For many of my twenty-something friends, the Contemporary Christian Music bands of the ’80s and ’90s—the Newsboys, Third Day, or David Crowder—have become a sentimental, retro throwback.
And so when I first listened to Matt Papa, an artist growing rapidly in popularity who began as a worship leader at Summit Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, his style struck me as refreshing: theologically rich, contemplative and acoustic, and characterized by genuine prayer and soul-searching.
Papa, 31, uses his voice, guitar, and piano talent on his seven albums, including Live at Lincoln Theatre which was released in November 2014.
He is also the author of Look and Live, a book describing his journey from worldliness to discovering worship as a means toward sanctification.
He and his wife live in Raleigh with three daughters and a little boy on the way. I sat down with Matt to talk about his latest projects and the direction of contemporary worship music.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing now. You’re no longer at Summit Church, right?
I was on staff for about four years. I was doing music full-time and then my wife and I moved up (to Raleigh) to go to Southeastern Seminary. We started helping out at Summit and started having babies, so school was put on the back burner. February 2014 I stepped off staff and started traveling and writing.
And you’re an author now, too.
I felt like I wanted to say more. Songs are necessarily abstract. I’ve always had a passion and desire to teach—and to prophesy is the biblical term for it. So the book is an outworking of that and my ministry to apply these big ideas.
In your book Look and Live, you talk about how looking at God’s glory helped you defeat sin and enrich your relationship with Him. What does that look like on a daily basis for you?
People are leaving the church, the country is becoming more liberal, but other Christians are becoming more passionate. It’s creating a decline in the CCM. There’s not as many people. The people who are sticking around are looking for something richer. In a lot of ways it’s a good thing.“Sehnsucht” is a C. S. Lewis term that is a descriptor of . . . a feeling of restlessness. I don’t wake up in the morning singing Chris Tomlin songs. I’m not romantically in love with Jesus. I wake up to anxiety, emails, “where am I going to be in five years? Am I going to matter?” If I don’t go to God or the Gospel, then that desire will get manifested with idols, popularity, sex, something to distract me at that point because I’m in a state of restlessness on a daily basis. It looks like getting on my knees. My wife said, “Is the point of the book to basically tell people to read their Bible and pray?” And I said, “Yes, basically.”
What’s unique about your music?
It’s generally more than just music. I tend to be more of a prophet—more of a “minor chord” than a major chord. The things I tend to see and to address are problems. This is one theme of my music and ministry. I think it works against and for me. Against me in the sense that sometimes I can seem overly pessimistic. Theological astuteness has tended to be another theme in my music. What we sing, we become. What we sing matters.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It looks different (every time), that’s why I like songwriting so much. There are so many different directions. There’s never just one way. Sometimes I’ll start with music, I’m hearing a melody. Or I’ll start with something I want to say, a North Star, and fit music around it. As it relates to theology, I have read a lot of theology books and heard a lot of preaching, a lot of times a song will come out of a sermon or a book.
Why worship music?
I always have had a passion to teach the Bible and for theology and music, and it’s a marriage of those two things. I’ve often said that songs are sermons that people remember. That’s the value of worship music in general, you might remember a sermon you heard a week ago, a sermon two weeks ago, probably not.
If you hear a song, it’s in the fabric of you forever. (Andrew Fletcher, an 18th-century Scottish political philosopher) said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” . . . To give people ideas of God that are big, true, holy in a melody—it’s an awesome thing.
Where do you see the direction evangelical worship music headed? There’s controversy over shallowness. Some evangelicals I have known have converted to more liturgical traditions.
I see it going more liturgical. Less “band”-y or “show”-y and more simple and more liturgical. More driven by the congregation and their voices and less by the band’s sound. I think there’s disillusionment, the place where the modern worship movement left us as the church. There’s a healthy skepticism of the millennials of the “big show.” Maybe that “big thing” was done in authenticity by the Gen-Xers, but now I think there’s a burnout disillusionment, and there’s going to be a re-emphasis on hymns, simplicity.
How does that impact what you’re doing?
I’m working on another book that will probably be called Sing. It’s for lay church members on church music, and why we do it. In terms of making worship music, I think there will be an emphasis on more clear lines drawn: this is for the church, this is for the congregation, and this is for more entertainment. I think there’s a place for non-congregational church music, at least in context of Sunday morning. In terms of what happens in a Sunday morning context, it will increasingly become more simple and more singable.
I think there will be a continued re-emphasis on that. What the modern worship music wave did give us positively, in a sense it was kind of a reformation. You think of Martin Luther getting the Bible in the language of the people, worship in the language of the people, an incarnation. Before, everything was in Latin.
With the hymns and the theology (of the 20th century) it was almost so stiff where it wasn’t a resonance. That pent-up thing became the Jesus movement of ’70s, the charismatic movement. But with extremes there’s always a ditch you fall into on the other side, though a lot that’s healthy with it. The over-correction is that there’s been a disillusionment, thinness, an excitement—but joy and excitement aren’t the same thing. Excitement is young; it’s not lasting. C. S. Lewis said that “[t]here is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.” So there can be a sort of a musical joke. It’s a balance.
Do you think the market for Christian artists is growing?
What Tim Keller says about the church would probably apply to the Christian music market. The “mushy middle” of evangelical Christian faith is disappearing. People are leaving the church, the country is becoming more liberal, but other Christians are becoming more passionate. It’s creating a decline in the CCM. There’s not as many people. The people who are sticking around are looking for something more rich, and the other people are just gone. It is declining. And in a lot of ways it’s a good thing.
Any big projects coming up? What’s next for you?
I’m working on the new book. I also am working on a project with forming an indie rock band called Why Hotel. It will be philosophical rock-and-roll. We’re starting recording in two weeks. It’s been two years coming. It’s mostly with the guys I’ve been traveling with—Zach Smith, Tyler Mount, John Dobberstein. We want to be disruptive with cultural ideas that are harmful, and we want to hold up the bad in the culture and the good of Christianity and try to be subversive. That’s in the works.
I’m also doing a compilation with eight to twelve artists including Charlie Hall, Aaron Keyes, and Robbie Seay. We’re doing a themed album around Augustine’s Confessions. We’re going to do a retreat to write songs for that and create the album after that. That’s been a dream for a couple years.
What drives you? What keeps you going, making music?
Honestly, I just feel like I have to do it. More and more I’m learning that for better and worse, rich or poor, ’til death do us part, I need to write and I need to fight and wrestle with helping people see God’s glory in who He is. It’s who I am.
Photograph of Matt Papa courtesy of Shelly Moore