MICHAEL W. SMITH: Worship is How You Live Each Day
During his 20-plus years of ministry, Michael W. Smith has become one of the most influential artists in the Christian music industry, recording 15 albums that have yielded 33 Dove Awards, numerous Grammy nominations, two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award. His albums have sold more than 7 million copies, reaching platinum and gold status.
His newest project, the live recording simply titled Worship, is something Michael has been looking forward to for years. Amber Weigand-Buckley, assistant editor of On Course magazine, talked with Michael recently about how God is shaping his ministry, his family and his life.
EVANGEL: Your Worship album is quite different from anything you’ve done before. How did it come together?
SMITH: Several factors were catalysts in that project. First, powerful things were happening in our church; there were some worship times that were unbelievable and there were times that I wished the tape recorder was running so we could have captured that. Then, a year and a half ago, about 500,000 kids gathered in Washington, D.C., for "The Call."
They were so full of worship and it was just so intense. I will never forget that. There were also a lot of things happening in worship in my concerts — people were pressing in to get more of God. I’d never seen anything like that, and I’ve been a worship leader for the last 20 years of my life. I kept thinking, What if I’m supposed to go and just do a night of worship and record it? We decided to hold a worship concert even though we didn’t know it would translate to a CD.
We had guest artists show up with me in Florida. We knew it might be hard to get people’s attention off of us and to concentrate on a real intimate time of worship. But they did, and it was an unbelievable evening. I will never forget that night, and to this day I still get teared up remembering a few of those moments.
EVANGEL: How has God been working in your life during the past few years to stretch you both personally and professionally?
SMITH: Personally, it has been an ongoing saga. I’m always wanting to go deeper and come to a greater understanding of this high calling that God has on my life. I think the big thing that I’ve discovered through the church that I’m involved in is that I’m a pastor. I didn’t think that I would ever call myself that, but I am. I think there is a real gifting on my life to pastor people — to mentor people.
There’s a part of me that feels way too young to do that. I sometimes feel like I have to be 60 or 70 years old to play a fatherly role, but I don’t think that is the case for me. Especially in our industry with a lot of younger artists coming along — they need some guidance. They need someone to show them the way. They’re so susceptible to getting in trouble and there is not a lot of accountability. So I think that this is a real platform God has given me to help these kids.
On a professional level, I think if I’ve done anything right, I’ve learned to live on the edge and just go for it. We’ve done two specialty records back-to-back — the Freedom album was an instrumental record and then the Worship album. A lot of people said, "Man, you’re crazy." And I just said, "You know what, I don’t care." I don’t have an agenda. I’m not interested in being a pop star. I just want to be God’s man and this is one of my giftings. I’m a worship leader. We went to Florida and were totally unconcerned how well the record would sell. It happens to be the fastest selling record of my career.
EVANGEL: Tell me about this church that you pretty much "planted in your backyard."
SMITH: It’s called New River Fellowship. I’ll never forget calling Don Finto, my pastor of many years. He is my mentor. He has had the biggest impact on my life other than my own father and we are still extremely close. As a matter of fact, he is the interim pastor at this little fellowship. I called him and told him I had this wild idea that the Lord was birthing in my wife, Deb, and me the desire to start this fellowship. He started laughing and said, "I love it." He gave us his blessing.
I kind of make a joke, but I’m half serious when I say if I had known what came with starting up a church I never would have done it. It’s hard. You have to deal with people who have agendas and who are not happy with certain things. But I tell you, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown up a lot. It’s been a good thing and now we have about 250-300 people who are plugging in. God is moving. It has been an amazing journey.
EVANGEL: You’ve been in the music business for more than two decades. What has it been like to live so long in the public eye and still remain grounded — especially in your relationship with your wife and children?
SMITH: There are always going to be struggles to stay humble; you have to always keep your guard up. I owe so much to my relationship with Deb and with Pastor Finto and with the people that I surround myself with. I’m blessed with a good team. If I get a big head and I get a little pride going, I’ve got people who will come up and say, "How dare you take credit for that — that was not about you." That is the real key.
EVANGEL: You’ve always talked about how your family is important to you. Tell me about how they’ve shaped who you are.
SMITH: I have the greatest mom and dad in the world. Other than my relationship with God, my family is the most important thing in my life. I’d die for my kids. I’d die for my wife. They are the joy of my life. I love being a dad more than anything in the world. I love hanging with my kids. They all think I’m crazy. I’m actually just a kid. Even this morning we were driving to school with my 9-, 11- and 13-year-olds and we were all having the biggest time — we were cutting up and if anyone would have heard that conversation they would have thought we were crazy. We love just being crazy together.
EVANGEL: You have five children — how do you manage to give them all equal time?
SMITH: I think part of it is my personality. It’s the part of me that’s learned to enjoy life and not become consumed with my job. There are a lot of dads who are so career-oriented — they strive and strive to stay on top and they work 12 hours a day. You can’t do that and have a good family life. You can’t do that with one kid — and especially with five. When I work, I work hard and I get creative. But I keep my schedule flexible. I’m at home a lot, just hanging with my kids.
Parenting is about making priorities. With the girls — they go on dates with Dad. My 18-year-old son works in my office and that allows us time to talk about music and whatever. You get interested in what your kids are interested in. You get into their lives and find out what makes them tick — what they are feeling and what they like to do. My 11-year-old just discovered sushi. I’m a big sushi eater — I love sushi. And she also loves crunchy shrimp. So on our lunch date the other day she and I went to get crunchy shrimp. Then we went to get her some earrings and she thought she’d died and gone to heaven. It doesn’t take anything extravagant to have a great time with your kids. It’s just having fun and finding something in common.
EVANGEL: Has your parenting philosophy changed much from your first to your fifth child?
SMITH: I’ve learned a lot. Obviously, there are some things that you thought worked and they don’t work. As your kids get older you discover a lot of things. When we had a 19-month-old I thought I couldn’t be any happier. I have a lot of great memories — those are such great times in a child’s life. Then children get older and the dynamics change.
You never know what’s going to happen with your children in terms of what kinds of struggles are they going to have, the physical stuff that they are going to deal with, the emotional issues … you never know. My oldest son, Ryan, went through a tough time with some stuff like this and it really stretched our faith. But you roll with the punches, you trust God, you stay in prayer as much as you can. At the end of the day you can’t sit around stressed out and tense all the time. You have to get to a place where you rest in the Lord and say, "God, You’re in control. Give me wisdom to make the right decisions for my kids." Then you live life to the fullest.
EVANGEL: You’ve talked a lot about the struggles you went through as a teen. How has that affected the way you approach parenting?
SMITH: I think probably if I’ve done the right thing it’s because I’ve chosen to really communicate with my kids about everything — drugs, sex … you name it. I’ve chosen to talk about those things, and I haven’t been afraid to tell them what I went through. When I was growing up, you just didn’t sit around and have sex talks. It was just a more reserved kind of thing. We live in a different day and age and parents need to talk about all of the issues their kids will face. I’ve told Ryan, "I’ve been down that road and it leads to nothing but heartache. It’s a dead-end street. Trust me on this one." He has a real heart for God and he has great friends. What more could a dad ask for? The dynamics, however, would probably be a lot different if he were out hanging with the wrong crowd, getting in trouble. I’d probably have to jump in there and have major heart-to-heart talks. So far, the Lord has been gracious and given him some great people to hang with.
EVANGEL: What is the biggest parenting pitfall you’ve had to overcome?
SMITH: I could have done a little better job in getting the kids to be more responsible. They’ve got it pretty easy when it comes to helping their mom around the house with simple stuff like the dishes and getting stuff cleaned up. My brother-in-law has seven kids and they homeschool. My nieces and nephews are the most disciplined kids you will meet. Everything is "Yes, ma’am. No, sir." I think I could have done more of that with our kids, because sometimes I think Deb is struggling to get people to help around the house. I know that sounds really trite, but I do think that discipline is important in life. Life is not always easy. Life can be tough. You have to learn to take some responsibility and do some of the little things.
EVANGEL: Your son Ryan has played in your band. What’s the best advice you can give on nurturing your children’s gifts and talents?
SMITH: Encourage your kids. It bugs me when I go places like the YMCA and see parents berating their children. One particular time there was a karate competition and this dad was just railing on his kid for coming in fifth with comments like, "Why weren’t you paying any attention?" It was very negative. Everything about that situation reinforced the need to do the opposite. We need to lift our kids up. I believe I’m where I’m at today because my mom and dad did nothing but speak life into me. And Don Finto, my pastor, has done nothing but speak life into me. He lifts me up every time I’m with him. You have to do that with your kids. Yes, they are going to make mistakes and they are going to have to face the consequences. But we need to be building our kids up with the positive. They need to hear, "You are a man/woman of God! You can do it! God has given you a gift. You’re awesome!" I tell my kids all the time, "You guys are awesome. I love you guys. You have so much potential." Kids need that.
EVANGEL: If your children could only take one word of advice from you into adulthood, what would you want that to be?
SMITH: Our only hope is in the Lord. At the end of the day, even with all the decisions you have to make, He is the only One who will bring you peace. If you remember that, it will affect everything else in your life.
EVANGEL: Your heart for young people prompted you to develop the Rocketown Youth Outreach. How did that ministry get started and what is it doing now?
SMITH: We are getting ready to open up in downtown Nashville. We originally opened in 1994 and lost our lease in 1997 and we’ve continued the ministry over the years. Our real thrust is to be surrogate parents to disenfranchised youth. We are "club" oriented and we have events, but most of all we just bring the kids in and share life with them and love on them. A lot of these kids are the [ones some] churches don’t know how to reach. We want to live on the edge and try to really communicate to them and love them.
EVANGEL: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing parents today in raising healthy children?
SMITH: I think the biggest challenge for parents is being aware of the kind of community their kids are involved in as far as who their friends are and who they are hanging out with. We’ve had some really tough things going on in our schools — kids hanging out with the wrong kids. It’s a challenge to create an environment in which you feel your kids are safe but at the same time they remain in a position to positively impact their culture.
EVANGEL: What final thought would you like to leave with fathers this Father’s Day?
SMITH: As parents, we’ve got to know how to love on our kids. Before we can do that, we’ve got to be transformed ourselves. We’ve got to be completely in love and abandoned to God big time. When you get a mom and dad who are totally clued in with their spiritual lives, that will spill over into their kids. You can preach to your kids all day long, but they are going to watch what you do. That’s where they are going to learn about life. Everyone’s situation is different. I’m extremely blessed because my father was just so amazing and an incredible example for me. Yes, he made mistakes, but he was just such an incredible example. There are a lot of dads who have never had that example. There’s a place where you just have to go and say, "God, You can be these kids’ Father." And you’ve got to pray for these dads that they will learn to love their kids.