Michael W. Smith
comfortably entrenched in a soft seat at my twelve-year-old's
Improvisational Drama Night. The sixth graders are growing restless.
Pulling pigtails. Playing tricks. On the platform, a pianist plays the
prelude beautifully, while hurling vicious glances and sticking her
tongue out at the boys. Naturally, the boys return the favor. The song
rolling off her fingertips is familiar to most, but the irony is
caught only by a few: "Great is the Lord...in His mercy He proves He
is love." It is Michael W. Smith 's signature song, an anthem of the
church and one he hopes will work its way into the hearts of old and
young alike...even mischievous boys and frowning girls.
Just this afternoon
I spoke with Michael by phone from Nashville, where he's busy
recording a Christmas album, a follow up to his newest venture Live
The Life. In the background the instruments and voices of Nashville's
best are tuning up, but the 41-year-old father of five (ages 6-14)
seems to be in no hurry. In a West Virginian drawl, he talks openly of
success, of temptation, and of his 17-year marriage.
Over the last fifteen years, Michael has had his share of
"success," going from bagging groceries to accepting Grammy Awards.
His boyish good looks have earned him a spot on People magazine's list
of '50 Most Beautiful People', although it's one achievement "Smitty"
would rather forget.
He's sold six million albums, hung one platinum and five gold
records on the wall, yet when it comes to talking about his
achievements he grows strangely silent. "I suppose any achievements
have come because God opened doors and I walked through them. I don't
do things well other than by the power of the Holy Spirit. And I'm not
being overly-spiritual. I'm just telling the truth."
Raised in a Christian home, Michael became a believer in Christ
when he was ten. "My parents are still alive and they're my biggest
fans," he says. As for his greatest achievement, he's finally thought
of something. "I suppose it's simply this: I have a heart for God. I
fail and struggle miserably sometimes, but I love God and somehow He
It is the child-like simplicity that has earned Michael a voice
with millions of fans, including Billy Graham and numerous world
"I feel there's a real call of God on my life. I want to be in the
right place at the right time for the kingdom of God. If that's making
records or having songs on pop radio, the music has provided me a
platform to be with people who know Christ and people who don't know
Him. I'm this weak man that God uses and I just want to be used of
Him, whether that's in Alaska or in the White House or in a little
town talking to the gas station
attendant. My desire is to serve God."
The places Michael serves today have raised some eyebrows. Some
view his "cross-over" to secular radio, or appearances on Jay Leno and
music video shows as compromise. Smith disagrees. "The opportunities I
have to tell people about Jesus are staggering. Whether it's the lady
at VH-1 or the janitor at Jay Leno, talking to Bill Clinton, or
sitting with George Bush, his wife and all their grandkids, sharing my
faith and singing, it's my favorite thing to do. I love to be in the
world. Too many Christians aren't."
After reading Francis of Assisi's words, "Preach the gospel all
the time, if necessary use words," Michael began to realize how badly
the world needs to see, not hear, our testimonies. The result is his
latest and best project yet, Live the Life.
"The world is tired of hearing Christians do so much talking,"
believes Smith. "Most North Americans don't want to hear about Jesus,
but when they see Him in His people, He can be irresistible. I'm not
into beating someone over the head with the Four Spiritual Laws
anymore. I want to establish a relationship first. I don't care so
much what they believe or how many times they curse, I want to
establish a relationship where they're comfortable asking me
questions. That's what Jesus did. He went over to Matthew's house and
had a big party and the church was very upset. But that's how He was
able to show people who He was."
Live the life is Smith's favorite record to date, and the title
song is one of the favorite songs he's ever written.
Part of living the life is learning to deal with loss, believes
Smith. Recent losses in his life have inspired two of the songs.
"Hello, Goodbye" was written for close friends who lost a baby, and "A
Song for Rich" is an instrumental tribute to poet/musician Rich
Mullins who was killed in a car accident last year. "Rich was an
inspiration to me in the way he thought," says Michael. "I never knew
if he was going to say something bizarre or profound. He didn't care
what anyone thought of him. He lived on an Indian reservation with a
bunch of kids. I always found myself envying this guy, saying, 'I just
wish I could live like this guy.' He could fit everything he had into
So why don't the Smiths keep up with the Mullins? "I've got a
family and I'm raising kids. Rich didn't. But I still find myself
wanting to live on the edge like that. Money can become a real
challenge. There are so many temptations. When I see something I like
now, I can buy it. And that's not always the right thing to do. It's a
challenge. I'm thankful for my wife. If it was up to her we wouldn't
have anything left. She has such a heart for the poor. If there's a
tornado or someone loses a home, she always wants to help. I love
that. We Christians need to be known as generous people. We need to
quit being such tightwads. It's okay to give more than ten percent. We
must ingrain in our thinking and in our children that it is better to
give than receive. God blesses us when we give, but that's not why we
do it. We do it out of obedience."
Of course, there are other temptations for the rich and famous. "I
think the biggest temptation in this industry is pride," believes
Michael. "There's such high competition. People fight to be number one
and we are losing a Christ-like attitude." One day Smith arrived at
the office of his RocketTown record label to discover a distraught
staff member who had just heard of a party celebrating the fact that
another artist had just dethroned Smith from his number one spot on
the charts. "I said, 'Eno ugh.We don't think that way. Let's stay pure
and not buy into the politics of Christian music.'"
I ask Michael about the greatest gift he's ever received. "The
peace of Christ," he answers quickly. "The more I make money, sell
records, and hear my songs on radio, the more I find that it doesn't
bring any peace at all. Maybe a little short-term satisfaction, but it
all fades away. I know where my security is. It's in Christ."
Smith's seventeen year marriage to his wife Debbie is somewhat of
a conundrum in the circles in which he finds himself these days. "In
Los Angeles they ask me how long I've been married and when I say
seventeen years, they ask, 'Second wife? Third wife?' They can't
believe she's my first and only."
His formula for a thriving marriage is a bit foreign in LA as
well. "The number one thing is to die to myself, which is a struggle
every day. I'm married to this woman for life. And I love her, but
sometimes I don't feel like loving her. She makes me mad and I often
don't agree with her. But I'm supposed to be like Christ, to die to
myself. I'm here to serve."
Although Smith travels the world, he insists he's happiest at
home. "I'm not a perfect dad, but I'd lay down my life for my kids. If
you could see me with them you'd think there was something seriously
wrong with me. I'm a nut. I chase them around the house. Every time I
come home, Ann and Emily (six and seven) run through the house like
they haven't seen me in months. So I guess Dad is still cool-we'll see
how long that lasts!"
As for his plans down the road. "I have no idea. I hope my walk
with God will be stronger. I'd like to be involved in music. But I'll
do whatever God wants. I'd like to devote more time to ministry
purposes and find more ways to glorify God and further His kingdom. If
it all had ended when I did my first album, I would have said, 'Thanks
Lord, that was a lot of fun.' Eleven records and fifteen years later
I'm still doing it. It's been a great journey, living the life."
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Phil Callaway. Read more of Phil's