Six musicians will take the Times Union Center stage Thursday for an evening dedicated to worship.
It’s part of Worship Night in America, a tour including Chris Tomlin, Kim Walker-Smith of Jesus Culture, Matt Maher, Christine D’Clario, Tauren Wells and Pat Barrett.
“All of us are onstage playing each other’s music,” Maher said in an interview with The Gazette.
The performers come from different cultural backgrounds and different Christian denominations, but Maher said they all work together seamlessly. It’s a reminder of unity in a time of polarization, said Maher.
“I think more than ever what the church could be in the world is an example of unity in the midst of disagreement,” Maher said.
For the past decade, Maher has been a major player in the Christian music genre, securing eight Grammy nominations and writing songs with musicians such as Tomlin and Matt Redman, and with bands like Third Day and Casting Crowns.
His music cuts deep at spiritual trials and tribulations. Yet no matter how dark it gets, there’s always a hint of light, whether it’s with a joyous hook or a foot-stomping rhythm.
Although Maher grew up attending a Catholic church in Newfoundland, Canada, it wasn’t until he was 20 that he really focused on his faith. His parents had divorced and he moved out to Arizona with his mom, and he got involved in a church with a great youth group and congregation.
“It quickly became apparent to me that this was the thing that was missing from my life,” Maher said, “I got a jazz degree at ASU [Arizona State University] and I played piano, and I played in rock bands growing up. . . . Music has just always been a part of my life.”
Toward the end of the 1990s, Maher began writing music about his faith. His career has taken off since then: Maher has won several awards for his music and collaborated with artists like Tomlin and other popular Christian music artists.
Here, he talks about songwriting, the tour and why Christian music should be bringing people together.
Q: What’s your songwriting process like?
A: I feel like for me, songwriting is a process of discovery. You have no idea how the creative process is going to start because it could start in a million and one ways. It could be from meeting someone and having a conversation about their life, [or] it could be from reading the Bible, [which] is a big point of source material for me. Over the years, you learn to understand when inspiration is actually striking. I think that’s a big distinction between being moved by something personally and being moved to write a song about it. Sometimes they’re not synonymous. Then it’s this weird process of putting words and melodies together in a way that feels honest.
Q: Christian music has changed a lot over the past decade. Is it exciting to be a part of that change?
A: It’s definitely interesting. Christian music in the '90s was musically more diverse than it is now. I don’t say that as an indictment, it’s just as a matter of fact. Music was more diverse 20 years ago. That being said, the musical landscape, culturally, has changed. Some Christian music was written specifically as a means to an end. It was written to help facilitate people getting to know who Jesus is through the music. I think what’s interesting about worship music is in some ways it presupposes that you already know God. It doesn’t force the question “Do you know God?” [upon the listener]. It invites the listener into the relationship that the songwriter has with God, and I think that is much more compelling. One of the first rules of songwriting is show don’t tell. Christian music [shouldn’t] always [be] didactic in the sense that it’s always trying to teach people something about God as opposed to just being a song written from the perspective of somebody who just loves God. That’s what’s great about the psalms. Anyone can read the psalms and identify with them because they’re 150 songs about the human condition, and the thread that unites them all is God.
Q: Would you say that [Christian music] has become focused on pop?
A: Yeah, pop music [has] become such a juggernaut of a genre. Christian radio is essentially a pop radio format. So the music itself is based on the pop medium. Pop music is fantastic, [but] it’s not the only kind of music I listen to.
Q: One thing the Christian community is thinking about or dealing with is how to navigate this really loud political environment. How have you been [handling] what to say and what to address [or not address]?
A: I think one of the things you have to do is go back to the source material. [Jesus’] native country was essentially oppressed by a sociopolitical force that had taken control and annexed them. He didn’t really address the Roman occupation, yet he was also very critical at times about the religious authority when they weren’t representing God or the nature of the scriptures. So I think the dangerous thing that people need to remember is as Christians we’re not called to separate our faith from our politics. At the same time, what’s amazing to me is that some people think that gives them license to separate their faith from their character. That’s what social media encourages. There [are] all these studies that show now that it’s isolating people [and] it’s creating a lack of empathy. It gives people license to say things that they normally would never say to the face of another human being. I don’t think Christians are immune to that, but I do think that Christians are called to a higher standard. First and foremost, your character and the way that you conduct yourself in this climate speaks more than what it is that you’re saying. That’s the big misstep that a lot of Christians are failing to remember. The temptation that I see to over-politicize your language and to classify people, and sort of separate people into political affiliations, is very dangerous because we’re allowing politics to define the way that we look at the world, and that’s idolatry. A relationship with Jesus is supposed to define the way we look at the world and so if [we’re] walking around saying “This person is a liberal,” [or] “This person is a conservative,” we’re failing to recognize people for who they are. One of my favorite prayers is the prayer of St. Francis, and there’s a line that says “Oh Lord, grant that I may seek not to be consoled but to console, not to be understood but to understand.” In this day and age, people tend to be yelling back and forth but not really trying to understand each other. When you look at Jesus, so much of what informed his character and the way he interacted with people was his heart. We have dialogue from a woman at a well who was caught in adultery, we have dialogue [with] a man who was blind, we have dialogue with lepers, and the reason we have that dialogue is [that] Jesus listened. If all Jesus did was talk at people, we wouldn’t have any of their words. Jesus gave people a chance to speak and to be heard. I think as Christians, that’s a really important part of what we need to do.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about how the Worship Night tour works? Are you all up onstage together?
A: Chris Tomlin is a dear friend and so many songs that he’s carried have been written by a bunch of us worship leaders coming together to write songs, and we just always used to say, “Wouldn’t it be great if one of these days we could all be onstage together leading these songs?” I think that’s where it started and it’s grown into something unique that brings the whole church together. We’re all up onstage the whole night, singing each other’s songs.
Q: As far as your own music, [will you all be performing songs] from your “Echoes” album?
A: It’ll be stuff that people know and a bit of new stuff.
Q: What do you hope people come away from the night thinking about?
A: I think more than ever what the church could be in the world is an example of unity in the midst of disagreement. There’s six of us onstage each from different backgrounds, culturally [and] socially, but then even denominationally, and yet we look at each other and see ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, and we recognize and see each other for who we are. It’s more important than anything and it’s a way in which the church could be a voice in the world. The hope is that [Worship Night] would inspire people to seek out and do the same thing.
Worship Night in America
Featuring: Chris Tomlin, Matt Maher, Kim Walker-Smith, Christine D’Clario, Pat Barrett and Tauren Wells.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Times Union Center
MORE INFO: timesunioncenter-albany.com