Matthew West grew up a regular around baptism. As the son of a preacher-man, he knew the scene well: the sun streams through the stained glass window, or the candles flicker in the dimly lit room. Or the water splashes gently at the bank of the river or edge of the lake. Maybe the waves crash around you in the ocean. The experience is extremely personal and as different for each person as our stories are. However, no matter the path to it or the expression of it, baptism has several powerful things in common. It’s where we see the ultimate display of renewal. It’s where we witness the power of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to transform a sinner into a child of the one true King. It’s where our stories join up with God’s story. And it’s in our testimony that others get to experience exactly that.
Matthew witnessed many people surrendering to the Lord in varying yet powerful ways, but the one thing that gripped him about each baptism was the story. What had they done? What had been done to them? What was their identity? How did they meet Christ? What happened in their lives as a result? How many others repented because of them? So. Many. Stories. And all of them so powerful. With each one, Matthew would revel, “Look how brightly God shines through that person right now!”
Matthew’s Passion for Storytelling
Getting to talk with Matthew West had been a goal of mine for quite some time. The songs he sings, streaming over my radio, have a way of gripping my heart with the commonality of purpose that we share — telling the story of God through our stories and the stories of other people. Stories of redemption, true identity, purpose, hope, forgiveness, healing and compassion.
It’s obvious that Matthew West can sing. He has the voice of a rock star tempered by the heart of a man saved by a gracious God. It’s not just anyone that the Grammys will recognize in the music industry — and he’s been nominated twice. But he also has a talent for storytelling. He loves a good story — you know, one with a hero, an antagonist, supporting characters and deep plots all housed under a constant theme with twists and turns. Put the two together, singing and story-telling, and you have music-making magic.
It started by telling his own stories with his album “Something to Say” in 2008. Even now, Matthew recalls wanting to turn around and say to the audience, “Hey, you’ve got a story! You have something to say!” So with his God-given talents and a desire to connect with people heavy on his heart, he issued the challenge, “Send me your stories, and I will share it in music.”
Challenge Issued. Challenge Accepted.
Stories flooded in. To date, somewhere around 30,000 stories have found their way into Matthew’s hands. He has read every single one. In fact, he even schedules time in his day to ensure that he gets to read these stories. He feels passionately that people deserve his attention; they deserve his respect for the stories that they open up about and take the time to share with him. They put themselves in a vulnerable position by reaching out and sharing, and he is determined to honor their choice to trust him.
“Why do it?” I plainly asked. I know why we seek out stories at Shattered, so I was anxious to hear his reply. His simple explanation reminded, guided and comforted me. “A story is stripped of its power until it is told. That’s when the light gets turned on and the darkness begins to fade.” He continued, “Not everyone has seen the big breakthrough. We’re all at different stages of the trials — the beginning, experiencing miracles, walking through the fire — no matter what, it can all be used to encourage other people!”
Stories, Stories Everywhere
As you can imagine, getting to the point where you’ve read 30,000 of the most heart-wrenching stories you can think of, one might start to get overwhelmed, saddened, depressed or even jaded. Based on my own experiences, I asked Matthew if this happened to him. He admitted that yes, at times it sure has affected him!
“When someone shares a traumatic experience with you, you experience a mini-tragedy yourself,” Matthew said.
The stories resonate with him, and at times he feels helpless and is tempted to ignore the pain. Recently he told his wife how he was really disgusted after almost every story he read started with sexual abuse. Frustrated at the horror of sexual abuse, he exclaimed, “What is this world coming to!”
However, as a singer, story-teller and passionate Jesus follower, he didn’t choose to become cold and detached. He decided, instead, to trust in a very big God and give everything he has inside to writing songs that people can connect with on an emotional and healing level. Matthew is learning how to genuinely feel every story and see God’s redemptive work overcome their struggles.
Every Story, Every Song A Gift
Every song has been a gift from God. The stories are not happy ones with pretty resolutions as though they’re written for a 30-minute sitcom. They are raw, real, gritty, and often still unresolved. But God has given him eyes to see the hope in each story. Matthew feels that God has helped him understand that his human eyes cannot see the redemptive qualities in the story apart from trusting in God’s sovereignty as our Great Redeemer. Only through the acknowledgment of Christ in these stories can Matthew begin to piece together a song.
From these amazing people sharing their stories of an even more amazing God, he has been able to write songs like:
“Forgiveness” is the story of a woman, Renee, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver named Eric. Renee not only chose to forgive Eric, she also asked the courts to pardon him. As a result of her forgiveness, echoing the greater forgiveness of Christ, Eric has accepted God as his Savior. They have also found unity in helping others avoid the effects of drinking and driving as well as sharing the redemptive power of forgiveness.
“Into the Light”
Inspired by a woman who escaped an extremely abusive marriage after years of bondage, “Into the Light” celebrates the first rays of sunshine that she saw as a free woman. Captivating imagery paired with simple, God-given truths create a beautiful tale of broken chains. It exudes hope and possibility — with the power of God, we can choose to step into the light!
“Moved by Mercy”
“Moved by Mercy” is a powerful anthem inspired by a young girl rescued by Mercy Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee. The song, which gives hindsight vision to the now grown girl, narrates a basic plea of needing Jesus even when you can’t see or hear Him — begging for mercy and receiving it.
And these just name a few.
Part Of The Family
Once Matthew connects with a story, it becomes part of a bigger story, a bigger family — reminiscent of becoming part of God’s story, I believe. The people who Matthew sings about form a support group of sorts. They all come from different backgrounds and have faced different hurts or victories, but they all share some things in common. They have experienced belonging, a bigger purpose and hope in their pain because of Matthew. But ultimately, they are a family — a family of epic proportions because God brought them together.
Matthew beautifully expressed the purpose behind this family forged through common experiences, tears and Christ’s forgiveness.
“People crave community, and having the safety to tell your story cultivates community,” Matthew said. “Authenticity is rich soil for community to grow, free from judgment and condemnation.”
My favorite Matthew West song is “Do Something,” inspired by a 20-something-year-old college student who feels that it is possible to do big things because of the big God we serve. While studying abroad in Uganda, she encountered an orphanage where children were being abused. Unable to just let it go, she believed that change was possible and that it was her place to do something about it. After reporting the orphanage to the Ugandan government, she had it shut down and then took in the 40 kids on her own. She started her own orphanage where she could guarantee the kind of treatment the kids would receive.
I absolutely love that story! It’s the realization we all need to come to as believers in Christ — we are all here to DO SOMETHING and together, as a family in Christ with the power He has given us, that something is entirely possible. We have been asked, even commanded, to do something that shares Christ with others. Feed them, clothe them, love them, tell them…in the name of Christ, do something.
And that’s just what Matthew West wants to do. He wants to do something.
“God has a bigger purpose than me just making music,” Matthew said.
Probably the coolest thing I learned about Matthew West is he feels that “just singing” is stopping short of what God is really calling him to do. When he finishes his concerts and walks off the stage, Matthew wonders, “Are we stopping short at entertainment?” With a desire to do more, he began to wonder what it would look like to put together something that would connect the people who need help with resources that can offer them help.
“People need more than just songs — they need prayer, resources and connections,” Matthew said. “We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
With that understanding, Matthew created Population:We. It’s the physical expression of God’s love, care and concern for the hurting and lost. Population:We is in the beginning stages. Their team’s desire is to build an organization with resources and connections in all the cities they visit, which will serve as conduits for connecting people to the help they need.
I am excited to see Matthew West making such an impact for people who have stories but need help to see God in their stories. I am excited to see another example of a believer who is using his talents — no matter how big or small (knowing full well we aren’t all rock stars) — to DO SOMETHING for the glory of God.