A Conversation with Michael W. Smith
June 1, 2002 - Michael W. Smith is one of the most influential artists in Christian music today. His 15 albums have received 27 dove awards, two Grammy awards and an American Music Award. he has appeared at many Billy Graham Missions and at Franklin Graham Festivals. In a recent interview with "Decision," Michael W. Smith talked about his family, his music and his relationship with God.
by Jim Dailey
Q/ What do you do to keep your relationship with Christ fresh?
A/ I think that God uses the prayers of others in an important way. Everywhere I go, people say, "We pray for you all the time." I believe that those prayers have kept me strong. Who knows how many accidents, or all kinds of things, have been deterred because of those prayers?
I also think of the people I have surrounded myself with, such as my pastor, who is almost 70 years old. He glows with God’s wisdom and has a fatherly role in my life.
Along with several other couples, my wife and I have been involved in starting a new church in the Nashville area. Starting the church was a challenge, but I have learned a lot. And in the process I have found that I love pastoring people. Although I don’t have time to do the daily pastoral ministry, I love being able to minister on Sunday mornings.
Q/ How important to you is accountability?
A/ It is a key in my life. It needs to be key for every serious believer. Every occupation has its temptations, and in my occupation the temptations are enormous. Dealing with personal pride can be especially difficult when people tell you all the time how great you are and how you’ve changed their lives. I have to keep those things in perspective and realize that my ministry is completely a God-thing and it’s all the Lord’s work. I just happen to be a conduit, and the Lord Jesus is working through me. I don’t ever want to forget that.
Q/ What are some spiritual disciplines that keep you on an even keel?
A/ My involvement in church helps me. My big problem is that I don’t get away enough for times of solitude. I find great strength when I just get away to be replenished. I go to my farm
and get out of commission for a couple of hours. That is the best thing I can do for me. It is a challenge to find the time for solitude, but I make myself do it, to write it on my calendar: "an appointment with the Lord."
Q/ Tell us about your children. How do you help them handle your being away from home?
A/ We have five children—Ryan, 18; Whitney, 16; Tyler, 13; Anna, 11; and Emily, 9.
When I am home, I spend a lot of time with them. With Ryan, he is my future film maker, and he is a musician, so we talk a lot about music. For Tyler, the big deal is playing ball. For the girls, having "dates" with Dad is a big deal. It’s all about giving up my time to do what they want to do. Whether it’s art, music or whatever, I get into their worlds. You need to do that with your kids. You watch them and find out what drives them. The important thing is to have one-to-one time.
Q/ What do you do to help your children deal with your success?
A/ I try to downplay all that. When we are in the car, I try to stay off the phone. I don’t play the game of being a celebrity. I’m just Dad, and music is just my job. It just happens that my job is more visual than other jobs. I choose to be with my kids, to be Dad, to be a family guy, and also to be a husband to my wife, Debbie. She and I go out on dates, and we take trips together without the kids. Sometimes she comes with me on a concert trip.
Q/ What influence did your parents have on you?
A/ They are the greatest parents in the world and are still my biggest fans. They have always believed in me, even during my rebellious time as a kid. For three or four years I went through a phase of using drugs. My parents never threatened to kick me out of the house. They just prayed for me. More than being upset with me, they were grieved. They loved me, and I felt loved, but I remember those looks I would get. It wasn’t, "I can’t believe what you’re doing!" but it was, "Oh, son, we love you! We just want you to come back."
I hope that my kids will not go through that kind of rebellion. We sit down and talk about all that, and so far they’re doing well.
My mom and dad gave me unconditional love. They deserve the credit for where I am today. They stood in the gap for me. They are so happily married, and I am blown away at how my dad has treated my mom—he adores her. I learned from my dad what’s right and what’s wrong and how to love my wife. I have a lot to live up to. They moved here to Nashville eight years ago, and they are bigger celebrities than I am in this town. They are great people.
Q/ When did you go through that time of rebellion?
A/ It started in the mid-70s, and when I moved to Nashville in 1978, it got worse. I hung out mainly with a bad crowd. But I knew that God had a call on my life. My life changed when I was 10 and accepted the Lord Jesus as my Savior. I knew that I would never make it throughout life if I didn’t have God in my life. I felt as if it were a high calling.
In 1979 I had a couple of close brushes with death, and one was drug-related. I prayed, "God, only You can rescue me. I am stuck in this pit with no ladder to get out. As much as I want out, I can’t do it. God, You are the only One who can help." I begged and cried for Him to rescue me.
I had a bit of a nervous breakdown, and in November, 1979, God met me on my kitchen floor. I haven’t been the same since. When I got up, something new had happened to me: I lost my desire for drugs; God changed my desires and brought me back to Him. A lot of the reason for the change in me was Mom and Dad praying for me.
Q/ You often refer to yourself as a "worship leader" when It comes to your music. what does that mean?
A/ You have to get the attention off yourself, which is difficult for some people. I lead worship for one reason, and that is to experience God as we have never experienced Him before. We need to dig deep and press in with God in a way of intimate worship. This comes in with the songs that you sing—the vertical songs that are a heart cry to God, songs that express the heart.
I see it that way in my concerts. I’m more excited about going out now than I have been in years just because the calling on my life is stronger than ever. A lot of that has to do with our church, where I am now entering a fatherly, mentoring role.
I have no idea what will happen—that’s an exciting part of it—it’s a bit of a mystery. I am trusting God. I want to focus on the Holy Spirit, live on the edge and go for it, and I believe that God will do exciting things in my life.
Q/ How would you describe the spiritual disposition of people today?
A/ I think people are hungry. Obviously September 11 changed a lot of things. We saw an amazing increase of real hunger for God. Some people are still complacent, but I pray that God will wake them up. For the most part, though, I see people hungry for God. I even see 10-year-old kids worshiping with their hands raised in the air, weeping. I never saw that years ago.
Q/ You recently recorded a worship album in Florida that you said was a highlight of your career.
A/ It was incredible. It was pure, pure worship. We broke through, and that spirit of worship is evident on the CD. It’s there. When I listen to the CD, there are a couple of moments that take my breath away.
I feel as if I’m in a good, healthy place in my career, and I don’t care who’s No.1 or who has sold the most records. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this album was released on September 11. It’s a healing record. It was the right record for the right time.
Q/ Another album, "Freedom," has been a big hit. it’s an instrumental—How does music minister without words?
A/ Look at David playing before Saul. The Lord would calm Saul’s spirit through David playing his harp, and the music would minister to people. I hate the whole label thing—what’s Christian music and what’s not. I tend to have a Christian worldview of everything—loving my wife is just as Christian as singing songs. The instrumental music wells up inside me, and it is God-inspired. There are times on the instrumental record that I still get tearful, and I believe that’s God. It’s one of my favorite albums.
Q/ How do you see God at work through you to reach others for Christ?
A/ For me, in my concerts, the music can be an extremely powerful means to evangelize. So many people, especially lately, have come to Christ through the worship record and being at the concerts. God wooed the people in and they were so overwhelmed by the power of God throughout the entire evening that they couldn’t wait to make a commitment to Christ.
There’s always a part of me that wishes I could be more organized so that at some points during the concert kids could make decisions for Christ. I don’t have spiritual counselors at the concerts as Billy Graham and Franklin Graham do at their meetings. But like them, I depend on the Christians who bring their friends. The Christians are the ones who will speak in their friends’ lives and whom those friends will lean on. I may be a catalyst to help people come to Christ, but the Christians are the ones who will live out their faith in front of their friends.