God helps keep Chad Mattson sober, but when it comes to navigating fame, the singer for the Christian band Unspoken often looks to his refrigerator.
There, written on a brown paper bag that’s followed the Mattson family from New Jersey to Maine to their current home in Tennessee, is a small reminder to keep the main thing — his faith, his family, his sobriety — above whatever trappings of success music might bring his way.
“It just says, ‘Success has made failures of many,’” Mattson told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “If it’s success we’re going for, it doesn’t have to mean you’re rich or beautiful or talented in a way that’s out in the open. When we measure success by the things of this world, of the likes on Instagram or the things we see or whatever, it really leads to discontentment and all of this other stuff. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that God can do amazing things with average people.”
And that’s where Mattson strives to be: An average guy, humbled by sin, favored by his Creator and given a platform through which to share a message of experience, strength and hope. Ever since he got sober almost 18 years ago, he’s sang of God’s hand in his sobriety and his salvation, but the struggle, he added, is still very real.
“I’m not a drug addict anymore, but I still have a tendency to be an abuser of things, and I have to stay close to the Lord and have the right people around me,” he said. “It’s important for the recovery community to know that this isn’t just a one-and-done thing. I have to keep on taking the next step and doing the next right thing.”
Chad Mattson: Struggle in the shadows
For Mattson, the next right thing has evolved slowly but surely after getting sober on Feb. 4, 2003 — a date that he celebrates “more enthusiastically than I do my own birthday” each year, he added.
“The one date gave me life, but so did the other date,” he said. “Both gave me a new life, and I’m super grateful for it. To be up and doing anything with my life, I’m just so grateful.”
Like many addicts and alcoholics who find their way to recovery, Mattson has embraced the blessings that come with a new way to live. He didn’t get his old life back, because the one he had before sobriety was one in which a young kid growing up in Maine sought comfort and found it in all the wrong places.
“I was kind of a teetotaler until after high school,” he said. “I was a big athlete, and I had a brother who was three years older, and neither of us drank or smoked or did anything like that. But as my life started to turn out in a different way than I thought it should, I really became bored. The Bible says in the Old and New Testaments, don’t be misled, that bad company corrupts good character.
“Not that the friends I had were awful people, but they certainly didn’t have the same principles and character and stuff that I wanted to build my life on. I was kind of the designated driver for a while, but as things gradually progressed from nicotine to alcohol to drugs to drug houses, I became the worst one.”
Although he didn’t embark or even envision a career in music until after he got sober, songs always played an important role in his childhood, he added.
“I think early church music is where I recognized the power of music and what it meant to me, but I never really thought I was going to be a musician. I never had that dream,” he said. “Growing up in the ’90s, I loved hip-hop and R&B. It wasn’t necessarily the music that everybody was into, but I loved it. I love the soul, the pain, the victories. I loved the honesty of it, because they were such storytellers. I always played guitar in my room, and I wrote a couple of songs back then, but I never thought, in a million years, I would have the talent or ability to use it for anything.”
As he got older and became more obsessed with drugs and alcohol, music — like everything else in his life — ceased to be important. What did, Mattson said, was the all-consuming need to change the way he felt through any means necessary. It became such a powerful force in his life that even getting baptized wasn’t enough to turn him from the path of self-destruction he was on, he said.
“I think when you’re younger, and when our culture screams all day long about free will and free choice and doing whatever you want to do to make yourself happy, we start trying to fill our lives with all these things, and then we wake up and realize we’re not free anymore, at all,” he said. “Free will only made you a slave to things you can’t control. My story is that what started off as fun became everything I lived and breathed for, and it obviously took everything from me. My whole life was planned around how I could get high, how I could party.
“I think I spent six days sober in three years. Even my baptism, I turned to the Lord in this room beside this lake, and asked Him, ‘Let me go under this water and never go back to it.’ And I think I lasted a day.”
A mission trip changes everything
Mattson is quick to point out that his inability to stay clean and sober at the time wasn’t because his entreaties to God went unheard: Rather, his response to God’s reply was, “I’m not ready.” He never said those word out loud, of course, but it took more pain and more wandering in the desert of the spirit before Mattson reached a turning point.
That, he said, came about during a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. He had grown up in the church, and he still felt the hope that religious sustenance provides. But all the way up to the time that he got on the plane, the substances that were consuming him sat on his shoulder, tapping insistently and demanding to be fed.
“Having grown up in the church, I knew there was hope, that God hadn’t given up on me, and my family hadn’t given up on me,” he said. “But I got high the night before I left. We were at the hotel, and I went outside and got high, and the next day, I jumped on a plane, went to the Dominican Republic, started hanging out with Jesus, reading the Bible and praying.
“I took myself out of the company I was in. The first step, for me, was just taking it day by day. It was too overwhelming to think about the future; I just needed to make it through that day. Jesus talks about that a ton — in Matthew 6, in the Lord’s Prayer, they’re both all about living in the moment that we’re in.”
In the years since, he’s thought a lot about what, exactly, that mission trip did that all of his previous earnest intentions could not. It is, in a way, a combination of divine providence and his own personal decision to surrender to God’s will instead of living in his own.
“I was at the moment in my life where I was ready to try something,” he said. “You can’t make an addict get sober. They have to want it, and want it more than the misery they’re living in — and that’s just the first step, because there’s so much more that follows after. For me, I think at that point, I just wanted something different for my life, so I did something drastic.
“It was funny, because even though I went to another country, the temptations and all these things were still there. I remember being in a pickup basketball game in the Dominican Republic, and these guys were right there, smoking weed and selling drugs, and I knew I didn’t have the power to say no in and of myself. So I just prayed.”
The power of prayer can’t be overestimated, he added. As part of his ministry through Unspoken, he’s often asked by fans for advice on helping addicted loved ones. Prayer, he tells them, is more powerful than anything they could possibly say to the addict or alcoholic in their lives.
“There’s nothing you’re going to say to anybody that will make them stop, because we all know we’re losers,” he said. “We already have this horrible self-image problem and self-esteem problem, and I think the words of life that are spoken into us are far greater than anything else you could say.”
Chad Mattson: How a resurrection really feels
Those who pray — both the individuals afflicted by addiction and those who love them — always find the same thing, Mattson pointed out: A loving God who awaits them with arms wide open. There, in the Dominican Republic, Mattson heard him clearly: “Come to me,” Jesus told him. And he did.
“For two months, I read the word and hung out with Jesus,” he said. “I had went to church my whole life, but I never hung out with God, and for this kind of thing, church can certainly be a part of it. Recovery groups are a part of it. But they’re not all of it. Connecting with God, and letting Him speak over me who I was, that I was important enough and valued enough to die for, my life changed drastically when I got home.”
Old friends, acquaintances and family members noticed the difference immediately: Mattson looked darker in skin color from his time in the Caribbean sun, but his smile was warmer. His eyed looked less haunted. He walked with his back straight and his chin uplifted, and without fail, they would say, “There’s something different about you. What is it?”
“I was sober. I was clean. I was forgiven and free, and the weight was off,” Mattson said. “At first, I didn’t have any friends. All of my friends were 50-year-old dudes who helped me stay sober! It took me a while to gain new friends with the same values and things that I had, but the main thing that kept me sober was hanging out with the Lord, and hanging out with the right people.
“A lot of us are fearful of getting sober, that we’re not going to find anybody we connect with, because we think the groups we’re sharing in misery together are our real friends. They’re not true friendships, but they seem like they are.”
Sobriety, he added, has a way of lifting the veil, of restoring sight to those once blinded by selective perception and the inability to distinguish between right and wrong. For example, he pointed out, he once thought nothing of driving 2 ½ hours at 1 a.m. to get more drugs in order to stave off withdrawals the next morning, or stealing from loved ones because his brain and body screamed out with a great and gnawing need for the drugs he felt he had to buy.
Sobriety also, he added, pointed him back toward music.
“Until 17 years ago, I would music was maybe 10 percent of my life, but when I got saved, the songs started coming,” he said. “Until I got sober, I didn’t even really realize I had the gift, but when I did, I wanted to tell as many people as I could about God and how He had brought me to recovery and all off these things. I realized as my mind cleared up, and my life cleared up with it, that I could do that through music. People love music, and I could use music as a tool to relay a message that I thought was life-changing.”
The members of Unspoken answer a higher calling
As it turns out, Mattson met a fellow musician while on that mission trip. He and Mike Gomez were paired up in ways that seem almost supernatural, Mattson said, and when the pair returned to the United States, they were determined to stay together as friends and fellow musicians. They began playing together, adding Mattson’s old friend Jon Lowry to the mix, and Unspoken slowly began to serve as both a musical outlet and a ministry.
“At first, I wondered where I was going to find people my age, with my interests,” Mattson said. “The Lord gave me the ability to stay sober by hanging out with these older dudes, and that’s the great thing about programs like Celebrate Recovery or A.A. or N.A. or whatever. But there’s something else that happens to us when we serve people, too: You take the focus off of you and your needs and your desires, and music helped me to do that.
“It allowed me to get out and serve people. I think we were created to serve and to love people, because when we do that, we’re living out part of our destiny as human beings, and I think that’s everything. Playing music gave me something to say.”
After drummer Ariel Munoz was added to the lineup, the band slowly built a following on the Christian rock circuit that grew exponentially in 2012, when the single “Who You Are” reached No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart. A year later, “Lift My Life Up” reached the same spot, and the band’s self-titled 2014 debut on the Centricity label produced the Top 5 hit “Start a Fire.” In 2016, the band released “Follow Through,” which reached No. 7 on the Christian Albums chart and set the band up as a both a support for major Christian headliners and a main stage act themselves.
“It wasn’t like we were starting a band to get famous; we were going to use the gift that we had for the people around us,” Mattson said. “Of course, we wanted these big things to happen, but big things are very rare to happen quickly. Things that are good and that last are built on a firm foundation, and those things take little steps. My journey in music has been one little step after another.
“At first this one guy (Gomez left the band in 2018), then another bunch of guys came along, and they all sort of acted like my sponsors, if you will, keeping me accountable and things like that. It was one little step after another, and after 10 or 12 years of doing music independently, doors started opening up for us to get on a record label, and doors have continued to open since then.”
That doesn’t mean that life has been limos and hanging out in lavish green rooms and chasing multi-million dollar checks. Life, he added, still shows up — and life is hard sometimes, even for individuals with the seemingly glamorous job of playing rock ‘n’ roll.
“Life isn’t sexy — it’s just doing the next right thing and taking the next right step,” Mattson said. “The Bible says that a righteous person knows Jesus, but we’re righteous because of what God has done. Jesus has become our righteousness, and when we accept Him and He comes to live in our hearts, we become righteous.”
Chad Mattson: Faith in all things
Righteous, of course, doesn’t mean perfect. Sin is still a part of Mattson’s daily life, as is temptation. There are, he added, bumps along the way, as well as setbacks professionally and personally. But he’s stayed sober, and no matter how many times he stumbles, he gets back up and continues on.
What he’s found is that drugs and alcohol touch many more lives than just his own. His wife, he pointed out, grew up in an alcoholic household, and their journey together has involved her own healing. Watching her navigate that has been an important reminder, he said, of the power and strength in a support system.
“When you fall, and you’re in a moment and spiraling downward, it’s good to have people around you to say, ‘Keep moving forward,’” he said. “If you take three steps forward and one step back, it still means you’re two steps ahead of where you were. And it helps having people around you who give you that perspective.”
That perspective includes looking out on a wounded and weary land and seeing the need for a ministry like the one he’s found through Unspoken. The band has recently teamed up with the ministry Soldiers for Faith, founded by Kelly McAndrew, a man who’s become something of a later-in-life mentor for Mattson.
“He and I, our hearts have been knit together, and he’s started this thing called the ‘At Home Concert Xperience,’” Mattson said. “It’s an interactive, live concert, and thanks to Teen Challenge USA, it’s being brought into these in-house recovery centers, and they’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Celebrate Recovery.”
Through Soldiers for Faith, Mattson has found a broader reach for his personal testimony, as well as the band’s ministry. He’s been able to take part in virtual Bible studies and even leads one regularly. It’s all another way, he said, of getting involved and serving those in need.
“Being able to do that has just been huge for me, because it gives me even more accountability to be walking the right path,” Mattson said. “We’re finding ways to get creative with it, which is strange, because I used to be so creative in the ways we figured out how to get high and party and make things happen. Now, we’re being creative to do good.
“I’m not saying I’m not selfish and self-absorbed in some ways — I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m not who I want to be, but I’m certainly not who I was, and that keeps me motivated to stay close to God.”