By Jeremy Smith

Ministering With Music: Sitting Down With Strahan

“As a Christian with a ministry as a musician, it’s never a performance and it’s not a show. It’s an invitation to lift up, honour and draw near to Jesus.

“Every time I’m on stage, I’m there by God’s grace. The power of the Gospel isn’t in talent, intellect or ability – it’s in a life lived in Christ.

“As I see it, anybody willing to come to one of my shows to see an acoustic solo artist who sings about God is coming because they’re thirsty. I’m not the one who can give them what they need – but Jesus can. On stage I’m continually praying, “Lord, these are your children, please speak to them.”

Kiwi ‘folk-psalmist’ Strahan has kept that approach at the forefront of his mind through a storied decade-long music career touring through Australasia, the United States and Europe. 

His debut full length record, Posters saw him win a New Zealand Music award.

In recent times, as he seeks to follow the Lord’s leading, Strahan has also turned to the written word to express his art form – writing two prayer books and running weekly prayer classes. 

Jeremy Smith caught up with Strahan to talk music, art, family and walking closely with Jesus through the ups and downs of life. 

Firstly, let’s talk about your music journey – how did that come about? Have you always loved music?

For sure. I started in music pretty young. My earliest memories of music were also probably some of my earliest memories of life. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. In the 1990s, I got Bad on tape! I was captivated by the way he told stories and how he could create another world. Somehow, that other world made your ordinary world feel beautiful. My dad was really into music too – that caught on with me I guess. I wrote my first song when I was eight, was in bands as a teenager, then I started writing my own stuff in my 20s.

Did you grow up in a Christian home, or did you come to know Jesus later in life? 

A little bit of both. My parents started to teach us seriously about Jesus when I was eight or nine and we started going to church. I was a Christian throughout my teen years, but I think I struggled with genuinely following Jesus. I always had a sensitivity to God though – but it wasn’t until university that all my ideas about God were deeply challenged. I went through my own personal crisis – an experience which helped me realise that up until that point, the essence of faith that I had missed was the every day, lived experience of laying down my life for Christ and following Him.   

I was 19 when I turned that corner and really started to give up my own life to follow Jesus. It’s true for me at least, and a likely for others, but I believe a shift that needs to take place for all of us – from being say a ‘cultural Christian’ – where you know things about Him that others have told you – instead of knowing Jesus personally and living out a genuine relationship with Him. There is a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge.

I do think there’s something about becoming a young adult, say in that 18-23 age bracket, when a really healthy crisis of faith kicks in and you’re forced to let go of your ‘idea’ of Christianity, where you follow because you were told. In its place, we should pursue Jesus for ourselves and ask, “how does a personal relationship with Jesus fit in my life?” Of course, He does fit – and He should be our centre. As I came to a personal faith in Jesus, I started making decisions and answering that question for myself, based on seeing His calling a little bit clearer.

Tell me about your family. You guys recently moved to Tairua – what’s it like living at the beach? What does your perfect family day look like?

I am married to Katie and we have three children – Mikal, Theo and Finley. Tairua is magic. For me, the perfect day looks like the little things – coffee in bed, reading a book, taking it slow.

Katie and I love taking the kids down the beach – we’ve seen stingrays in the water and dolphins from the shore. The most amazing thing is simply playing with my kids and watching them just light up with laughter as they have fun. There’s such beauty in that.

You mentioned several other music ventures you’ve been part of over the years. Probably most well known is your time as a solo artist performing under the moniker Strahan. How did that facet of your musical journey develop?

I literally just picked up an acoustic guitar in my late 20s and began doing living room shows and gigs around New Zealand. I kind of fell in love with the combined medium of storytelling and playing solo. That sort of began my journey of living a bit more of an alternative lifestyle – which meant lots of overseas travel and multiple shows. It was a 10-year season of our life as a family marked by learning to rely on God for absolutely everything. Out of that grew a desire to seek God even more – and that began to reflect in my music.

I think music invites everyone to see the world differently – less in zeros and ones if you will, and more in pictures, imaginations, ideas and dreams.

In your own words, describe your music and how you approach song writing?

Great question – I never know how to answer it! I would say my songs are acoustic psalms  – prayers more than anything. I’m not trying to be technically brilliant. I’m trying to write prayers in a way that means anybody can join in. Sometimes that means music that’s way more electric, sometimes folky, even at times quirky. 

People often call me a folk artist. I get that. But I think the way I write songs is a bit different. Musical influence wise, early on I was shaped by a lot of folk artists from the 1960s and 70s – Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Don Francisco. All of them are such good storytellers – they draw you in. Growing up, I heard music from Jethro Tull through to Genesis. A Christian artist who had a massive influence on me was Jason Upton – his work is poetic and contemplative and he writes prayers too. The intimacy and the closeness of his songs caught my imagination as to how music can point people to God.

Strahan on stage

Scanning your discography, do you personally have a favourite track?

I’ve done three full length albums, an EP and some singles and it’s funny – the songs I like as an artist never seem to be the ones anyone else likes! I really love a song from my second album called Hello Heaven. Help Me Believe is also one I like. It’s not necessarily my favorite song technically –  it’s almost ordinary really. But knowing where I was as a person and the place that song came from when I wrote it, it’s a track that resonates with me no matter how much I play it.

As well as music, you’ve recently released two poetry books – Prayer Volume One and Prayer Volume Two. Tell me about those… 

I wanted to find an expression of my faith that wasn’t necessarily music, but that lent into my experiences over those 10 years I spent touring and playing shows. I actually started the prayer books at a time when I was very sick and I couldn’t sing. I wasn’t even sure if I could ever again – so, I chose the written word as a means of expressing that same poetic sensibility.

Of all the places in the world music has taken you, do you have a favourite memory? 

Probably my most memorable musical moment from a show perspective was one I did years ago at a festival in Waikanae. It was so special – and not because it was a great show – but because of what God did in people’s lives. There was just such a sense of His presence. At the merch table after the show, we prayed for people for two-and-a-half hours.

How did you find the balance between traveling and touring both nationally and internationally as well as maintaining a healthy family life?

It took some work, sure. For Katie and I, our joint approach was to travel together with the kids as much as we could. At the height of my music ministry, when I was touring in the United States, I was probably doing about three or four tours there annually. In the early New Zealand years I was gone either every weekend, or every other weekend.

But I always made efforts to balance that by being as present as I could when I was home. I never had a ‘nine to five’ if you will and I was very  intentional regarding family time.

Katie and I are a partnership. She is amazing and I couldn’t have done ministry without her. As a result of being that unified team, our marriage flourished. We definitely haven’t got it perfect,but we’ve tried our best to keep the balance right, with God being central to all we do.

Have people who’ve heard your music, watched you live or read your books told you how much a particular piece of work impacted or helped them?   

Yes. One story especially comes to mind. I was in a tiny little town in the United States to do a show, staying with a husband and wife. They took me out to dinner and they had a young child with them who looked to be maybe one-and-a-half or two. The wife then told me, in her own words, “… our baby is alive thanks to God and your music”. I was stunned. She began to tell me how they had wanted a baby for so long, but once she was pregnant she was told by doctors at one of her routine scans that the child appeared to have no spine. They were devastated. She told me that she began getting all sorts of advice from all sorts of people – but every day thereafter she would listen to my music to pray. One day while she was listening to one of my albums, my song Your Kingdom Come came on. She told me she lay on the floor weeping saying, “this baby is yours, I’m keeping it because I know your will is for life, not death. I’ll love this child come what may.” The baby was later born happy, healthy and with a perfectly functioning spine. She told me that night that it was that song and that prayer that meant her son was sitting at the table with us that very moment. Stories like that just wreck me, they are so humbling. Those encounters make me feel like the cost of what my wife and I have been through to produce all those songs and the music we create – as ethereal as it is in the art world – is worth it even if it speaks to just one person’s heart.

Tell me about your blog and podcast, Commoners Communion…

As I emerged from those years of being unwell, I was looking for a way to share my experience with others who may need a companion in their own spiritual challenges – so I started Commoners Communion. It started out as a blog about connecting with God, but soon became a podcast too. It turns out there were a lot of other people wrestling with the same questions I was, looking for another way of seeing and walking with God. Commoners Communion has become the moniker for my ministry of helping others with prayer and communion with God ever since.

You mentioned a time when you were really sick. Without prying, can I ask what you learned in that season of leaning on God in difficult times?
That’s a really hard question because struggles are such a personal thing. From my own experiences, one of the biggest challenges – and perhaps this is a Kiwi male thing – was the fact that as men we have tendencies to want to keep fighting, trying and being independent. And I had those. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s about realising there’s nothing more we can do in our own strength. It’s okay to accept that – because that’s where God comes in. I had to come to that point. I vividly remember when I realised that my sickness wasn’t going to change anytime soon. I was finding it really hard as a husband and father – at that stage I’d been married for 10 years and had two kids – I was in bed for probably 70 percent of my weeks and was a total wreck. I had no money, nothing.

I sat in a cafe one morning, desperately praying, “God, I need you, I need to be healed”. As I prayed I started thinking, “you know what? It’s bad, but it could be worse.” At that point my prayer changed to one of thanks – saying “If I never get well, if I never work again, Lord thank you. You are enough and I just need You  and I don’t need things to change just to be in a relationship with You God.”

In that moment, I relented and released control. That was really hard to come to that point – it’s difficult to let suffering shape you, without accepting it – we should never accept it but we have to let it teach us.If we don’t let it teach us in the power of Jesus, then it robs us.

If I was to meet someone in a similar space now,, I would say we have to let go and let God. Culturally, we maybe don’t hear that a lot as men. Sometimes you just actually have to say “…it’s okay…”  and give God control. 

That doesn’t always mean our struggles will end though does it?

Absolutely. For me that attitude shift changed my life, but I didn’t instantly get better. I didn’t wake up healed the next day. In fact, I had a year or two of going through a massive health trial, and the whole thing has come back around again recently. While it’s fair to say nothing has changed for me physically yet, (I’m still praying!), shifting my focus to Jesus disempowered my suffering. That’s not to say I’m pretending like it doesn’t exist and ignoring it, but those struggles aren’t my focus anymore  – Jesus is. My struggles didn’t get to determine whether I live a life of gratitude, joy, and freedom. If I don’t get to sing again, if I don’t get to work again, if I don’t get to play with my kids in the same way that other dads get to, Jesus is still my everything. It’s surrendering to Him – it sounds simple doesn’t it? But there’s such power in genuinely surrendering everything to Christ.

I really connect with the account of John the Baptist in the Bible. John lived an amazing life –  completely alone for years eating locusts and honey. His whole calling was to proclaim Jesus’ coming. As we know, Jesus arrives and is baptised and John sees the Holy Spirit come upon Jesus. But, if we fast forward just a little bit, John is in prison and he has a question. He wants to know from Jesus, ‘are you really the one?”. Essentially what John was asking was, “…how can you be the Messiah?, setting people free, when I’m stuck in prison?” 

Luke’s account (in Luke 7) tells us that Jesus’ response was “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

When I read that story, I realised Jesus didn’t answer John’s question at all. God never answered my prayer of “why?” either. But in that moment it was as if God said to me “Strahan, the Gospel is being preached in all the world, the blind see, the oppressed are set free. If I never fully heal you, blessed are you if you are not offended.” Once I reckoned with that level of faith, I felt truly free.  

How would you encourage Christian men who are seeking Jesus and who want to go deeper in their Authentic daily walk with Him?

That’s a massive question. As men, I think we often assume that what God wants from us is to achieve a lot – to achieve for the Kingdom and to be strong leaders. Which is all wonderful. But might I suggest that in and of themselves, those accolades or achievements are not necessarily our sole calling as men.   

Maybe this is somewhat counter cultural to an extent, but I believe the Lord is calling us to become men of the fruit of the Spirit, displaying love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. That’s a totally different paradigm – but that kind of goal setting is achievable for any man. How do we become kinder husbands? How do we become more patient with our children? How do we become peacemakers in the workplace? How do we become the kinds of men who are a calming Christ-like influence no matter where we are.

Perhaps as men, we should at times aim to be a little bit ‘softer’ in terms of our character traits – men who display the fruit of the Spirit to those we come across and who aim to see those traits as an important cultural value.

The Kingdom of Heaven is for the meek, the peacemaker, the kind, the forgiving. My encouragement is that the only way we can authentically display those fruits is through abiding in Jesus. He literally said, “abide in Me…” Men have to become people of prayer. If we do not abide in Jesus – not achieving with Him, not getting stuff done with Him – but simply abiding, then I believe we will never change this world. Genuinely abiding in Jesus is simply the greatest achievement for a man, I believe. 

You mentioned that we all need to become people of prayer. Do we at times perhaps not value prayer as much as we should?
I’m convinced the way we’re going to see our world changed is through prayer. My question is how do we respond to the world? As a man, a father, a husband, as a follower of Christ, how do I respond to the culture we live in in order to reach people for Jesus. The only way I see us doing that is through deepening our prayer life. So, how do we respectfully challenge one another and keep each other accountable? How do we not respond to the news, not respond to the latest thinking or trends, but only respond to God and to His voice and His leading. By deepening our prayer life and relationship with Him. I’m quite single minded on that.

Looking ahead, what does the rest of 2021 hold for you? God appears to be opening some exciting new doors! 

Totally! As I said before, the truth is that health wise, I haven’t really been able to sing for about a year. And I don’t yet have a diagnosis as to why – so that’s a serious inhibitor. Until my health changes, I can’t guarantee that if I book a show for even a month’s time I’d be able to do it. In that light, I’m kind of assuming that my music ministry is mostly over for now.

But,during those years when I was sick, I went down to the beach one day to basically seek God. I prayed and said, “God, music is gone, my life seems done, what do I do?’. In the clearest voice I’ve ever heard I felt as though God spoke to my heart and said “Strahan, build me a house of prayer.” So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been undertaking speaking engagements, writing prayer books, I’ve almost finished a non-fiction book that I’ve been writing about prayer and I hold prayer schools and prayer classes. I love that work. I do three or four prayer classes a week, with people attending online from all over the world – Ireland, the United States, Asia, the Middle East and more. I would love for music to be able to fit back into that – the door’s still open, but God would need to lead me in that. 

During those first years in music, I was working so hard doing more than 160 gigs a year and living out of a suitcase. I often felt like the progress was small. Since I started this prayer ministry work though, it’s almost as though every little bit of work I do, God takes it and multiplies it 100 fold. It’s been so amazing to see God moving that way. And even though it’s not what I expected for myself, I love seeing God at work and I feel privileged to be able to follow Him in that. It’s a strange turn around.

Strahan, thank you so much for openness, honesty and vulnerability as you look to encourage others in Christ. To follow Strahan’s journey and keep up with the various projects he is working on, visit www.strahanmusic.com

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By Jeremy Smith

About the author

Jeremy Smith is the assistant editor of Authentic Magazine

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