Before DC Talk embarked on its 55-city Jesus Freak Tour in Feb. 1996, the group rehearsed for about a week at an auditorium in Adrian, Michigan.

“We’re here to prepare for our tour and to have a spiritual retreat,” Toby McKeehan told Campus Life. “We could obviously rehearse in our Nashville studio, but I’m not sure we could spiritually retreat there. Maybe we could, but our friends are there. There’s so much going on. There are so many expectations. It’s the whole atmosphere — the whole music scene. Here, away from it all, we’re more open to doing some soul searching, to spending some extra time in God’s Word.”

An owner of the auditorium asked if an eight-year-old boy from their church whose father had recently died of cancer could hang out with DC Talk as it rehearsed. Every day after school, second grader Mattie Montgomery put on his book bag, walked to the auditorium and watched DC Talk perform. During downtime, McKeehan, Michael Tait and Kevin Max answered Montgomery’s questions about instruments and tours.

In 2008, Montgomery became the lead vocalist of For Today, a metalcore band which has toured the globe performing overtly Christian music. For Today’s October release, Wake, marked its fourth straight album that has charted on the Billboard 200. Montgomery points back to his week with DC Talk as a key source of inspiration.

“It changed my life forever, man,” said Montgomery, who Reach Records rapper KB featured on “I Believe,” track No. 3 of his album Tomorrow We Live, in April. “These guys are rehearsing what would become legendary songs. I was sitting there on the stage, listening to them and getting this dream in my head. I wanted to perform like these guys. Now 20 years later, here I am doing it. It looks a little different than the way DC Talk did it, but I’m out here doing it. … It’s crazy to think that just letting some little kid hang out with you while you rehearse could have that kind of lasting impact.”

About five years ago as For Today began to gain popularity, a song that Montgomery had watched DC Talk perform two decades prior made another lasting impact. The kid who had once tried to make a DC Talk cover band called Small Talk with his friends in fourth grade had grown out of the group’s music, but one day on tour, he played the track “What If I Stumble?” and was rocked.

What if I stumble? What if I fall? /
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all? /
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl? /
What if I stumble, and what if I fall?

“Those words really hit me, man,” Montgomery said. “It’s such a scary and sobering thought to think of all the people who would be heartbroken if I fell away from the faith, my marriage fell apart or something like that. As I was listening to that song on the tour bus, I just sat there and began to weep. I don’t know that I had ever heard a song … that more perfectly encompassed an unspoken fear in my heart.

“I heard that song, and I thought, ‘I know exactly where those guys where at when they wrote that. I know exactly the feeling of having so many people look up to you and hold you to a standard that is pretty serious and pretty scary — and having the thought of, ‘What would happen if I fail to meet that standard?’ That song in particular really struck me a few years ago, and it’s something I’ve gone back to often to remind myself of seriousness of the position that we have and the responsibility that comes with the influence people give us.”

To avoid stumbling, Montgomery said he’s set up safeguards on tour. He communicates with his pastor who holds him accountable back home in Mobile, Alabama daily, studies the Bible and prays with his band members daily and shares the gospel at each show.

“When we’re up on stage,” Montgomery said, “we make it a point to stop everything and preach the gospel very clearly and directly at one point during the set. Because of the tours that we do, we’re around a lot of drugs, a lot women who are willing to do whatever, but that stuff never really comes for us because we’re so forthright about our faith; we’re so open about what we believe and where we stand. Nobody comes up to me and offers me cocaine because they already know the answer.”

For Today — which has performed on the Warped Tour, America’s largest traveling music festival — doesn’t perform in churches often.

“We do almost exclusively non-Christian tours,” Montgomery said. “Because of the kind of music that we play, we get invited to go on tour with satanic bands, bands that have pentagrams on the shirts, songs about the devil, murdering people, stuff like that.

“And that’s cool, man. I love that. That’s where the gospel is needed the most, where the lost and the hurting are. We even take bands like that out on tour, just to get them around the gospel, to get them exposed to the truth. It’s been a real conscious decision on our part. We play in bars, nightclubs and stuff like that every night and we preach the gospel unapologetically.”

Montgomery has received many a middle finger and been spit at as he shared the gospel mid-set. Once, a man even climbed on stage and shoved him, which he downplayed.

“If that’s the worst that happens to us, then praise God, man,” he said. “We’ve got brothers in the Middle East that are getting their heads cut off. That’s my family. I’m proud of them for their faithfulness, so I can’t pat myself on the back because somebody spit on me one time.”

Prior to Montgomery’s interview with Rapzilla, he had never gotten the chance to tell TobyMac, Michael Tait, who’s now with the Newsboys, or Kevin Max how much they influenced him. If they ever do meet again, it’s safe to say the DC Talk members would proudly label him a Jesus freak.

And not just because he’s read the book multiple times.

Photos by Philip Rood.