Tony Cummings reports on the life, recordings and now spiritual doubts of singer/songwriter MARTY SAMPSON
For almost two decades, Sydney-born Marty Sampson has been applauded by the modern worship movement for writing some of the most sung songs emanating from Australia's Hillsong. Now suddenly, a sad controversy has enveloped the singer, songwriter and worship leader and, fuelled by social media, it is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
Martin "Marty" Sampson was born on 31st May 1979. He became a member of the Hillsong megachurch in the mid-'90s. Within a few years he was featured on Youth Alive albums and was a founding member of the church's youth culture band, Hillsong United. He was featured on the Hillsong United albums 'Everyday' (1999); 'Best Friend' (2001); 'King Of Majesty' (2002); 'To The Ends Of The Earth' (2003); 'More Than Life' (2004) and 'Look To You' (2005). In 2006, Marty married Michelle and the couple had a son, Phoenix. In the same year, the songsmith released an independent solo EP, 'Let Love Rule'. The following year, Hillsong United released the album 'All Of The Above'. In 2008, Sampson co-wrote "We Give You Praise" with members of the UK's Delirious?, while Hillsong United released their 'The iHeart Revolution: With Hearts As One'. 2009 saw the release of United's 'Tear Down The Walls: Across The Earth' and the following year 'Tour Collection' and the Spanish language 'Con Todo' were issued. 2010 also saw Sampson record an album in the USA, under the name The Red Bikes, though it was never released.
It was in 2011 that the final United album on which Sampson featured, 'Aftermath', was released. The same year, he issued another solo EP, 'Objects', under the name Martin Sampson, described as "an acoustic guitar folk album in the vein of Bob Dylan", though the tracks were recorded at the same time as The Red Bikes project. Songs written or co-written by Marty continued to appear on Hillsong Worship albums: "Depths" with Brooke Fraser on 2014's 'No Other Name'; "Open Heaven (River Wild)" with Matt Crocker on 2015's 'Open Heaven/River Wild'; "Elohim" on 2016's 'Let There Be Light'; "Peace Upon The Earth" on 2017's 'The Peace Project'; and "God So Loved" with Matt Crocker on 2018's 'There Is More'.
A long shadow was suddenly cast over Sampson's 20-year-plus association with the Hillsong megachurch when, on 10th August this year, he wrote a lengthy Instagram statement. Although it was taken down within a couple of days, it sent shockwaves through many worshippers and, through social media, was soon appearing on dozens of websites. Here is part of what Sampson wrote: "Time for some real talk. I'm genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn't bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It's crazy. This is a soapbox moment so here I go. . . How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all 'coz they don't believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet-they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it's not for me. I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the 'I just believe it' kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. Got so much more to say, but for me, I'm keeping it real. Unfollow if you want, I've never been about living my life for others. All I know is what's true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point."
On 13th August, the frontman of multi-Platinum rock band Skillet, John Cooper, posted an article on Facebook, asking "What in God's name is happening in Christianity?" He wrote, "I've been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the Church is looking to 20 year old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word. I'm not being rude to my worship leader friends (many who would agree with me) in saying that singers and musicians are good at communicating emotion and feeling. We create a moment and a vehicle for God to speak. However, singers are not always the best people to write solid Bible truth and doctrine. Sometimes we are too young, too ignorant of Scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of Scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to. . ."
Cooper continued, "I have a few specific thoughts and rebuttals to statements made by recently disavowed church influencers. . . First of all, I am stunned that the seemingly most important thing for these leaders who have lost their faith is to make such a bold new stance. Basically saying, 'I've been living and preaching boldly something for 20 years and led generations of people with my teachings and now I no longer believe it. . . therefore I'm going to boldly and loudly tell people it was all wrong while I boldly and loudly lead people in to my next truth.' I'm perplexed why they aren't embarrassed? Humbled? Ashamed, fearful, confused? Why be so eager to continue leading people when you clearly don't know where you are headed?
"My second thought is, why do people act like 'being real' covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That's not courageous. It's cavalier. Have they considered the ramifications? As if they are the harbingers of truth, saying 'I used to think one way and practice it and preach it, but now I've learned all the new truth and will start practicing and preaching it.' So the influencers become the voice for truth in whatever stage of life and whatever evolution takes place in their thinking.
"Thirdly, there is a common thread running through these leaders/influencers that basically says that 'no one else is talking about the REAL stuff.' This is just flatly false. I just read today in a renowned worship leader's statement, 'How could a God of love send people to hell? No one talks about it.' As if he is the first person to ask this? Brother, you are not that unique. The Church has wrestled with this for 1500 years. Literally. Everybody talks about it. Children talk about it in Sunday school. There's like a billion books written on the topic. Just because you don't get the answer you want doesn't mean that we are unwilling to wrestle with it. We wrestle with Scripture until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds."
The same day as John Cooper's comment, Sampson denied he was renouncing his faith, though admitted that "it's on incredibly shaky ground". Sampson told The Christian Post he is "struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality", and went on to say, "If most of humankind had a choice, would we not rid the world of the scourge of cancer? Or sickness and disease? Why doesn't God do such a thing? Of course there is an answer to this question, but the majority of a typical Christian's life is not spent considering these things. Questions such as these remain in the too hard basket."
Sampson also took to Instagram to post quotes from renowned Christian apologists. But he didn't stop there, posting quotes by atheists and former Christians who ultimately gave up their faith. He quoted several agnostics and sceptics of the faith, including the writings of New Testament scholar Bart D Ehrman, who studied the Bible but later renounced his faith and became an atheist.
John Cooper's remarks brought forth a response from Sampson. He posted, "To think that I am trying to influence others, without even asking me if that is my intention is offensive. Did I write an article on myself in Relevant magazine, or Christian Post quoting myself? Do I need this kind of criticism in an honest examination of what I believe from complete strangers? I have never even met you, yet you presume to know me or people like me? I only ever posted about this to explain to people (4K followers on insta I may add) where I was at in an honest and genuine way, not to influence them and their beliefs. Not to draw attention to myself. Not to have a voice. To wrestle and to learn and to grow, and to present my current state of mind/heart to explain to people why I am not 'coming back to Hillsong' or 'when I'm going to sing on the next United song'."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.