Christian music is often meant to offer praise to God, but many of the songs and hymns are as much for the singer and the listener. The music can help believers feel closer as a congregation or a community. It can provide comfort in times of trouble and give them hope.
But these songs don’t always come from a place of divine devotion. Some of the best-known hymns come from times of desperation, depression and pain.
Matt Maher, who performs Wednesday night at the Charleston Civic Center as part of Chris Tomlin’s Worship Night In America Tour, said, “To me, knowing that makes those songs way more powerful.”
A few examples Maher pointed out:
John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” was inspired by a violent storm at sea. Newton feared for his life and called out to God for mercy, which led to his religious conversion.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was written by Joseph M. Scriven, an Irishman living in Canada. Too ill to travel home to visit his sick mother, Scriven sent a poem to comfort her. It later was published and then set to music.
“Just As I Am” by Charlotte Elliott was written during an existential struggle during the author’s illness. The song touched the late Reverend Billy Graham during his own religious conversion. The evangelist later used it during altar calls for the Billy Graham Crusades.
Maher said telling the stories behind songs is important.
“I feel like that’s the stuff that makes it relatable,” he said.
The Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter has his own songs to add to the American Christian music tradition — and they come with their own stories.
Just before Maher was scheduled to put together his record “Echoes” for 2017, his father died.
“I’d written a group of songs that were mostly hymns,” he said. “The other group of songs were mostly protest songs.”
His grief made him re-evaluate what he wanted to say.
Maher had to work out his feelings about his father.
“I wouldn’t say our relationship was complicated. It wasn’t complicated, but it was,” he said.
Maher’s father struggled. When he was a younger man, he’d been ambitious, active in politics and a businessman. He’d owned a restaurant in Newfoundland, Canada, where Maher grew up.
The songwriter said his father was friendly, outgoing and a hard worker, but he drank. He fought against depression, anxiety and the fears of being unable to provide enough for his family.
Maher said his father could have used some help.
“He came from a time when what you do defines who you are,” Maher said. “It wasn’t what you do in your actions, but what you do for a living.”
In 1995, Maher’s parents divorced. The singer left the northern coast of Canada and went to live with his mother in Arizona over 5,000 miles away.
They didn’t see each other much.
“We still kept in touch,” Maher said. “I tried to visit him, go back to Newfoundland every two years.”
Meanwhile, Maher finished growing up. He got involved in his church and met men who became surrogate father figures in his life, but he never gave up on his dad.
“I loved my father dearly,” Maher said.
Grief weighed heavily on him and influenced Maher’s choice of songs.
“I realized with the suffering and subsequent death of my father, I had the opportunity to yell something into the world,” he said.
Maher said he could have railed against the loss and his pain.
“I’ve seen so many examples of people railing against the universe because things weren’t going the way they wanted,” he said. “I just realized surrender was more powerful than to fight.”
So, that’s what he did. He surrendered his pain and reached out with hope and love.
Performing the songs live, he said, has been a way to give others some comfort who might be going through tough times of their own, but it’s also been good for him, very cathartic.
“It’s been a big way to process the stuff with my dad,” he said.