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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Connections: Matthew West

Tell Your Story

When Matthew West tackled his current recording project, The Story of Your Life, he invited visitors to his Facebook and Twitter pages to write to him about what God was doing in their lives. He never imagined the level of response he would receive — or the life-changing impact of the stories in those letters.

West grew up under the ministry of his father, Pastor Joseph West, at Hobson Road Community Church (AG) in Downers Grove, Ill., where the elder West has pastored for more than 36 years. West spoke recently with Scott Harrup, managing editor, about his early years in church, defining crises in his life and ministry, and his firm belief that every person’s story bears a divine imprint.

evangel: Describe your journey to faith in Christ.
I grew up in a Christian home, and both of my parents are Christians and have served in ministry for 40 years. I grew up in and around church and was blessed to have amazing family support and such powerful examples in both of my parents as they pursued a Christlike existence.

But a defining moment in my life came at 13. Ironically, after growing up in church, my faith became real to me when I turned on the TV and watched Billy Graham present the gospel. I accepted Christ into my heart sitting on my couch with my mom. My parents had planted many seeds in my life to that point, and I could sense God had a plan for me and He was knocking on the door of my heart. One of my songs from a few years ago, “Next Thing You Know,” tells that story. I want to encourage people to know God’s plan for all of us is to have a defining moment in our lives like that.

A second defining moment came for me as a freshman in college. It was my last night on campus before going home for the summer. It had been a rough year just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I remember crying out to God in my dorm room surrendering all my dreams and plans once again. God used that moment to really direct my ministry into music.

evangel: Part of that direction into music also let you meet your wife.
I met Emily at the first record label I signed to. I met her on the day I was auditioning, so that was a pretty good day. We’ve been married seven years and have two little girls. Lulu is 5, and Delaney is 2. We’ve got our hands full and feel so blessed.

evangel: Young people face a spectrum of crisis moments as they’re coming to grips with God’s work in their lives. Could you describe a crisis moment you faced where God came through in a huge way for you?
Two major setbacks came at critical points in my music ministry. Both involved physical injury in ways that appeared to derail everything I believed God was calling me to do.

In 2002, I was within two weeks of signing my first recording contract. A big event had been planned at the record label. On Friday, July 26, I locked myself out of my house. When I tried to open a window, my hand slipped and pushed through the glass. I severed an artery in my left arm. I was by myself; I was losing a lot of blood. Someone heard me calling for help.

At the hospital, three surgeries later, I had a huge scar running the length of my forearm. Doctors said I had done so much nerve damage I would probably never be able to regain full strength or feeling. I play the guitar and piano, and I’m left-handed. That sent me on a six-month journey of rehabilitation.

But God did an amazing work in my life. He was faithful in my crisis. It taught me our crises are not crises to Him. He’s not surprised by anything happening in our lives or at a loss as to how to work things out. He brought me through and restored my hand. I signed the recording deal. My first song on the radio climbed the charts, and the irony was that I wrote it while only able to play the piano with one hand.

Fast forward to May 17, 2007. I was back in the hospital being prepped for another surgery, this time on my throat. Doctors told me the operation was a last resort to repair damage on my vocal cords. When you’re a guitar player, surgery on your arm or hand is the kiss of death. The same holds true when you’re a singer and they want to operate on your vocal cords.

In another bit of divine irony, I had been preparing to make a record called Something to Say. Instead, we made a video documentary called Nothing to Say. I was not allowed to speak for two months, and I had to rebuild my voice from the ground up.

And yet, God was faithful. The things He showed me during that time are tough to put into words. It was probably the most life-changing season I’ve ever had. I was forced to be completely still and silent. I spent so much time with the Lord just writing in my journal.

evangel: Your latest project, The Story of Your Life, is really all about other people’s stories. How did you end up going in that direction?
God’s work in those different crises in my life helped stop me long enough where I was forced to take a look at my own story, and then look beyond myself to what God is doing in others. God put a desire in my heart to take the stories of what He is doing in people’s lives and bring that into my concerts.

I really didn’t know how many stories would come in when we spread the word that I was looking for material. I thought I might receive a few hundred. But more than 10,000 came in.

That gave me the opportunity to write songs about how God is at work in all of our lives. To take just one example, writing a song inspired by a kid who was being bullied at school. And then getting to know this kid and seeing the work God is doing in him and the confidence God has given him. I want my music to give a platform to those people who might be struggling and wondering if their lives really matter.

evangel: You tackle some tough issues — for example, the dysfunctional family in “Family Tree.” What’s happening in that song?
A woman named Rebecca wrote to me about her family. The first line of her letter read, “As a child, my home was filled with homosexuality, violence, anger and depression.” She said, “The legacy my parents were leaving me was sure to lead to a life filled with emotional turmoil.”

She went on to describe a time in her life, as an adult, when she visited her dad as he was dying of AIDS. Her mom happened to be there, and both parents got into a huge argument. Rebecca was in the next room with her father’s partner.

She said, “I listened to a conversation that embodied the very sad reality of all I had known as a child.” (I remember many of these letters word for word because I lived with them as I wrote the songs.)

As Rebecca listened to her parents argue, her father’s partner turned to her and said, “Well, I guess that’s the legacy you have.” In that moment of complete defeat she replied, “Yeah, I guess it is.”

And in that moment, God spoke to her heart and said, No, that is not your legacy. You have My legacy because you are My child.

That truth made all the difference in Rebecca’s life. She is married, has two children, and her husband is a principal at a Christian school. I got to meet her last month on tour, and we brought her to the concert.

You know, the devil has so many people believing that same lie that Rebecca was tempted to believe — that we are doomed to carry the sins of our parents, the generational baggage that’s been handed down to us. The devil is saying, “You’re going to be an alcoholic, just like your father” or “You’re going to be an abusive parent” or “Your marriage is going to end in divorce, like your parents’ did.”

Rebecca’s story is the proof that God can use us to bring new life into our family trees.

evangel: Some of the stories you received, you admit, made you angry. You wrote “Broken Girl” about the abuse many women have endured.
Tragically, 1 in 4 of the letters I received was about sexual abuse. Women would share from this deeply wounded part of their lives. “You asked for the defining moment of my life,” many letters would begin. “Well, here it is. I was abused from the time I was 5 to 12, by a family friend, or by my dad ... .” My stomach just began to turn, and my heart would break.

I filed the stories in different folders so I could write songs around key topics. The biggest folder held those abuse stories. As the father of two little girls, I came to the point where I just pushed them away. “I didn’t ask for this,” I prayed. “I don’t know how to write about this.” It was tempting to pretend those stories didn’t come in.

A lot of these women were in their 40s and 50s and still dealing with the pain and guilt from these experiences. But they would say, “I’m telling you this because I hope if you can write a song about this it might help someone else to step into the light and escape the abuse.”

I was inspired by that bravery. I found those letters to be true examples of Romans 8:28, how God can make literally anything in our lives work together so that good eventually results from it.

evangel: You describe “My Own Little World” as the most difficult song to write. Why was that?
It was impossible for this experience not to change my life. God began to do a work on my heart. He began to expose those days when I was totally thinking about myself, my agenda, my goals and my family. I became so convicted and challenged.

What if I lived my life open-handed and openhearted as I walk through the world? I asked myself. What if the people I normally pass by caught my attention?

God spoke to my heart that the 10,000 letters I’d read were just a blip compared to all the lives He cares so deeply about. So much is going on all around us every single day. But, so often, I’m tempted not to enter into anyone else’s story and just make sure my story goes the way I want it to.

The song was the hardest to write because it’s a confession. It felt like a punch in the gut writing it. But I’ve found whenever you want to come across with a strong message, you had better look at yourself first.

evangel: The Bible uses stories from everyday life to illustrate God’s message of redemption and what He wants to accomplish in our lives. Did this songwriting experience make God’s Word more alive for you?
It did, and it has continued to do so. The greatest Book ever written is chock full of stories, not just about kings and queens, but with a focus on the lives of ordinary, broken people — sinners who have had their lives dramatically changed.

I see God at work when I read the Bible, and sometimes we go through our contemporary lives and don’t think we can see Him today. But the common thread in every one of the letters I received was the realization that God is at work in our lives.

He’s at work in different stages in our lives. Some people had already experienced a breakthrough. Others were on the front end of some bad news, such as cancer. Some were still carrying pain from their past. But God was clearly carrying out a divine work in each life.

evangel: What has it been like taking those stories from the recording studio onto a live stage?
It’s been probably the most emotional concert experience of my life. Every night, we include videos of the people telling their stories before the songs God inspired out of those stories. Seeing what’s happening in people’s lives in those concerts has been powerful. Many nights, the band and I are walking off stage with tears in our eyes. It’s been a huge turning point in why I do what I do.


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