From punk rock to worship leader

Josh Caterer straddles two very different worlds most weekends

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

On a typical Saturday night, Josh Caterer might do a gig at a local Chicago venue as the front man for the pop punk band called Smoking Popes. The next morning he'll be leading worship at Calvary Memorial Church on Lake Street.

If the two venues seem incompatible, the songwriter/singer/musician probably would have agreed with you — before 2005. 

"My family never went to church," explained the 43-year-old Caterer. "My dad had a difficult relationship with his parents, who were very strictly religious. His childhood left him with the feeling that religion was oppressive, and he wanted nothing to do with it. It's not like he taught us to hate religion. It's just that we had a completely religion-free environment."

So as a kid, Caterer assumed that when people died they just don't exist anymore. "That really bothered me," he recalled with a sigh. "It kept me up at night. That awareness was always with me throughout my life."

In the late 1980s he and his brothers put together the band that would eventually be known as Smoking Popes. "Smoking" came from the smoking habit he shared with his brother Matt, and "Popes" was inspired by a local gang. If that combination doesn't make sense to you, don't worry about it. It's rock and roll.

In 1994 they opened for the well-known band Green Day and then signed a record deal with Capitol Records. 

"A lot of our musical aspirations were being realized," said Caterer, "but I was profoundly unhappy. There was something about the level of success that we had achieved at that time that made my awareness of mortality even more troubling, and life seemed emptier than ever because I realized that even the fulfillment of your biggest dreams in life doesn't answer the questions you really need answers to."

He went into a "downward spiral," which included depression, heavy drinking and smoking pot, resulting in what he called a "near-death experience," which really shook him up and led him to faith. 

A year later (1999) he quit the band because he couldn't seem to integrate the two. "I tried to incorporate my faith into what we were doing in the Popes," he explained, "but it just didn't seem like a good fit."

He became heavily involved in his church and a charitable organization called World Relief and started a Christian band called Duvall. During that time he wrote, "O The Love of My Redeemer," which has become a staple contemporary hymn in many congregations. 

Until this point, Caterer's story follows the narrative arc of many born-again testimonies — I once was lost, but now I'm found — that is until the Smoking Popes got together for a reunion concert in 2005 at the Metro in Chicago, for which the tickets sold out in little over half an hour. In putting together the playlist for the concert, Caterer realized that there were only a few songs from the pre-1999 Popes that, as a Christian, he no longer could sing, so he concluded that the two were compatible after all.

Before arriving at Calvary Memorial this last September, he was director of worship at Village Church of Barrington and associate pastor of worship at Harvest Chapel in Rolling Meadows. His latest albums are The Light of Christ (2012) and One Step Closer to Home (2014).

If you come to worship at Calvary, you'll probably see him leading the singing dressed in a cotton shirt not tucked into his jeans and wearing Doc Martens boots. Noting that his parents' generation tended to wear suits to church, he said, "I'm not intentionally trying to make a particular statement by the way I dress in church. I'm just trying to dress in a way that doesn't draw too much attention. Not too formal, not too casual … somewhere in the middle."

And that attitude is consistent with the way he worships. 

"I don't think my approach to leading worship is influenced by what I do with the Smoking Popes," he said. "One is for entertainment. When people come to a Popes concert, they've paid to see us perform, and we try our best to put on a good show. In church it's different. People aren't there to see me, they've come to worship God, so I'm actually trying to get out of the way and let that happen."

In fact, it's helpful, he said, to have a performance based outlet outside of church. 

"It scratches the itch, so to speak, so I don't feel the need to perform when I'm leading worship.

"I've heard it said," he added, "that worship is a response to God, to who He is and what He has done. I think that's true, so the job of a worship leader is to help the congregation focus on who God has revealed Himself to be in Scripture, and to create an environment where they can respond to Him in worship."

 Todd Wilson, the senior pastor at Calvary, calls him "the James Taylor of contemporary Christian worship." Wilson described him as accessible and genuine on the one hand and a strong band leader, a thoughtful architect of worship, seasoned and experienced on the other. 

"He is a lovely person," said Wilson, "very gracious and godly."

Caterer would never say that about himself, not taking very seriously his celebrity in the Popes or as the worship leader in one of Oak Park's largest congregations. Explaining why he, his wife Stefanie, and their two teenage children, Elliot and Phoebe, decided to move to Calvary, he said, "The churches I've always gravitated toward have been churches that express a lot of warmth and empathy toward people struggling with all kinds of things, probably because I've been so aware of my own failure to live up to God's standard.

"We love how Calvary is anchored to the essentials of the historic Christian faith," he noted, "while addressing contemporary issues in a meaningful and relevant way. Stef and I are excited about being part of what God is doing at Calvary."

Gladly accepting the label of being an evangelical, Caterer explained why he and his family were attracted to living in the village which by all accounts is more liberal. 

"Stef and I both feel a strong connection to the arts," he replied, "so we are drawn to the vibrant creative community here in Oak Park."

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