Canadian-born singer/songwriter Matt Maher stands out like, well, like a Roman Catholic on a Protestant record label. In the Provident Label Group lineup, Maher shares the roster with the likes of Michael W. Smith, Third Day, and Jars of Clay. And though the former music minister at St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa, Ariz., is best known for writing hit songs for artists like Chris Tomlin ("Your Grace Is Enough"), Bethany Dillon, and Phillips, Craig and Dean, he's making an impact of his own with Alive Again, his second major-label record, and a ministry that crosses denominational lines. Maher spoke with us about what it's like to be a Catholic artist on a primarily Protestant worship circuit, and the burden God has given him for unity in what the Apostle's Creed calls "the holy catholic church"—the church universal.
How did a music minister at a Catholic church end up on a Protestant record label?
Matt Maher: I was involved in ministry at St. Tim's in 2005, and I was doing a Bible study on unity for our college group. I took the group to a Passion conference, and my heart sort of exploded with the desire for unity in the church. I didn't do anything; I just knew that was something I was called to, and it was going to be important.
That fall I signed a publishing deal with EMI and Worship Together, which meant that a lot of people I would be writing with would be from different denominations. To me it was a huge confirmation of what I'd felt called to do. For years I had been doing ministry in the Catholic church, and the songs that were impacting the kids were coming from people in other denominations. So I just thought, This is an opportunity to build relationships with those people and link arms with them for the Kingdom.
The record deal came as a result of further reflection on my calling. It came to a point where it made sense for me as a person and for my art, and Provident was very gracious.
As you stepped into a Protestant worship circuit, what was the reaction to your music and your presence?
Maher: Any resistance I've encountered—which honestly has been extremely minimal—I know is not personal. A lot of people have been deeply wounded by the Catholic church, and I can't heal them. A lot of people have been mis-taught doctrine and have a bad understanding of Catholic teaching, and I can't convince their hearts. God is the only one who can change them.
From the outset, I came into this saying, "I'm just going to try to be a servant to everybody because I don't know their story and where they're coming from." The reality is I didn't have any negative experiences with anything Protestant. So I came into it like, everything's cool. I've had co-writing sessions with Protestants where we had that common denominator, and I've seen in a very radical way the real possibility of unity. There's definitely an element on the [Protestant] side of "Wait, I don't know anything about you." But that doesn't mean they don't want to work together.
What progress have you seen among Catholics?
Maher: For about 25 years, there's been a very slow movement in the Catholic church of people returning to the core teachings of the gospel and the sacraments and the sacramental life, all rooted in relationship. There's a whole generation of young adults, college students, and teenagers from the Catholic church who have a heart for evangelism and for building relationships.
The problem is, there are still some pockets of resistance [among Catholics]. For instance, I heard about this radio station that didn't want to play my music because they found out I was Catholic. I can't take that personally. Chances are I haven't even met that person yet, so why would I take it personally? I commend those differences to the cross. I take those differences to God and say, "God, you find a way for your children to stand alongside each other." The purpose of the church is to be salt and light, and when unity happens, I think the gospel gets a little bit brighter and a little bit louder.
Do you feel like your music is helping forge that unity between Catholics and Protestants?
Maher: I look at it like [the Catholic church] is my immediate family, and all my friends from different denominations are extended family. We're all in this family together, and Christ is at the head, and he's holding us together. I love my faith and the expression of it. But I'm also aware that it's hurt a lot of people.
[Unity] is a slow movement. Change is going to happen through one-on-one conversation, not on a corporate level. Like, it's great that I'm going on tour with Michael W. Smith this fall, and that's a great statement of unity. But the real follow-up work of "Man, we were at this concert and there was a nun standing next to me, and now I've gotta go process that," is something that's going to happen over a period of time. But somebody has to start the conversation. My hope is that my music can serve as a conversation starter.
What do you think the Catholic tradition can teach Protestants about worship?
Maher: I think what the Catholic church does well is that it reminds people that church is separate from culture. Basically, how do we be the city of God in the city of man? Some churches right now want to change church so people don't even realize they're in church. But church is supposed to be different. I think that's something we have to offer. Christianity has been built on that, building these huge cathedrals, using this architecture, and great composers composing music for the church. That's our legacy; that's what we want to give to every generation. A lot of younger worship leaders are returning to the liturgical tradition like, "Wow, there's a reverence about it that I really respect."
And people are looking for more time for God in their daily lives. They're moving toward ritual. That's where older forms of Christianity come in. And we can help people see and learn. I see more and more artists quoting from the Book of Common Prayer. At the heart of it all is great theology, foundational theology.
Are Protestant worship leaders helping to modernize worship in the Catholic church?
Maher: Modern worship is happening, but not at the same widespread level [as in the Protestant church]. In the Catholic church, priests are the worship leaders of their parish. If you go to a large Hispanic community in Chicago, they might not be singing "Holy Is the Lord." It differs from Catholic church to Catholic church, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In my music, I'm just trying to write a bridge that's true to what I believe in and what I hold dear, but write it in a context that everyone can acknowledge as core truths.
Why don't we see more modern worship or worship artists coming out of the Catholic church?
Maher: You go to a cathedral, you want to hear an organ, you want to hear voices singing. And if it's done well, done in such a way that people are educated in it or brought into it, I think that's impactful. But you go to another Catholic church built in 1990, and it's a different story, and they have a contemporary worship team with drums and guitars. And that's great. Every church is different. The Catholic church is not a franchise in that sense. At some point, it's probably just lack of response in laity, not enough people responding to the call of ministry. I think that's why [you don't see more modern worship music or worship leaders].
Musically, what can we expect from the Catholic church in the next few years?
Maher: More artists are coming out of the Catholic church, and you'll hear more about them over the coming years. For instance, Audrey Assad just signed with [Sparrow Records] and she's a Catholic. Robbie Seay has just produced an independent record of another younger Catholic singer/songwriter. Work has to be universal. Some people are like, "Are you a Catholic?" I say, "Well, I'm a universal Christian." A lot of times I won't say that I'm a Christian—not because I'm ashamed that I'm Catholic but because of the polarization in America that says you have to be one or the other. That's just not true.
There are great relationships being built between people of different denominations. God's doing it, all in his time. Unity is happening but it's happening slowly and in small ways, and I'm content with that.
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