From Aretha Franklin to Justin Timberlake, it’s not uncommon for singers to get their start performing in front of congregations. A church background isn’t unusual on TV singing competitions either. Kris Allen, the 2009 winner of American Idol, served as worship leader of a nondenominational church in Arkansas, and Chris Blue, a 2017 finalist on The Voice, served in the same capacity at a Methodist church in eastern Tennessee. What’s a little more out of the ordinary is for any singer to score his big break in his fifth decade of life.
Last week, 42-year-old Todd Tilghman, the lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Meridian, Miss., became the oldest person to win The Voice in its 18 seasons. In a contest that routinely features contestants under the age of 20, the victorious father of eight has been married for more than 20 years. Before he auditioned for the show, he’d never performed outside of church, yet audiences said they connected with his cheerful personality and found his family life inspiring.
In his audition in February, Tilghman impressed the judges with his rendition of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight.” During his first appearance on the show, three of the judges—Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, and John Legend—appealed to Tilghman to join their teams on the basis that they also grew up singing for the Lord on Sundays. Ultimately, Tilghman opted for country music star Blake Shelton as his coach, saying he thought the two of them had similar temperaments.
Throughout his run on The Voice, Tilghman sang a collection of classic pop and country numbers. As coronavirus lockdowns forced the show to start airing remotely, he returned home—and to his spiritual roots. As one of his final songs, Tilghman performed MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” while standing alone in his church.
The setting ironically may have complemented the tone better than a Hollywood studio full of cheering fans would have, a reminder of what the pandemic has taken from us. “You are a man that teaches the Word of God to people, so I know you connect with these lyrics,” Shelton said of Tilghman’s performance. “So really lose yourself in what this song is saying.”
The winner of The Voice receives $100,000 and a recording contract. Tilghman said he plans to use some of the prize money to take his family to Walt Disney World, but he doesn’t plan to make any drastic changes to his life just yet. He’s still preaching each week via Facebook Live. But thanks to his win on The Voice, the audience for his weekly sermon has jumped to tens of thousands of people.