Interview with Matt Papa on his new album, “This Changes Everything”

album_coverLet me put it this way: Matt Papa’s new album “This Changes Everything” is for people who like their coffee strong. For those of our readership who do not know Matt Papa, he is a SEBTS student and a worship leader at The Summit Church here in Raleigh-Durham. I know him fairly well and would describe him as a theologically-driven worship leader who crafts songs and albums that speak prophetically to our cultural context. In particular, he sings about Christ’s Lordship and its implications. In the remainder of the post, I ask Matt four questions about himself and about the album.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, your family, and your ministry.

I’m Matt. I love Jesus. I’m 28 years old. I’m happily married to Lauren Papa and have 2 beautiful little girls, Paisley and Stella. I serve on staff part-time at the Summit Church and also travel and sing and preach around the country. I like the Georgia Bulldogs and Mexican food.

I became a new creation when I was 12 and began doing ministry when I was a teenager. Since about 15 or so, I’ve been writing songs, singing them, and preaching the gospel. I studied music in college and once graduating, made my first album entitled “You Are Good.” Since then God has been so gracious to give us a wealth of opportunities to serve Him and make Him known.

2. Why did you write “This Changes Everything”?

This album is mostly, like my other albums, a collection of songs that comes out of my own personal wrestling with the Lord. This album, however, is a bit unique in the sense that there’s a story behind it.

I was in India about 3 years ago on a mission trip. We were on the train heading to our missions site for the day, and I met a young man on a train named Ajay. He was about 20 years old. I’ll never forget the conversation that followed:

Me: Have you ever heard of a guy named Jesus?

Ajay: I think so?

Me: Do you know anything about Him?

Ajay: No. Will you tell me?

Me: :)

So I shared the story with Him. I started from the beginning. God created, we sinned, Jesus came, and died for sin; told him the whole thing. And I’ll never forget what happened next:

Me: Ajay, Jesus DIED for you on the cross so you could be forgiven!

Ajay: Really?

Me: But Ajay, I’ve got some good news … after 3 days … He got back up.

Then, Ajay said two words I’ll never forget as long as I live:

Ajay: IT’S TRUE?

His eyes were full with wonder. He had never heard the gospel before. At that, I began to weep. I don’t know if God orchestrated this moment more for Ajay or for me because in that moment, I felt scales falling from my heart. In the moment, I thought about HOW MANY times I have heard the gospel growing up in church and responded with APATHY. I truly don’t know if I had EVER responded with such faith and reckless abandon as this kid on a train in India did that day.

It was as if, for Ajay, if Jesus really rose from the dead, then EVERYTHING was different. Ajay taught me something that day: that is it utterly foolish to become familiar with the gospel. It is jaw-dropping, or it is nothing. He’s either alive or He’s not. It’s either the reality that wrecks your life forever or it is nothing at all. C.S. Lewis said it best: Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it CANNOT BE is moderately important.

3. What is the primary theme of the album?

The Lordship of Christ. In my times with the Lord leading up to making this album, I would be reading and I might find a command in the Word that I had yet to submit to and the question that continued to confront me was NOT: What is the Greek / Hebrew of this verse? Or maybe how this applied to those people back then? No. The question that I had to wrestle with was: Is He God or not? Because if He’s God, I don’t have a choice whether I want to obey.

Jesus does not give us the option to make Him our homeboy. With the resurrection, Jesus drew a line in the sand of the universe. We will either love Him or hate Him. Follow Him or deny Him. Worship Him or Blaspheme Him. Kill Him or crown Him. There is no middle ground.

4. What, above all, do you wish for readers to know and/or do because of this CD?

This is absolutely it, a paragraph I wrote that is in the artwork of the album:

The year was 1514, and the earth was the center of it all. Until Nicolas Copernicus changed everything.

It’s called the “Copernican Revolution” for a reason. Everyone believed the sun, and everything else, revolved around the earth. Everyone was wrong. And as the Sun took it’s rightful place at the center of the great Milky Way, a greater fear and reverence swept over all mankind; as for the first time man doubted his centrality in the universe. For the first time, humanity came trembling to grips with the humbling and earth-shattering reality: we are small.

My prayer for you is that as these songs bring you into collision with the greatest, most central reality in the universe, namely the Gospel, that a Copernican revolution would be unleashed in your life. All of us come into this world bent on believing that we are at the center. But we’re not. There is, however, a Reality holding steady at the center of it all, beckoning us to open our eyes and see what we were made for. His name is Jesus. And He is the center. He will not be a part of your life, one of the many orbiting obligations around you. He will be your life; the star you revolve around or nothing at all. The tomb is empty and He is Lord. This changes everything.

A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship: Disney World Worship, Part 3: The Sovereignty of Technology

Disney World is dependent on technology. Consider what a trip there would be like if Disney World went “unplugged.” I doubt your “dream vacation” would be so dreamy without all the rides, gadgets, and experiences brought to us by advances in technology. And Bruce Ashford wouldn’t be able to see his dream come true of doing the Castle Package at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique if Disney World didn’t build itself on the wonders of technology (I mean, without a blow dryer, what would they do with Bruce’s hair?).

Christian Worship has benefited much from technological advances. We take for granted the wonder of printed Bibles, for example. Without the development of the printing press, we simply would not have access to the Scriptures in the manner we do. For musicians, there are improved instruments (yes, technology brought us better-made instruments – give that natural horn a try, those of you who play valved instruments), printed music, and music publishing software. And we have made significant use of advances in audio and visual technology in the past decades.

I’ve always been an advocate of making the best use possible of technology in worship. I see no point in being a liturgical Luddite. At the same time, I am troubled by what appears, in some instances, to be the use of technology in a way that is unfitting and overbearing. I worry that in some places technology has assumed a magisterial rather than ministerial role. That is, it has come to rule our worship rather than serve it. In too many instances, technology has become sovereign in our worship.

Let me clarify two points. First, I’m not entirely sure how we can measure the problem I’m surfacing here. Perhaps others have some ideas about that. But, I’m not going to offer any hard and fast arguments in this post. Second, I’m not questioning anyone’s motives about the use of technology, I’m simply raising questions of judgment.

It’s a rarity to find a church in the United States that does not use some sort of audio reinforcement. Even cathedrals (we have relatively few in the US) typically have basic audio equipment – a pulpit mic and some loudspeakers. Other churches make extensive use of audio equipment, with installations of sound equipment alone in the range of five figures and even six at times (yes, I mean that churches spend hundreds of thousands on audio equipment). Let me identify a couple of problems I see with the use of audio technology these days.

First, I think we often turn up the volume too high in our worship services. It’s not difficult to ascertain optimal decibel levels in a room, but very often we use audio technology to exceed that level. On more than one occasion I’ve asked the question, Why exactly do we reinforce sound? We reinforce it (that’s what we do with the audio equipment) so people can hear. So, once they can hear what they couldn’t hear without reinforcement, we have to ask, What is the point of then turning it up louder?

I’ve heard a number of answers to that question. Perhaps the winner is that people think if they turn up the volume the congregation will sing more. This is simply a misunderstanding of congregational dynamics. If people can’t hear themselves, they actually sing less, not more. (The inverse is true too. If they only hear themselves, most won’t keep singing). You don’t encourage the congregation to sing by blasting more sound at them. Find the optimal sound for your room and leave it there. I promise you that optimal is nowhere near the maximum settings on your system. And, if you think turning the sound up loud is “cool,” get over it. You’re doing a disservice to the people.

Second, we use audio effects boxes in a manner that is irresponsible. The effects box is that little unit that is used, for example, to create reverberation. Now, I’m not opposed to using such a device. I served in a church for several years that was in a converted mall, and due to low ceilings we had an acoustical nightmare on our hands. The effects box helped restore some of the natural sound to voices and instruments that was lost in that room. This is a fitting and appropriate use of technology in my view. What I object to is the use of an effects box to make a singer sound like someone else, like they have a voice they don’t actually have. We “warm up” a voice with the effects box to make it sound better than it actually is. I realize that the pop music industry is built on such use of technology (I once heard a popular CCM group rehearsing when the effects box went out – Weren’t we all surprised that they sounded very little like they did with the aid of technology?). This is inauthentic. Just let the singer sing. And teach them to sing better, to sustain lines, and to find the natural warmth of their voice. If the sax player doesn’t have a great tone, don’t use technology to misrepresent him. I really worry about our indiscriminate use of such equipment.

Video equipment, for all its usefulness, has its problems as well. The use of screens, for example, for projection, has given us a lot of good options we didn’t have before. We can now make aspects of the service visible in ways we could not previously. While that’s true, our efforts to improve visibility have a downside. Several years ago I began displaying the Scripture text for my sermon on screen at a certain point in each service. I wanted the congregation to read the text aloud together each week and, with the proliferation of different English translations along with the fact that I was preaching out of a different version than our pew Bibles, I made use of video to display the Scriptures. I thought this was working quite well until some congregants made the observation that some people had quit bringing their Bibles to church. Talk about unintended consequences. I wanted them to pay more attention to the Scriptures, but in the process I took the Bible out of their hands. (Why I want the Bible in their hands is a matter for another blog. But, to be clear, it’s not so they can receive a gold star for bringing their Bible to church. It is part of a desire for our people to know how to read the Bible well, something we should be showing them from the pulpit). I think my motives were proper, but I hadn’t thought this one through. This wasn’t a problem with the use of video per se, but it is an example of a good use of technology might have some problems associated with it that we might not think of at first.

Another issue with the use of technology that is quite common these days is the practice of displaying shots of platform personnel and the congregation continually during the service. This has the effect of turning the worship gathering into a large TV viewing service. I am amazed at how often I watch the screen to see what’s going on twenty-five feet away, when I can see it just fine without the screen. Even when I’m conscious of it, my eyes are still drawn to the screen. My observation is that this is a common occurrence, and I think it too has unintended consequences. We divert ourselves from the real to a representation of the real, and we become once removed from that which should have our attention – a real image-bearer of God preaching God’s good news. Instead, we look at an image of the image-bearer. Also, I’m terribly distracted in worship services where we have close-ups of singers and musicians happening all the time. I wonder why we need these shots at all, but at the very least we should do it less often. Worship isn’t a TV show, it’s communion with God amidst his people. In an odd way, our attempts to build community by showing video shots of congregants and platform singers actually produces an artificial effect that makes people seem distant, the very opposite of our intention.

A side note here: Can we please stop “staging” worship services with singing groups that have choreographed movements and outfits? This isn’t high school show choir (no offense to high school show choir directors. Or, maybe, offense to you. Whatever the case may be). And, please, if you have to do this, don’t put it on video. Let the musicians stay in a back room where none of us can see them.

In the end, if the elements of worship, or our actions in worship, or use of media, or technology, garner more attention in a worship service than Christ, then something is out of order. Christ is the sovereign, not technology or anything (or anyone) else. We need to be more cautious about making a servant (technology) the master in our public assemblies.

Thus ends my musings on Disney World Worship. Next up, I’ll continue my series with some constructive comments about a biblical theology of worship in a few posts and then some thoughts on the practice of worship in the local congregation.

The Return of the Curmudgeon: Disney-World Worship (Part 2): Musical Disproportionality

I’ve taken a few weeks off on the worship posts, for reasons I need not explain. I now pick up the series where in a previous post I observed similarities between Disney World and worship, noting that there are some not-so-flattering ways in which Disney World reminds me of certain aspects of evangelical worship. In this post I consider some of the ways in which we face problems related to the use of music in worship. For anyone who wants to know if I like music at all, or if I think music should be used in worship, see my “The Use of Music in Worship” in the book Authentic Worship.

In the Baptist tradition in which I live, music is highly significant in corporate worship. It may be that it is too significant, that it is overemphasized in some respects, yet I do not favor a Zwinglian approach that excises music from the public assembly. I do think we face some serious problems related to the use of music in corporate worship, though, and one serious issue is that music has a disproportionate place in our corporate assemblies. That is, we often emphasize the music over more equally important elements and expressions of worship. So, we have a problem with respect to the quantity of music we use, and then, we also have a problem with the quality of music we use.

With respect to quantity, I worry that we sing too much these days. Frankly, it’s wearing me out. It is as if we have to employ music in almost every aspect of the service. I’ll not be surprised if we soon start using background music to accompany sermons (and I’ll not be surprised if I learn this is already happening and I just don’t know about it). We sing and sing and sing and sing and sing. I find myself, in so many of the places I go (and I do travel a good bit in Baptist & Evangelical land) just praying that the music will come to a close. And we so seldom read from the Scriptures, or pray in anything but a cursory fashion, or recite a statement of faith or confession, or observe the ordinances. But we get plenty of music. More than plenty. I don’t know that this would be such a burden to me, except that we sing so much bad music.

Music enables us to give voice to a liturgical offering in which singing texts sometimes allows us to more fully express our praise than if we simply speak the words. Singing engages the whole body in a way that speaking does not. I believe this reality lies behind the repeated instructions in Scripture to sing to the Lord, and not to speak only. This is a fitting representation of what it is to offer my body as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Singing reminds the faithful that all of their being should be offered to God. If the people are to sing they must have music. I am concerned, however, that at both the textual and musical level we face some difficulties, not the least of which is the fact that we too often employ songs that are inadequate theologically. When I say “theologically” in this case, I mean it in its most literal sense – that our music doesn’t speak adequately about God. This inadequacy shows up, for example, in the manner in which some contemporary music fails to account for both God’s transcendence and immanence.

On the one hand, the music used in DWW is sometimes completely inadequate with respect to the transcendence of God. The music is maudlin, it is saccharine, and it lacks the richness, texture, and depth commensurate with the greatness and glory of God. This is true about both texts and music, by the way. I do not mean to single out contemporary music at this point. I could easily lodge the same criticism about Southern Gospel music, though its popularity is in some decline at present. One of my chief complaints is that too much of this music has us singing about us singing about how we feel about God, or how we worship him, rather than singing to and about God himself. (For those who want to quarrel that singing about God isn’t worship, please see, again, my piece “The Use of Music” for a correction to that tired old idea). I’ll not bother to names songs at this point; there are simply too many examples to name, and we sing them all the time – over and over and over (“na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na” – Do we actually sing this? Yes, we do. Surely we can express that we live and breathe and have our very being in Christ in ways more fitting than this. Can’t we? It’s seems that even some minor effort would enable us to do so.).

On the other hand, this music is also inadequate with respect to divine immanence. That God, the Holy One who is high and exalted is above us and beyond us, yet also near, with, and among his people who are contrite and approach the Lord in the name of Christ is one of the most precious truths of the faith. Rightly construed, Christian worship must account for both divine transcendence and divine immanence. In fact, you cannot truly have one without the other.

DWW makes much of immanence, but it is an immanence of man’s own making. On this account of immanence, intimacy and friendliness is key, and here again, we have this emphasis on singing much about how we feel about God, and less about God himself. And the music is made to match. There are two reasons why this doesn’t work. First, DWW doesn’t get transcendence right, so it is off to a bad start with respect to immanence. Second, the songs themselves often offer a cheap version of divine immanence that isn’t worth buying.

So,both with respect to lyrics and music, too much music employed in worship today is theologically deficient, formulaic, and banal. Much of this wouldn’t even make the stage at Disney World, to be completely honest. We use the term “artificial” to refer to something that is not “natural” or that is an imitation of what is real. I fear that too much of the music we use in worship these days is just that. Singable, memorable, well-crafted tunes, with fitting harmonies, settings, and instrumentation are too often a rarity. DWW provides music that is something like the products that fill the Dollar Store. There may be a lot of them, and they may be easy to come by, but they lack quality and they will not last. While the church has always used “disposable” music, historically we tend to cull that music and maintain the best songs. Too often these days we seem to maintain the “disposable” and dispose the valuable.

Here is a little test for a congregation to consider, to examine the extent to which we may suffer from the malady of musical disproportionality. Be honest about this. If forced to decide between keeping music in the worship service or keeping baptism and the Lord’s Supper, what would the people choose? I fear that in many of our congregations that decision would easily go in favor of the music, and the ordinances would be dispensed with summarily. We would not treasure those signs of faith given us by our Lord more than we would our music, some of which won’t last past the next year, much less endure for centuries. I understand that my critique will sting some, and some will be just plain angry at me. But I think these are questions we need to ask and answer, and quickly, if we are to recover a healthy life of worship in our congregations.