I wrote “We Fall Down” in season of life when two things were happening. The CCM music industry was moving very quickly toward an almost exclusive diet of “praise music,” and we songwriters were being specifically asked to avoid the dark themes of human frailty and failing, human relationships, human issues, and focus instead on uptempo, happy, clappy, vertically-directed love songs to God. After 9-11 especially, people wanted to be happy, to be assured, to lose themselves in confident praise of their protector God.
At the same time, my denomination was fighting and splintering, and accusing one another of heresy, and the five or six most gifted preachers in moderate Baptist life were forced to leave the professional ministry because of personal failings. How sadly ironic, I thought, when the Church, composed of people who consider themselves to all be “sinners saved by grace,” becomes selective about that grace when it comes to their own. Instead of passing along the forgiveness we claim to have received, the Church has sometimes ostracized those who disappoint us as if they have brought a contagion into our camp, even though the testimony of Romans 3:23 is that we each have that germ already: All have sinned. All. But no publishers were asking for songs on that passage!
It reminded me of a story I heard John Claypool tell when I was very young. The oldest source I've been able to find for the story I found in a book by Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister, and even she references it as simply “an ancient tale” without attribution. It was the story of a medieval peasant, a poor traveling tinker, who passed a walled monastery that was a self-contained village. They grew their own crops, they had their own well water, and everything was pristine and clean. In a brutally hard, poverty-stricken age, they were self-sufficient. They didn’t appear to have to struggle in the world like he did. One day the peasant saw a monk from the monastery seized the chance to ask him: ‘What is it like to live there?’ To his dismay the priest said simply, “We fall down and we get up.”
That was the end of the story. But it spoke volumes to me about the difference between superficial realty and spiritual reality. I thought it might be the beginning of a song. It took me forever to write it because the entire story had to be told before the chorus, and because conventional song form demands a second verse, I had to figure out what should come next without being unfaithful to the story or preaching too much, and I had to find a way back to the chorus. I wound up writing 23 second verses over 18 months before settling on the one I chose. I recorded it on an indie CD called “Waking Up to the World,” and my publisher began pitching the song to established artists.
After five or six years of rejection, the song was recorded by Bob Carlisle on an album called “Stories from the Heart”-- his follow up to his multi-million-selling hit “Butterfly Kisses”-- and Bob debuted the song on the 1998 Dove Awards show, the internationally televised Christian music award show. It was a huge production; he performed it with the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Children’s Choir. Before the second verse, people were rising for a standing ovation! My publisher leaned over to me and said, “I think you’ve got a hit there!”
To our surprise, though, the label waited five months before getting the single to radio. Then, few Christian radio stations agreed to play it. Some of the main reporting stations said it was “too Catholic” and refused to play the song on principle, so it was a disappointment to Bob's label—and all the rest of us. Mark Lowry, of Gaither Vocal Band fame, also recorded it, producing it more faithfully to the demo, but it was never a single. The following year, it began to look like we’d had a bunch of excitement over nothing.
What we didn't know was that night at the Dove award show, a traditional gospel artist named Donnie McClurkin was sitting in the third balcony with Cece Winans and pop star Whitney Houston. He said they teased one another over which one of them would cover the song first. Donnie said: “I knew when I heard Bob sing the song that it was a wonderful song. I also knew most folks wouldn’t understand its power. And I knew I needed to record that song.”
“It wasn’t the verses that struck me,” says McClurkin. “It was the chorus. It’s the perfect summation of the Christian life. As saints, we are nothing more than sinners who fell down, but then got up again by the power and forgiveness of God. Proverbs 24:16 says ‘for a just a man falleth seven times, and riseth up again.’ It is an encouragement that no matter what situation is presented, God can recover you. No matter how many promises you’ve made and broken, He will forgive you.”
Record it he did, and the result was a phenomenon rarely experienced in the Christian music world: a gospel song become a secular hit. It was originally released on McClurkin’s Live in London and More CD, recorded at historic Fairfield Hall in Croyden, England. But a short time later, Donnie and his choir were performing the song at a church in the U.S. when-- to everyone’s surprise-- Stevie Wonder was led down the aisle. He said, “Donnie, I don’t interrupt performers, but that’s my story. I have to be in on this.” He went to the piano and sang and played along, and he wept.
Stevie Wonder owns a chain of R&B radio stations. Who knew? He made sure that the gospel song was added to their regular R&B playlists at popular stations such as KISS-FM in New York City, WGCI in Chicago, and KJLH in Los Angeles.
Then an amazing thing happened: the song began to get 72% more airplay on secular than Christian stations. It was in rotation on the BET network and it broke the Billboard Urban top 40, lingering in the top 50 for 36 weeks. It won the Dove for Traditional Gospel Song of the year in 2001, the Stellar Award for Song of the Year, and even the Soul Train Award!
Of course, the irony in all of that is that when I finally heard McClurkin’s version of the song, the verses were gone! When recording the song in London, Donnie couldn't remember the verses, so he just left them off, which is not only illegal, it also opened the door for some pretty drastic misinterpretations of the song. One artist said to me “That's not how you get saved!” Without the verses, there was very little lyric to provide clarity.
I have no platform to speak to those issues and stem the tide of criticism. It’s painful to be misunderstood, and the larger the scope of the misunderstanding the worse that feeling is. But that's the diabolic nature of fame: we are never in control of it. All I had tried to say with my song was this: on the inside of the church fence as well as the outside; we all struggle. There are no exceptions. It is our common ground. It is the human condition. To deny it is folly. The only antidote is the grace of God. With that cure, we have the chance to become a community of mutual understanding and compassion.
Thankfully, the personal stories of the song’s influence have proven to be far more meaningful and encouraging to me than all the awards and attention. I’ve heard stories from celebrities and children in an inner city Atlanta classroom. The many references made to it on television from Oprah to Steve Harvey to Jesse Jackson have indicated that it’s also been the subject of many thoughtful private conversations. One African American pastor told me, “you have no idea what that song means in the black community.” It’s more evidence that the song was never mine to control in the first place.
So, a song intended for the church was essentially rejected. But through the Traditional Gospel community, it became my first Billboard Top-40 hit, and ultimately-- and miraculously-- it became a message of encouragement to the larger secular world which, I believe, wishes the church could bring itself to be honest and confessional about its struggles and treat others with the grace and mercy that each of us so desperately needs.
The bad news about publishing is you have to let your stuff go where you can no longer control it, and you can never predict how it will be utilized. But there's another sense in which it's clear that if any of us who wrote, published or recorded the song had tried to control it, we might have chosen a very different path, and we would have robbed ourselves of the joy of seeing all the surprising things God has managed to do with it.