Matt Papa is one of the leaders in the renaissance of new worship songs coming out of the gospel-centered movement. He serves on staff as a worship leader at The Summit Church in Durham and his latest release is This Changes Everything.
We had lunch a few weeks ago and wound up talking about Keith Green. Afterwards, we decided to take the conversation to the blog.
Trevin Wax: What first attracted you to the music of Keith Green?
Matt Papa: The thing that first attracted me to Keith’s music was the thing that attracts me to all music: passion. When Keith sang, you got the sense that he needed to. When he played the piano, you got the sense that the piano would be injured.
Keith was sheer intensity, but it wasn’t just the music. The only thing that eclipsed his musical intensity was the almost-awkward intensity of his lyrics. He was A. W. Tozer behind a piano – blunt, abrasive, cutting – but the prophetic fire in his bones was always set to a melody that somehow made the medicine palatable. He had that “thing” all real prophets have: the anointing to offend with enough grace to keep you listening.
Trevin Wax: For the uninitiated, what five songs would you consider Keith’s best work?
Matt Papa: Here are my picks:
Trevin Wax: Keith spoke out against the development of the Christian music “industry” from a financial standpoint. He foresaw the future of artists crossing over into secular music as well. Do you think Keith was right or wrong in his warning against CCM?
Matt Papa: I think he was probably right and wrong (and I’m not trying to be political here).
I think Keith was right because there is much that is disgusting about the modern Christian music industry. There are plenty of artists out there who hide their greed behind a trite Christian lyric. Keith was certainly not one of those. He once said:
I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into godly jealousy (Romans 11:11) or to sell out more completely to Jesus!
As many people know, Keith ran his entire ministry by faith – by the love offering. He would not allow money to “hinder” the gospel, and he spoke out violently against the future compromise (and demise) of the Christian music machine. There was a purity to Keith’s ministry that is unparalleled.
I think he was probably wrong in some ways, too.
Early on, Keith was somewhat of a legalist, as many of us tend to be early on in our faith. He expressed blood-earnest conviction about things which, later on in his life, he recanted when the grace of God began to tenderize his heart.
The music industry could have been one of those things. The existence of an industry in and of itself is not a bad thing: Christian music, Christian book publishing, etc. It is good that products are created that manifest the beauty of Jesus Christ and serve people. It’s also good that artists and writers are able to pay their bills. The danger exists because these industries are filled with sinners who can make success an idol.
Trevin Wax: Looking back at Keith’s life and legacy, what do you see as his strengths and weaknesses?
Matt Papa: Keith’s greatest strength was probably also his greatest weakness – it was the fire. Keith was so utterly convinced about everything. I’m sure it was that confidence that made his ministry so compelling. He was reckless, unafraid to offend.
I believe these qualities were used by God to awaken a generation. So many people I meet, still today, have been affected and are still encouraged by his ministry. But along with this certainty, he crossed the line into ungraciousness at times. He reminds me a lot of Peter.
Another virtue with (perhaps) a vice was his pioneering spirit. Keith and Melody had four kids. They had a traveling ministry and a magazine (newsletter). They went on mission trips, they started schools, they opened houses for drug addicts, and the list goes on and on.
So where’s the vice, you ask? One general oversight of the 1970′s was (in my opinion) a lack of involvement and connection to the local church. The “hippie” spirit was a pioneering, wandering one. I’m not sure where Keith and Melody landed on this issue, but my guess is their contribution to a local body was minimal.
Trevin Wax: Had Keith not died so young, where do you think he would have wound up? What was his trajectory?
Matt Papa: That’s a fantastic question, and one that I think about from time to time. My guess is that he would probably would have ended up on the mission field. Late in his life, Keith and Melody took some overseas trips, and Keith was really wrecked by the experience. He became a passionate mobilizer after these trips. I think they might have ended up serving outside North America.
Trevin Wax: No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green has been an influential book for many people. What is it about Keith’s story and music that continues to inspire and engage people?
Matt Papa: It was never the songs that made Keith’s songs so great. It was that he lived his songs. Keith was just as passionate behind the dinner table as he was behind the piano. He lived by faith – a wild journey of choosing to follow God and trust Him completely.
Leveraging his music ministry housing drug addicts, helping the poor, serving the least of these… Keith’s whole life was intense, and his songs were just the overflow, the soundtrack of his life. It’s ironic, but what makes his music so amazing, even today is that the music was nothing. Jesus was everything.