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A Renaissance of Gospel-Centered Music: A Conversation with Matt Papa

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2012 22 Feb

Today I’m excited to welcome to the blog – Matt Papa. Matt is a minister and Christian recording artist based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Lauren, and two daughters. He serves on staff as a worship leader at The Summit Church in Durham and is currently finishing a masters degree at Southeastern Seminary. For over a decade, Matt has been writing and recording songs that are saturated with God’s Word. To Papa, a song is more than just lyrics and melody – it’s a sermon people will remember. Matt’s latest studio release, This Changes Everything, is a cry to put off empty religion and to embrace the radical call of the risen Christ.

Trevin Wax: One of the things I’ve noticed in church history is that renewal and revival movements are often accompanied by a flurry of musical composition: new hymns, new songs, new takes on old songs. Think of the great revivals and you can pinpoint great music coming out of those time periods. I wonder if there isn’t a renaissance of hymnody and composition taking place today in conjunction with the “return to the gospel” movement. Thoughts?

Matt Papa: Yes! I believe we are beginning to see a revival of music with rich content for the church. The two primary places this is happening is within the Christian hip-hop culture (Lecrae, Trip Lee, Shai Linne, etc.) and in the modern worship pastor culture. Worship leaders are beginning to see themselves as worship pastors – caring deeply about song-theology and writing new songs of worship that feed the church. We’ve still got a long way to go, as much of the dominant and persuasive CCM industry is money driven rather than ministry driven, but I believe God is moving, and songs are being written that both perpetuate and memorialize this current season of gospel-renewal. And I say, “Go Jesus.”

Trevin Wax: Guys like you and me can come across somewhat critical of CCM, and sometimes rightly so. But I was recently revisiting some old Steven Curtis Chapman albums and noticed a heavy focus on grace, the gospel, etc. There are bright spots in CCM. What in CCM do you like?

Matt Papa: Some of the artists I like in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) include Matt Redman, Phil Wickham, Matt Maher, Switchfoot, and Tim Hughes, although some would say (and I would say) these I have listed here aren’t quite “CCM.” They are contemporary artists and they are “doing Christian music,” but “CCM” has taken on a new meaning entirely in my opinion (I will explain in a moment).

Some of the Christian artists I love who are no longer contemporary include Keith Green, Rich Mullins, Delirious?, Tree63, and DC Talk.

The acronym “CCM,” in my opinion, no longer simply means contemporary Christian music. It has come to mean that style of Christian music that is heard on mainstream Christian radio, which can be characterized by words like poppy, chipper, and feminine in a musical sense…and words like shallow, safe, and imbalanced in a lyrical/spiritual/theological sense.

Trevin Wax: I hear you, and I share many of the same concerns. Do you think Christian radio is a lost cause? Is there hope for biblically rich, substantive lyrics on the radio? Or should we be thinking beyond radio anyway, as technology is offering lots of ways to hear music?

Matt Papa: I’ll answer your question in two parts. The first answer is regarding philosophy, and the second, strategy.

I think as Christians we must always live in the tension of knowing that the gospel will never be “popular” and yet always hoping that it will be. Jesus said the world would hate us, but Paul also said that we are to be all things to all people (i.e., be winsome). I think as Christians we have to hold to the truth that as long as we are living, there is no area of this world that is a “lost cause” because Jesus is alive and is strong enough to redeem anything and anyone. That said, I absolutely do think there is hope for Christian radio…and want to fight for that and pray for that. As it is underneath God’s sovereignty (like everything else), I should not be surprised if God moves and people repent and things begin to change…but as it is an element of “popular” culture, I should also not be surprised when the gospel is not explicit and Jesus is misrepresented. The Jesus of the Bible is not “popular.”

With respect to the second part of your question…should we be thinking beyond radio. I’ll answer that question with another question: Should movie-makers forget about the movie theatre since everyone is watching movies on their computers via Netflix and Hulu? I would say no. People may be going to the theatre less and less, but that’s where a movie gets major awareness and momentum. The metaphor may not be perfect, but it’s almost perfect.

Trevin Wax: So what’s the takeaway for those of us who are not involved in the music side of things? How can we encourage artists and musicians to compose great songs for the church? And how might we play a part in extending the influence of those artists and musicians into radio for increased exposure? We want to encourage and support musicians (like yourself) who are doing great work. Tell us how.

Matt Papa: What a wonderful question! Seriously though – it’s very encouraging to hear you ask.

I’ll be doing a blog post on this topic in the days to come, but my short answer, at the risk of sounding vain and biased, is buy their music.

Artists/musicians, historically, have been modest, hard-working, blue-collar people who were mostly supported by patrons. In the middle ages, baroque, classical, and romantic periods, composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn (many of whom were worship leaders in churches) were financially supported by wealthy landowners or people of royalty. Patrons would give these composers financial support so that they could write music and do what they were called to do. Creating good art takes time. (On a side note: J. S. Bach, who had patron support, had 20 children and was a worship leader in 4 churches simultaneously!)

All that said, when you add Jesus and ministry to this mix, it can become extremely difficult to make ends meet. Art is already often pushed to the fringes of society in its importance, but when you add Jesus and the gospel, your possible “fan-base” immediately decreases by 70 percent because the gospel is by nature offensive.

On top of these things, in a struggling economy (in which we currently find ourselves in the U.S.), art is usually one of the first things to suffer as it is a privilege of the wealthy.

Support artists, especially those who leverage their art for the glory of God and the gospel.

Trevin Wax: What are the spiritual dangers for worship leaders and new artists who are seeking to provide theologically rich songs for the church? How can we pray for you and those who resonate with your vision?

Matt Papa: Thanks for asking, Trevin! I think the answer is two-fold. There is a danger for the church and a danger for the artist.

For the church: the power of “song” is hard to exaggerate. Someone has said, “Let me make a nation’s (popular) songs, and I care not who make their laws.” Luther counted hymnody just under preaching in terms of theological formation. I say it this way: A song is a sermon people remember. People forget a sermon in a couple of weeks. They remember a song forever. That means if we as worship leaders and Christian artists are leading people astray with our lyrics, I believe we’ve got a lot of heavy millstones waiting for us. Songs and art have power, permanence, and influence, especially in the realm of theology. And it probably goes without saying but that which influences theology influences everything. ”What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” - A. W. Tozer.

For the artist: I think it will forever be a struggle for those in ministry – whose “market” is the church – to discern whether God is using them or they are using God. Pray for us Christian artists that we would be servants, not rock-stars. That we would be ministers, not icons. That we would wash feet. That it would become our ambition to build the kingdom of God, and that God would bless us to the extent that we embrace His mission in the world and not our own. Pray for us that we would become increasingly biblical…unafraid to say things that should be said…unafraid to sing things that should be sung. And pray that we would be focused…we will have all eternity to write music…we must win souls.