Every songwriter, in a sense, is a storyteller. Then there’s Matthew West.
When the GRAMMY-nominated artist first set out to solicit stories from his fans, he hoped at least a few fans would take the time to send him their testimonies of faith, hope, love and courage. The idea was a simple one: write a new set of songs inspired by those who had been listening all along.
Needless to say, West seriously underestimated his audience.
Since that initial request, Matthew West and a host of volunteers, including family members, have sorted through and responded to more than 40,000 stories submitted over the last few years. What began as hopeful inspiration for a few songs has turned into three full-length albums, including his latest, Live Forever. Even more, it’s clear that the celebrated vocalist is just beginning to scratch the surface of this powerful connection.
“This was not my plan,” says West with a laugh. “I had no idea that it was going to turn into all of this. I was uncertain I would even make an entire album inspired by people’s stories, because it was the unknown. If no one had answered my invitation by sending in their stories, then none of this would have happened.”
The type of leap in making these albums with such a fragile request, if left unanswered, has shown West some important lessons for his own faith journey.
“What has become clear is that God doesn’t always show us the whole road map, but He’ll maybe show us the first mile,” he says. “That has been this journey. He shows me just enough to keep me stepping out in faith and going for it. Then the rest starts to reveal itself and the story unfolds, and I realize then what God is doing. God knew there would be 40,000 stories. I was surprised by it, but I don’t think He was. I don’t think He is surprised by the songs that have been written or that the stories keep coming in.”
It’s that last line that shows that this long line of story submissions has no end in sight. Every day brings even more, which means West must continue to find new ways to process, organize, respond to and utilize them.
“It’s different every day,” he explains. “There has not been a single day in six years that a story hasn’t come in to my website, ever since I created a place that said, ‘Tell Your Story.’ It’s just unbelievable. On average, I’d say it’s ten stories per day. Other times, I might post a specific question like, ‘Do you have a story about perseverance?’ and then I’ll get five hundred stories!
“The first time I did this, I wasn’t prepared for the amount I was going to get,” he continues. “Over the years, I’ve begun to build a system. In the beginning, it was just folders that I’d put them in and separate them by category. Now I have a database on my website that allows me to read through the stories and become more efficient with how I handle them.”
Handling stories has become the name of the game over the last year for Matthew West. While some of them come nicely wrapped with a lesson learned tied on like a beautiful bow, many are in the midst of despair, confusion, loss and pain. For West, it provides a responsibility and opportunity for ministry in the moment.
“A lot of people will write who really need someone to contact them with prayer, support, or encouragement,” says West. “Others need to get in touch with a shelter or recovery center. So in addition to creating a system in which to respond to people, we’ve sparked an entire ministry that my father and I started together called POPWE. This gets its name from one of my songs, “My Own Little World,” which talks about ‘population me.’ We began this ministry to directly connect with those penning the hurting stories that are submitted to us. We offer prayer at our concerts, online support and encouragement, as well as facilitating connections for hurting people to contact various resources that will help them find healing.”
In addition to POPWE, West is also launching a brand new blog. The vision behind this is that online conversations will organically bloom and the power of the shared stories will draw and build strength among themselves verses relying on West as the figure-head for initial exposure.
“The goal is to create a conversation. When I first started this, it wasn’t a oneway conversation because I would write a song in response to those stories. But since then, we’ve seen that increasing need to communicate back and forth with people, both for the purposes of those battling depression or addiction but to also let them know that we’re there for them and that their story matters.”
As for those fans that have seen their own stories turned into song, West has a special connection to each and attempts to see each of them at least once per year.
“The people whose stories have inspired specific songs, I keep in touch with them regularly,” he reiterates. “We have events where we gather together with all of the storytellers. We try to do that annually and that’s really special. Then they come out to our shows. When they’re there, I put their song in the set list and introduce them to the audience. This added dimension to the live show has made a very memorable connection with people. They not only hear a story with their ears, but they’re seeing the person who inspired it with their eyes. Hopefully that experience is internalized by the realization that God has a plan to use their own story in their lives.”
West says his goal with each new album is to “move forward,” and that’s especially true of this latest work. His last two acclaimed releases, The Story Of Your Life and Into The Light, reflected on the testimonies of fans who had endured and overcame a specific event or issue. The new set turns toward the present to ask important questions about the world around us.
“My first two records that were inspired by people’s stories were dominated by songs that had to do with someone’s past—the broken home they grew up in, the cancer they battled, the loss of a loved one,” says West. “Much of those records were written looking back at how past chapters in our stories have defined us in different ways.
“On this record, I found myself having this question, ‘Now what?’ I think we’ve established that we’ve all got some messy parts of our story. We’ve all got some chapters that we’d love to do over, but we can’t. So what about the chapters being written in our lives right now? What about the chapters that still have yet to be written before Jesus comes back?
“This record has really set out on a search to answer that question,” he continues. “How do we make the most of our lives right now? How do we do that with our focus on eternity, knowing our stories never end? For those who are Christians and follow Jesus in this life, it means our stories will carry on to the next life.”
In the midst of this unofficial trilogy of story-focused albums, Matthew West faced a personal dilemma. Night after night, for weeks on end, the 38-year-old was bringing hope to the masses and spreading the gospel coastto-coast. He was following God’s lead with his musical talents. He was also away from his family more than he wanted. He and his wife, Emily, had a major decision to make.
“My wife and I felt the urgent need to pray about how our family was supposed to look and how we were to mix that with the career on the road and ministry,” explains West. “She came to me with the idea of homeschooling, so we could travel more as a family while our children are still young. So we stepped out into the great unknown, the world of homeschooling, and the road together as a family about two years ago.”
While West was uncertain how the family would adjust away from the normal routines of home life, it didn’t take long for the excitement of the new environments to kick in. The thrill of being a part of the live show appeals to at least one of his daughters, while the ability of the family to be together has been a win for everyone.
“My oldest loves coming on stage with me,” he says. “My youngest is still a bit shy. Just last night, my daughter was on stage singing with me and Colton Dixon from American Idol, who’s on tour with us right now. She’s a showstopper. The crowds love her.
“They love being on the road,” adds West with a laugh. “They love going on a tour bus and having their little bunk beds there. Every day is a new adventure with different field trips, and they love meeting new people and making new friends. My oldest was on the bus the other day and said, ‘We make new friends in every city!’ Then my youngest added, ‘And then we never see them again!’”
More than anything, West says he’s able to be fully represent as a father while still going all-in on writing, recording, and performing the songs that his fans have inspired.
“We’ve never looked back,” says West about the change to tour with his family. “It’s been the most incredible experience of our lives. I used to be so conflicted while I was on tour. I’d think, ‘Man, I’m doing what I feel like God has called me to do. I’m telling the world about Jesus. My shows are going everywhere around the country, but I’m not at home for my kids.’ But now I don’t have to wrestle with that. It’s a wonderful thing. The family doesn’t feel like this is just dad’s job anymore, but it’s our entire mission as a family.”
As inspirational as his music and ministry has been to this point, it’s likely that West’s most important work might just be his commitment to making sure the next generation has its own set of storytellers. It’s your stories—and he’s sticking to them.