After selling millions of records, receiving gobs of awards and instigating massive mainstream recognition thanks to their impact anthem, “I Can Only Imagine”—a major multi-format radio smash that created an overnight national platform for the then little—known Texas band, it would be easy to assume the five fellas of MercyMe might have more on their mind these days than ministry through music. Yet over the past fifteen years of national attention, the band’s purpose—to love God and others—has remained unchanged.
Employing the power of song to drive home their mission of love to listeners, the charismatic quintet is famous for marrying memorable melodies with eloquent, inspirational verses, creating a discography of substance and meaning—not just trends and hooks. And this Christmas, MercyMe strikes up the band to honor the season of love with a brand new yuletide recording, It’s Christmas! (FairTrade Services)—a gladsome follow-up to their 2005 gold-certified holiday delight, The Christmas Sessions.
In this exclusive CCM Magazine Christmas conversation, the band’s bassist, Nathan Cochran, shares why Christmas is so important to the men of MercyMe.
CCM: It’s Christmas begins with an epic amalgamation of carol lyrics (“Mild He lays His glory by / Born that man no more may die”) with an ending of the Isaiah 9 foretelling of Jesus on repeat (“For unto us a child is born / Unto us a Son is given”). What was the design behind beginning your sophomore Christmas set with such impactful lines?
Nathan Cochran: We celebrate Christmas for those reasons, so it seemed very fitting to begin the record that way. This first song, “ Newborn,” was pieced together as we were attempting to work on three songs individually. Sometimes songs work together in ways that surprise you. Each of those songs that turned into the first track spoke directly to how we want to focus on the Christmas season. It seemed like the perfect way to set the tone for the rest of the record.
CCM: Christmas is the one season on our culture’s calendar where Judeo-Christian worldviews are accepted, and perhaps even encouraged, at large—especially through music. Why do you think Christmas seems to get a free pass to express Christian spirituality in the mainstream?
NC: That’s a tough question. I think the holiday is so entrenched into our culture that whether or not people are celebrating the birth of Christ, they enjoy the gift giving and benevolent attitudes adopted during the holiday. Maybe they don’t want to mess that up by arguing for an even more secular focus for the holiday?
CCM: The album cover is rather whimsical, no surprise to loyal MercyMe listeners who know the band’s fun-loving personality. But for you personally, how does whimsy mingle with the more serious side of the season? How do you think the happy traditions of the season are important in our Christ-centered celebrations?
NC: Well, Christmas is a time of celebration, and I don’t think joy has to be separated from how seriously we take the holiday. It has always been a very fun time for our families and us, and that comes across in how we represent the holiday. If our intent is to truly celebrate the birth of Christ then our reasons behind celebrating will be more important than what the celebration looks like.
For us, it is a time of focusing on family and being truly thankful that God has entered into the human story.
CCM: It has been ten years since the release of the band’s first Christmas record. What inspired a second holiday installment? And with such an enormous catalog of classic Christmas records already in the books, is it intimidating to produce, perform and add yet another to the list?
NC: Our first Christmas record is one of our favorite records we have ever done. We have always enjoyed performing those songs when the chance comes around, but I’m not sure we thought we would do another one. So, when the opportunity came up to do another Christmas record, it was very exciting, but it was tough, honestly. We felt like we had chosen our favorite songs the first time around, which made song choices harder.
Also, these classics or standards have become extremely important to people so there is a pressure to not mess them up while trying to make them our own. It’s a balance of wanting to take ownership of a song, but still give people the chance to listen and enjoy it like they always have.
We ended up writing a few original songs, which proved even harder than addressing a standard. How do you write a proper Christmas song? We had never asked ourselves that before. But with our originals we went after honesty, and I think that made for some great new stuff.
CCM: In 2015 alone, our nation has struggled through intense human issues and conflicts. It’s been a heck of a year. And Christmastime does not eliminate our many complexities and confusions. How do you think this eason speaks into our hurt and pain?
NC: I believe it speaks to our ultimate hope. That God himself entered into the human story so that real redemption could happen. All of our issues find their fix or answer in Christ and if we could keep that in mind consistently, like we do during the Christmas season, I think we would find grace doing work that could honestly change the world.
CCM: In these Christmas features we are talking about “Christmas and Communion.” How does the crux of Christmas—Jesus, God with us—lead us into communion with God and with each other?
NC: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, has come and made the way for us to enter into real life. We are now sons and daughters in Christ and can look at each other as family. Familial bonds are always the strongest.