Michael W. Smith Believes The Church is Uniting as Never Before
As Christian music has shifted from pop to worship, Michael W. Smith keeps climbing the charts. The Grammy Award winning songwriter remains focused on his mission in a changing world.
When a local church hosts a mid-week prayer meeting, often ten or fewer faithful ones show up. Thus, organizers of a Nashville gathering last August were a bit overwhelmed. On a sweltering Thursday evening, more than 14,000 people had come to participate in prayer and worship.
Diverse believers united at Bridgestone Arena, one of the largest venues in Music City, USA — convened by a singer-songwriter eager to elevate Christ above all. “Unity made that night work,” Michael W. Smith tells The Stream in an interview. “The diversity of who came together was absolutely something I had never experienced in my entire life.”
Some know Smith as today’s most prominent Christian recording artist, having sold 15 million albums since his debut in 1983. Others recall his moving musical tributes performed at the funerals of President George H.W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham.
Still others esteem Smith as a reconciler of various Christian streams, with a focus on realizing common good through Compassion International and other outreach efforts. The multifaceted arena event, captured live on the new album Awaken, reflects such bridge-building at work.
In a phone interview from Nashville, Michael W. Smith shares what happened that night — and how Christian music has changed over decades. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Diverse Voices Joined As One
Are there certain moments from the worship night last summer that stand out to you?
Michael W. Smith: The whole night was amazing! What’s not on the record are all the prayer moments: there were 13 prayer sections where we prayed for specific things. We had 14,000 people just going all out with these prayers against injustice, for youth, for evangelism, the list goes on.
To me, the biggest highlight of the night was the color in the arena. To have Asian, white, black, Hispanic, Native American people — it was beautiful. That’s really what I remember about the night and what I believe has affected this city.
I’ve never seen pastors and spiritual leaders more unified in Nashville than now. Personally, I believe it had a lot to do with what happened at Bridgestone Arena.
As a prolific songwriter yourself, it’s notable that Awaken features anthems by many others. Why do your worship albums elevate a diversity of songs?
Smith: While I love showcasing other writers, to me it’s all about the songs. It doesn’t really matter who wrote them. I’m not going to write twelve mediocre worship songs just so I can say I wrote the entire record! To take people on a journey, I’m going to assemble a group of songs that can really hold together.
The diversity focus was a significant part of that night. Worship can’t just be a “white” thing — you’ve got to be inclusive. We had “Set A Fire” from United Pursuit, then “Reckless Love” — then CeCe Winans walked out on stage to lead “King of Glory.” Then we had an Italian girl named Vanessa Campagna co-lead “Way Maker” alongside Madelyn Berry, who is part of the biggest urban church in Nashville.
That’s what made the record feel a lot different. It’s not just the same-sounding white worship, which is not what I’m called to do. Co-leading that night was about the masses joining together in worship: every race, tribe and color that was represented that night.
Responding to Critics
Smith: It’s kind of hilarious to me. I don’t have an issue with the song. Many have read what Cory [Asbury] has said about it, which I researched myself before the worship night. Someone who is an ultra-theologian, I can see how they’d criticize it. It’s all about that word “reckless.” But artists have a license to be poetic.
I know what he’s saying because I would say the same thing. I think about how broken and not-together I am, and how much God still loves me. He wants to be my Papa, and that blows my mind. That’s why I can sing that song every night without a problem.
We all don’t have it totally right. It’s probably good that Cory was challenged by the feedback. We all have a piece of it, and we’re trying to refine each other and challenge each other. I would have issue if some of these writers were theologically way off-base, in terms of their views on salvation or the nature of God.
When you nitpick at stuff, you’re wasting your time. That’s my opinion.
Bringing Unity Across Divides
This reflects how your music brings together groups who are often divided, like evangelicals and charismatics. Why do you associate with movements that others shun?
Smith: Because I feel like it’s the right thing to do. I don’t really care what people think about me anymore. I used to, and I hate that I did. But I’m not a rebel either. I could wear myself out standing up for a million different things and die on the vine. I can’t do it all.
At the end of the day, you pray: God, what is it You want me to stand up for? What are the few things? You’ve given me favor and this platform. What do I speak up for? What do I write about?
I try my best to hear what he’s saying. Then I go down that road and pray I am doing the right thing. And, if not, I pray he will wake me up and steer me in another direction.
Do you talk in advance with worship leaders whose songs are featured?
Smith: I remember I called Cory for the first time when I heard “Reckless Love.” I said: Dude, wow. What a song. We developed a relationship, but it was all me hearing his song first.
I certainly called Elyssa Smith when I heard “Surrounded (Fight My Battles).” I asked, “Wow, tell me your story — how did this song happen?” As much as I can, I do call [emerging] artists. I am thankful for the opportunity to sing some really great songs that people have written for the church.
It’s a tough time in the music business. If my album helps a songwriter financially, that’s awesome. But I don’t do it for that reason. I do it because I love the song, and I think it will stand the test of time. These worship songs will be around for a long while.
Over Three Decades As Top Christian Artist
Thirty-six years after your debut album, the Christian music industry has shifted dramatically. What do you see as driving these changes?
Smith: I’m very blessed that I was making music back in the day when people actually bought CDs. Today, we got bookstores closing which is sad. It’s crazy.
Technology drives changes, which are good in some ways but not so good in other ways. You have a reach at your fingertips that we never had back in the day. A hard part is that it’s extremely difficult for new artists trying to get started. The competition is greater.
The streaming thing is crazy. My team just told me that my streaming numbers are going off the charts for the first time with the Surrounded project. I still don’t think it’s fair, the way it’s set up. Intellectual property should not be free. It’s like painting a work of art — are we supposed to give that away? No. But factors like this make it challenging.
It’s all very interesting. I’ll let those guys who live in the world of the future figure that out. I just stay on task. It wears me out to think about it, and I won’t be able to create anything.
Vertical and Horizontal Songs
Christian radio has shifted from pop music to an emphasis on worship songs. Does this affect what you do as a songwriter and recording artist?
Smith: What other people are doing does not really affect me, honestly. I write what inspires and convicts me, what pushes my buttons. What’s happening at the moment? What has God called me to do? If a record gets radio play and sells well, that’s great. But I write what I feel.
One day, it could be: I’ve got vertical songs — I just want to write love songs to God for the next three days. Then you find out about injustice and sex slavery and you get livid — and you have to write about it. I did a lot of that on A Million Lights, writing even about social media and the need for connection. I could be writing a worship song one day and a pop song the next.
I can honestly say that I have not let what’s the most popular thing on radio dictate what I do creatively. That’s not who I am. I’m not going to chase the rabbit. And I’m not going to sell out and make something I feel is not deep enough, just to get on radio. I refuse to do that.
Passing the Baton
Many influential faith leaders have passed away in recent years, notably Billy Graham at whose funeral you sang. Do you see a new generation rising up to take their place?
Smith: I would hope there would be thousands who would do that. I don’t think there’s another Billy. And I don’t think his baton was passed to any one person.
We need a few thousand Joshuas to carry the baton of Billy. On some level, I’m probably one of those Joshuas. I was good friends with Billy. I spent a lot of time with him over the last 25 to 30 years.
Something was passed on to me. I don’t really know what that fully is. I hope it becomes more clear as I get older. Hopefully, we’ll know sooner rather than later.
Billy definitely loved me and I loved him. He poured his life into me on so many levels. The many prayers he prayed over me, something got deposited for sure.