for many, many years. And to be able to have this opportunity to visit with you a little bit, it’s just a blessing. So thank you so much, man.

BILLINGSLEY: Thank you, Warren. God bless you, buddy. Thank you, sir.


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