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.
"Worship is not two or three songs," Smith says, laughing. "We worship for a long time, .but nobody wants to stop."
"My goal--in terms of my career, in terms of musically and the gifts God's given me--would be to create something that's never been done before, that is so God-inspired" he says. "I want to be singing a new song, not sitting around worrying about whether it's going to sell or not."
Before pop success found Smith, he discovered Belmont Church in the 1970s. Across the street from Belmont in those days was a coffeehouse called Koinonia, where Smith's friend Amy Grant sang for the first time. Smith was working for a music publishing company and frequented Koinonia, and eventually Belmont. In 1982 he married Debbie, who worked for the same publisher, and their involvement at Belmont grew.
As a couple, their relationship with Finto deepened. The 1980s became a time of rapid spiritual growth for Smith. It was during that period that two of his worship songs became hits--"How Majestic Is Your Name" (1982) and "Great Is the Lord" (1983). Neither, however, were written for the pop charts.
"I wrote 'How Majestic Is Your Name' for Belmont Church," Smith says. "I didn't write it for Sandi Patty. Well, Sandi Patty cut it, and it's in the hymnal now. We wrote a lot of songs back then for Belmont."
"The service was just amazing," Smith says. "And I went forward because I wanted more of God. I looked down the aisle, and a guy was laying hands on people. People started passing out and getting slain in the Spirit, and I went, Oh, gosh, what have I gotten myself into?
"And this guy touched me, and I was out for 15 minutes. .Took me forever to get off the floor. And I laughed. I laughed for--I laughed all the way home."
Besides this unusual burst of "holy laughter," Smith says many more charismatic experiences have occurred since. He isn't bothered by the questions people have about spiritual experiences like his, but he doesn't like to use the label "charismatic" to describe himself because of negative baggage associated with the term.
Laughter, in particular, helped relieve the pain of an intense situation Michael and Debbie once faced as parents. During an especially difficult time in one of their son's lives, they sought medical counsel. .Michael and Debbie wept together when the phone call came from Nashville stating that their son had a rare behavior disorder for which there was no reliable cure. Upon seeking a second medical opinion, their fears were relieved somewhat, but other concerns lingered.
They called on their prayer group for support. Debbie's parents, Michael's manager, and Finto and a few other friends assembled at the Smiths' house, and at Finto's suggestion, they began to anoint the house with oil.
"Every trim around the house we anointed with oil, and we prayed," Smith explains. "And it was heavy, you know? This was my son.
"So we were wrapping things up, and a real close friend of Deb's [was there], and she hadn't said anything all night long--and she's a prayer warrior.
"We thought she was going to pray. Well, she looked like she was choking up, so Deb and I went over and put our hands on her to pray for her.
"Well, all of a sudden, I started laughing. Don starts laughing--me and Don. We hyperventilate. And I'm rolling on the floor--with my in-laws watching--and I'm thinking, What in the world is going on?
"Then everybody started laughing. We laughed for 30 minutes. And you know what? I really believe that that was God."
Smith longs to influence culture with the gospel by using musical artistry. Secular doors are opening for one of his [protégés], a blind, 24-year-old singer-songwriter named Ginny Owens. Her songs have been on prime-time television, and she performed some of them in January at actor Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival.
Smith is elated for her, but already he's hearing criticism about it from the church.
"Her songs have been on five TV shows. They've been on Felicity, Roswell and others. And we've received e-mails, people saying: 'I can't believe she's on Felicity. Why would you let her? I just don't think that's what God would want you to do.'
"And you know what?" he adds. "I just believe the opposite. I think Ginny Owens is going to impact culture. Doors are opening up for this little girl who's blind and loves Jesus. And I love that it's outside the box."
Smith's future is also outside the box. He believes new things are coming for him that may or may not involve music.
His newest record, This Is Your Time--dedicated to Columbine shooting victim Cassie Bernall--released in November. It probably will be his last one until 2001, when he hopes to put out an instrumental album. He believes it will contain his best unreleased work and has strong potential for bringing people into God's presence.
Back at Smith's farmhouse, the light from a cloudless January sky diffuses warmly into the room. The big hardwood floor is mostly empty except for couches that crowd around a hewn stone fireplace that faces the afternoon sun.
Smith nurses the surgical incision on his knee with a bag of ice. It's a new year, and the new surgery promises greater athletic agility for him in the years to come.
Now that the tempest of 1999 has passed over him, he's taking a closer look at who he is and what he's done.
"Is my legacy that I'm selling lots of records?" he asks. "I sure hope not, because that's not what I want it to be."
Like the crowds who get lost in worship at his concerts, he is feeling the call to go deeper into the presence of God. His dream is to take lots of people with him.