Michael W. Smith
Although most people know Michael W. Smith as a Grammy Award-winning Christian music star, this month marks his feature-film debut. Starring in "The Second Chance," Smith plays Ethan Jenkins, an associate pastor and musician in a wealthy suburban megachurch, called The Rock. The church's board sends the Gucci-wearing Jenkins to work at an inner-city church, Second Chance, with its African-American pastor, Jake Sanders (played by Jeff Obafemi Carr). There, Jenkins faces problems he never experienced at his well-to-do megachurch, such as gangs, prostitution, and homelessness. The two pastors clash as they try to find common ground in dealing with their churches and their cultures.

Smith, a spokesman for Compassion International, was recently nominated by the White House to serve on the President's Council in Service and Civic Participation. He spoke to us about how we can overcome the racial divide in America's churches, the importance of serving, and how music can get us through tough times.

Do you know any pastors like your character, Ethan Jenkins?
I know of some. I don't know them real well, but I've observed them because that's what I do as I travel around the county. You meet a lot of pastors who play the game. They're comfortable, in my opinion. I don't want to judge. It's just an observation, but a lot of people don't like change. They kind of want to keep the peace and don't stir it up. That's not living life to me. If you're going to say to your fellow black guy, "Hey, what's up?" and go work in the soup kitchen once a month, I don't think that's enough.
What kind of advice do you have for people like that?

It's all about serving. It's all about crossing those boundaries and taking risks. This life is not supposed to be comfortable. We have to take the time to know our fellow man and to know our brother of a different color. We're not supposed to have a nice cozy little town with our big megachurch and have very little impact on the inner-city. If there's an inner-city where you live, you've got to somehow reach beyond that.


In the movie there are two churches–one is small with limited funding yet manages to be very active in serving its community, and the other is a megachurch that's well-funded, but its members aren'tactive in volunteer work. Is one of the messages of the film an anti-megachurch one? 
It's always a challenge for megachurches to try to figure out how you have community when you have 15,000 people in your congregation. That's why I always think home groups, or cell groups, are important. 
What do you find the new trend in churches and ministering to be? Are we shifting away from the megachurchs?
I think a lot of churches have it figured out. You've got to stick to the Gospel. But I think there's some megachurches, or any church for that matter, who are trying to lure the audience in, and they're using entertainment. I think because of that you're watering down the Gospel. If you honor God and preach the Gospel, your church will grow. You also have to have a dynamic where you're in a good team. You can have a megachurch and be unhealthy on the inside. I think that's the challenge. When you go into a church and they have a Starbucks and a restaurant—and there are churches that have that—their own workout facility and gym and lap pool, it's mind boggling to me. But as long as they don't stray away from the most important thing—loving on people and sharing the Gospel.
The movie highlights the racial divide in America when it comes to churches. How can we overcome that?
We all know Sunday morning is the most segregated time of any day of the week. There's a problem but there's nothing really being done about it. Obviously I think there's a few exceptions. I was just at Prestonwood Baptist Church—a megachurch with 20,000 members. They're partnering with an inner-city church. They have really worked hard, and it's working, because they made a commitment to make it work. It's not a one-sided partnership. 
I don't know what it's like to walk into a store and having someone following me all the time because they think I'm going to steal something. I don't know what that feels like. But I was just with a black pastor in the inner city in Cincinnati, who is an unbelievable guy, and it still happens to him. I don't blame him for being angry. Those are the kinds of things that we have to take the time to understand—where they come from. And it's a two-way street. They have to understand our culture as well. Once we get a feel from where we're coming from and take the time to get to know each other, then I think you could work together.
For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the movie was when one character washed the feet of another as a sign of repenting after having judged him. What was the significance of the scene to you? What's the message there?
We cried all day doing that scene—it's one of my favorites. I just think, here's a guy who's probably not running on all cylinders—he's a janitor at the church—and somehow he senses God speaking to him, that he overstepped his boundaries and that he sinned on his brother who was one of his best friends. He takes a risk, and grabs the bowl, and wants to ask for forgiveness.
As you see in the scene, it totally annihilates Jake—it annihilates everybody in our little staff—we're all deeply moved by what we're seeing. That was a real catalyst [because] Jake walks over and I grab the bowl at the same time he does and I'm just not going to let go and I'm going to wash this guy's feet. I'm going to humble myself. We both attempted to try to humble ourselves because he was going to do the same for me. So we found common ground. He rides my butt through the whole movie and never lets up on me and I take it. So during that scene, we both turn a corner in our relationship.

Any new movie projects after this?
Right now I think there's going to be some other things that come my way. I'm working with my son—we have a film company called Seaborn Pictures—and we're starting to help develop this project that I think I could probably take the lead role in. My son will probably direct. He's extremely talented and we've got a really wonderful story. If it all comes together, we could probably be filming within a year. 
What do you think about the direction Christian music is headed? Has it changed?
It's gotten better. Sometimes it's still hard to listen to, because I don't think it's innovative enough. There's a lot of stuff that's written and recorded that's very safe.

  What do you mean by safe?

It's the same old. I think you've got a lot of people [who], when there's something popular, they try to chase it and be hip and cool and groovy of what the current thing is going on. I probably found myself having more respect for people who are doing things very differently and breaking new ground. I thought the Switchfoot thing was fresh. The Switchfoot record ["The Beautiful Letdown"] did pretty well and crossed over. It's hard to find a lot [of Christian music] that I like these days, [but] I know there's people out there making some good stuff.
Who are some of the artists that you're listening to now?
I'm listening to stuff that's probably not so much Christian music. I like David Crowder and some new bands that we're thinking about signing on Rocketown records, the record company that I own, that I think are really, really good. Most of the other stuff I learn from my kids. I'm thinking about going back and listening to some U2 stuff, because I'm a U2 fan. I'm trying to get a little inspiration for my next project, which I'm supposed to start. Once the movie comes out, I'll probably go into the studio and start working on my [next] record.
How can music help us overcome the bad times in our lives? 
It is a powerful language isn't it? I think it all depends on what kind of music you're listening to. There's a lot of kids out there who are listening to stuff that is horrible.
Horrible as in bad quality or bad message?
Bad messages. If you're listening to some of the dark stuff out there, it doesn't give you a whole lot of advantage of living a fulfilling life. Hopefully what I do is edifying and encouraging and I think when people hear it, it makes them feel good. I think more than anything it gives them hope that they've got some sort of purpose and value and that they're here for a reason. I think that's my music. I think it speaks a message of hope and forgiveness and God knows we could use a little bit of that in the times we're living in.
What inspires you?
Relationships. I think just living life. What inspires me? Going down to Mississippi those three days after Katrina hit and seeing the destruction and seeing the people who were just totally lost and trying to find their way. I'm inspired by the churches that showed up three days after Katrina hit. They were about a hundred times faster than the government. They were down there just working it—devoting a whole week of their time. People getting out and doing something for somebody else. Those are the kinds of things that inspire me.
What do you usually pray about?
Other than just my relationship with God, I pray that I can continue to survive success. I probably pray for my family more than anything. I've got five unbelievable children who are just awesome. I'm thankful for the wife I've been married to for almost 25 years. But my life is changing—my kids are getting older now. I've got a girl in college now, and all of a sudden I'm not there to watch over [her]. When you've got kids, your whole prayer life changes. You spend most of your time just praying for them.
Do you have a favorite prayer? 
If there's one prayer that I've prayed more than anything it's probably something like this, "Lord, keep me grounded.
 Give me great insight, give me great wisdom as I walk this journey." It's probably my biggest thing, because I'm crying out [for] Christian wisdom, just for all the decisions I have to make and the incredible responsibilities that I have. I've got this incredible platform that I feel like God has given me. I just need some wisdom. I want to do the right thing. Those are the big things that I would pray about. And I pray those every single day. "I need your favor and I need you to go before me and give me wisdom and give me grace. And if someone offends me, may I respond with love."

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