Christian pop star Michael W. Smith is limping a little. His knee surgery to repair an athletic injury is barely a week old, and he knows he shouldn't be standing up to sing. But he believes today that worshiping will help ease the pain.
He adjusts the acoustic guitar strapped to his back. "I wrote a new song this morning before I left for church," he announces with the strum of a chord. "And I think it sounds pretty good."
"But, ya know what?" he adds. "Y'all might not like it at all."
The teasing tone in his good-natured West Virginia drawl lends support to his engaging blue eyes and warm smile--the disarming smile that for 17 years has greeted millions of people from magazines, posters, LPs, TVs and CDs.
On this cold, rainy Sunday morning, about 75 people of all ages sing with him, some with hands raised, inside Smith's rural farmhouse near Nashville.
After 40 minutes in song, a gentle hush settles over the congregation, and Smith seals it all with a softly spoken prayer. He is leading worship at New River Fellowship, a church he and a few others dreamed into existence little more than a year ago.
Behind the pop curtain is a man who says he would rather encounter God in his music than sing his greatest hits. He's a Christian believer who recently weathered a tempest of self-doubt and loss of creative passion. He's a man of faith who is pioneering a church he believes God inspired him to plant. And he's a dreamer who wants to impact culture and create music that's so God-inspired no one will worry about whether or not it sells.
Since Smith got his start in contemporary Christian music in 1982 as Amy Grant's keyboard player, he has logged 26 No. 1 songs, a platinum and six gold records, two Grammys and career sales of more than 7 million records. If anything, the passage of time has developed rather than eroded his appeal. He remains one of Christian music's most enduring stars. Only last year he added Artist of the Year and Producer of the Year to the 20 career Dove Awards he already had.
It would be easy to assume, then, that at age 42, Smith might be content to rest on his laurels. But he isn't. He was a worship leader before he was a pop icon, starting first at the charismatic Belmont Church in Nashville in the 1980s under his longtime friend and mentor, Don Finto, the retired senior pastor at Belmont.
Yet it was only last summer, Smith says, that God touched him in his music in ways he had never felt before. Deep emotional encounters with God occurred at the end of his live concerts in 1999.
"Most of the time it was just the overwhelming love of God, His mercy, and to watch anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 people just break into worship. There literally were times I felt like I could see angels just swimming everywhere. It was just like the presence of God would come--whoosh!--and I couldn't talk. All I could do was cry. And I could've stayed there all night."
Smith has received letters and e-mails from people who said they were healed, convicted by the Holy Spirit or converted during the worship segments.
In particular, young children on the front rows, lost in worship, arrested Smith's attention. Their free worship of God was unlike anything he has ever seen in his concerts of the last two decades.
"Watching 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kids, hands raised in the air--and their expressions--these kids are in love with Jesus and worshiping all-out," he says. "I've seen it the last couple of years, but I don't think I've seen anything quite like what I'm seeing now--this hunger for people to be prostrate before God and going, 'Lord, I just want to worship You.'"
Such deep, vulnerable moments were happening to Smith during what he calls "one of the toughest years of my life." Throughout most of 1999, Smith was being swamped by a storm of grief and depression fueled in part by the deaths of his friends author Bob Briner (Roaring Lambs) and pro golfer Payne Stewart, by other close friends who were reeling from divorce, and because of his relationships with survivors of the Columbine High School massacre.
"I was depressed," he admits. "I'm thinking, What am I doing with my life? I don't have any fire anymore. I've lost my passion for music.I was going: Am I flipping out? Am I crazy? 1999 was a year of massive spiritual warfare."
It was a pivotal yet uncharacteristic time for this man who was entering his mid-life years.
"I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and [say]: I've got a lot to give. God has given me some gifts. Just fall in love with Jesus. Get back to the basics."
One of the new things he is happy for--although challenged by--is New River Fellowship. The church was born through the vision of Smith and his wife, Debbie, after three years of prayer, counsel and discussion. There has been no advertising, but the church has grown to about 125 regulars, most of whom meet in home fellowship groups during the week. When they gather for worship on Sundays, they spend about 45 minutes singing.