Christian rocker Chris Tomlin performs at 1st Mariner Arena. (Handout, Baltimore Sun )
Of all the cities Chris Tomlin plays, Baltimore is one of his favorites.
"I don't know what it is, but it seems like there's nights where you feel really connected to the people immediately," Tomlin said. "There's other nights where you have to work at it. At Baltimore, you never have to work at it."
Tomlin, 40, is returning to Baltimore on Friday, to perform at 1st Mariner Arena. It's the third stop of his Burning Lights tour, promoting the album of the same name that topped the Billboard 200 chart — only the fourth Christian rock album to do so.
"It's pretty crazy," Tomlin said. "I never dreamed it, obviously. It's God's blessing."
Like his other albums, "Burning Lights" contains songs of worship, but there are a few things that make it stand out from the rest, Tomlin said.
"I feel like we've taken a step forward in the production and quality of the songs, as far as how they sound and feel and are written," Tomlin said. "There's a great guest list on the album — lots of friends singing with me — that makes it feel special."
His favorite song on the album is "Whom Shall I Fear," a song about faith even when people are dealing with various financial, family and relationship problems, he said.
Tomlin, who started releasing albums in the 1990s, said this has been "years and years in the making." And it's bearing fruit: His date at Madison Square Garden in New York is sold out. But he's quick to share the credit.
"Your music is about something bigger thing than yourself," Tomlin said. "[Other] entertainers, it's about putting on a great show, it's about 'me, me, me, me, me, check me out, look at me, I want to entertain you'…I think that for us, the music is bringing hope for people, its bringing songs of faith in amid the world of fear."
Tomlin got his start playing music in church when he was young.
"It was a small-town world," he said. "They let me get in there and play. I'm sure it wasn't any good — but they didn't tell me that."
While playing music in church, Tomlin realized he didn't enjoy having people staring at him while he was on stage, but he liked playing songs that people could sing along to. It's his focus to this day.
"For me, I'm always thinking about people: 'How can I write this in a way people can sing it, in a response to God for his goodness?' " he said.
Tomlin's father turned him on to Alabama, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash when Tomlin was a child, and now he listens to "all kinds of music." The inspiration for his own music comes from the people and from God, he said.
"It's not a 31/2-minute pop song," he said. "You want to write songs that you can get into the culture of church and get into people's lives."
At his concerts, Tomlin aims to re-center the audience, he said.
"That's what this concert is about," he said, "to put God back on the center screen for people and really bring a night of worship to people."
To do this, he tries to have a balance of old and news songs, and to "bring in most of the songs that people have come to love," he said.
Touring has become harder for Tomlin now that he is married and has a child, but he loves the concert setting, he said.
"I love seeing the response of people," he said. "It's one thing to write the songs and record them, but it's exciting to see the people and experience it with the people."
The people that he plays for are across all ages — "kids, teenagers, college students, moms and dads, even grandmas and grandpas," he said.
"That's what's so amazing about this worship music," he said. "I think it really hits people where they are at all different ages and places in life."
That's not to say that his concert won't be fun. People may think "'Oh my gosh, it's Christian — it must be boring,'" Tomlin said.
"I think people have a misconception of who God is, and the church, and that's not any part of our concert," Tomlin said. "It's going to be a crazy night. At the ending of the night, the whole place will be one massive dance floor."
That's especially true for his show in Baltimore, he said.
"I think anyone who is coming to check it out will be very surprised," he said.