Going Vertical

Whether with a contemporary or traditional style, Michael W. Smith is challenging believers to fight stale familiarity and embrace the fresh spirit that is blowing through the church and pointing worshipers upward to God.

Backstage before a recent concert, Michael W. Smith deftly makes his way through a throng of fans. He autographs posters and CD cases, poses for pictures--all the while answering questions from a stream of management, record-company and publicity people who seem to always have one more detail needing his approval.

"He's been at this a long time," says one of his handlers. She tells of a time when Smith and former AOL Time Warner chief Steve Case were walking along in quiet conversation. A journalist trudges up and gets an impromptu interview from Smith as the three continue their walk.

"Somebody always wants something from him," says the handler. "And he always gives it with patience and grace. It's amazing to see."

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Patient as he is, Smith doesn't appreciate those who question his sincerity. When Christian music magazine CCM asked him how he felt about some media speculation that the recording of Worship Again was motivated by his first worship album's phenomenal sales, Smith replied with firmness and honesty:

"Don't be cynical. Listen to the record. Let it speak for itself. For me, I think I can positively say it's authentic, and I think the bottom line is that I can't change people's minds ... I've got a good team of spiritual advisers that help me hold this thing together, and I feel I had the right kind of heart when I did the record. And that's all I can say to that point. I'm the one who's going to have to stand before God in the end and answer to Him."

In more than two decades of writing and performing, Smith has achieved an almost iconic status in the world of contemporary Christian music. His first No. 1 single was "Great Is the Lord" in 1983. Since then, he's topped the charts 27 more times, racked up 40 Dove Awards and two Grammys, and sold more than 10 million albums. The man needs no introduction--except, perhaps, to point out that his career has taken a decidedly vertical turn of late.

A pop musician for most of his career, Smith finally went full-fledged praise and worship with the release of Worship on September 11, 2001 (yes, that 9/11). The album became the best-selling Christian album of 2001 and 2002. Of course, public worship is nothing new to Smith. He has written and performed some of the most popular praise and worship choruses of our time, such as "Agnus Dei," "How Majestic Is Your Name" and "Thy Word."

Smith has led worship at his home church, New River Fellowship in Franklin, Tennessee, and others for most of his life and has incorporated worship segments into his concerts since his earliest days as a performer.

During the last year, Smitty--as many in the music biz call him--participated in the Come Together and Worship Tour, with the Southern rock group Third Day and pastor-author Max Lucado. Each of the tour's 33 concerts was an elaborate praise and worship event, with 10,000 people at a time giving voice to such songs as "Open the Eyes of My Heart" and "Draw Me Close."

With his years leading worship and now the popularity of his Worship albums (not to mention his 2001 performance at President Bush's Inaugural Prayer Service), Smith has become a kind of worship leader laureate for America. Who better for Ministries Today to check with for the state of worship music in our churches and our society?

Ministries Today: Why has worship music become so popular lately?

Michael W. Smith: It sounds pat, but there's a real movement of God around the world. We're seeing people get extremely passionate about their faith, about their walk with God.

They want to express that love and awe, and they're doing it, in part, through praise and worship music--probably like never before.

The older praise songs and hymns are fine, but I really believe that there are songs being written today that specifically address what God's people want to articulate, what they want to pray. These new songs are unique to our time, to our culture.

Ministries Today: Why is that important?

For one, God wants us to continually use everything we have--and that includes our creativity, our song-creating ability--to honor Him. And also because when people can relate to a song or to a certain music style, it's easier to invest yourself in it. You're not stumbling over something foreign to you, worried about getting it right. You're able to go with it, and put your mind where it should be, on the Person the song is meant for.

Ministries Today: Are world events pushing people toward God?

MWS: Absolutely. These are scary times. Terrorism, war, new diseases. In uncertain times, people turn to the certain.

Ministries Today: How do you define worship music?

MWS: It's music that takes you to the throne room of God. Forget the charts--what's selling, what's being played on the radio. When music helps you enter into the presence of God, you know it. It's you and God.

Instead of drawing attention to the performer, it points only to God. Its direction is vertical, not horizontal. Instead of evoking thoughts of human friendship and love--good things for Christians to think about--it evokes the traits of God and praises Him for those traits. Even better to think about.

But let me say this about worship: I'm always reluctant to say: "OK, we're going to have a worship service. We're going to worship now." Worship is a lifestyle, it's not just music. It's how you treat God at the grocery store, around your lawyer, your doctor.

Ministries Today: If worship is a lifestyle, how do we effectively proclaim our faith both to the skeptic and the choir member?

MWS: Some people are called to proclaim their faith to those outside the church. Some are called to go into churches and build up the body of Christ. We each have to know our role.

I was in the White House having dinner with the president. I don't say, "Now Mr. President, are you sure that Jesus is the Lord of your life?" I'm just not going to have that conversation with him. I know that the president has a relationship with God. I hope I can be a mentor to him and speak to his life where he will allow me to do that.

I don't think God wants me to beat people over the head with my faith. The way I live my life says it better than I can with words.

When I was with Billy Joel and Tony Bennett at the Grammys last year, I didn't preach a sermon. I established relationships.

When you're friends with somebody, there will come a time when you can say something about God; it's usually when they really need to hear it, when they're in a position to listen.

Ministries Today: Many people attend the church they do because of the music style of its worship. In a 2002 survey by Christian researcher George Barna, 17 percent of church people said they would likely leave a church if its music style changed. What are your thoughts on this?

MWS: A lot of factors determine what the right church is for people. Music is one of them. Again, it comes back to speaking the language of the times. What are people comfortable with? What type of music will help them enter God's presence?

There's probably nothing wrong with letting music be a determining factor, as long as the intent of the heart is to find a fellowship that lets you really let go and express your gratitude.

You know, I'm still trying to figure out what Sunday mornings are supposed to be about, anyway. Singing a couple hymns, taking an offering, making the announcements, having a 30-minute sermon--I'm not convinced that's the way the Acts church was.

Whatever the church is, it's got to be a great place where you can really be yourself and express yourself. At the same time, it needs to be a fellowship where you're comfortable giving and not always receiving.

Ministries Today: What's up with these "worship wars?"

MWS: That is tough. It's something going on all around the country. Worship leaders want to try something new, and some in the congregation don't. Or they do, and the worship leaders don't.

I think the best solution is to have multiple services, with different music styles at each. One has hymns and a choir. Nothing wrong with that. The next one has more contemporary stuff. Nothing wrong with that, either.

I've heard some people argue that you can "let go" more with contemporary music. I don't think that's a valid argument. You can let go just as well with traditional music. If there's a problem with the older stuff, it could be just that we're too used to it.

Some people have become complacent with it. But that's a problem all worship leaders face sooner or later: The spirit of familiarity--suddenly people have heard something so many times, they just mouth the words, and they're not really hearing them, sending them to God.

How many times have I sung "Open the Eyes of My Heart"? A lot. Every time, I pray that I can sing it like it's the very first time. And God has blessed me with that.

Ministries Today: How can worship leaders fight that spirit of familiarity?

MWS: It's a challenge. They have to be careful not to burn people out on the songs they love the most. We have to keep our worship fresh, so we can hear the words and know what they say. Always be looking for good worship songs. We need to have a bunch of really great songs to pick from so that we can sing different ones from one week to another.

Ministries Today: What should be the relationship between a senior pastor and a music minister?

MWS: I have a hard time with the concept of a "senior pastor." I suppose there are great senior pastors out there, ones who help steer the staff toward common goals and all that. But I've seen them become rulers of the roost.

I believe the church is supposed to have plurality. It's fine to have a leader of leaders, and if you want to call him "senior pastor," that's OK.

I think the pastors and a group of elders should all work through issues together, instead of one guy calling all the shots; that can be a really dangerous place. I hate to put it this way, but the worship guy has to have as much clout as the lead pastor does. That's how important music is on Sunday. That's my opinion; I could be wrong.

I don't have any complaints about sermons. We need to learn about God and understand what our loving Him looks like in our lives. But Sunday morning needs to be up--vertical prayer songs and pouring our hearts out to God: Thank You, God; thank You, God; thank You, God!

Ministries Today: What makes a mediocre worship song?

MWS: Lack of freshness. A lyric that's been repeated in a thousand songs, a melody that's been done before. I hate to critique, but mediocre worship songs are a dime a dozen. They don't stir your soul. They don't inspire you to send them to God in thought and through singing. They just sit there in your heart.

Ministries Today: And what makes a great worship song?

MWS: I'll never forget the first time I ran across the song called "Above All." I just completely lost it. It was fresh. There's nothing necessarily melodic about it. It's a very simple melody, but the words married to that music ... ah. Obviously, the lyric really makes that song.

Take a song like "Breathe": There's nothing spectacular about it, but there's that hook, "I'm desperate for You." That line makes the whole song. Not just the line, but the melody with that lyric--it's a home run. Songwriters need to simplify. We get all complicated, and it ruins things.

Ministries Today: What do you do to get into a writing frame of mind?

MWS: I listen to a lot of soundtracks. My favorite soundtrack of all time is The Mission [by Ennio Morricone]. I'm also a big John Williams fan. I know every theme song that John Williams ever did [Star Wars, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan and others]. The guy is so melodic, it's ridiculous. Jurassic Park is one of my favorite John Williams scores.

As far as the process of writing, I can't sit down and say, "Hey, I'm going to write a worship song." I've never been good at that.

All the things that I've written, that I love, have happened just like that, in five minutes. I just wish they came along a little more often.

Ministries Today: Have you abandoned pop music?

MWS: Oh, no. Worship just happens to be something I've been doing for a long time. I grew up listening to the Beetles and Elton John. I've always felt like a pop guy, from day one. That's what I really love to do.

Ministries Today: Tell us how Worship came about?

MWS: Whew ... that's a story. I had more cautions doing a worship album than anything I've ever done in my life.

Ministries Today: Why?

MWS: Because worship was becoming very popular. I knew people would think I was doing it just because that was selling. I canceled the project three times.

It's one of the very few times when I've woken up in the middle of the night and knew--knew--God had a word for me. And that word was: "This is what I'm calling you to do." I'll never forget it.

I got up the next morning and said, "I'm doing the worship album." I don't care if it sells 50,000 records or 50 records. Basically, I went down there [to Lakeland, Florida, where the album was recorded live] and just did what I do at my church--I led worship.

I let the music ebb and flow. We did three songs that weren't even on the song list. God guided us. It was an amazing journey. And it turns out to be the biggest record of my career.

After Worship, I went into the studio to do this pop album I've had on the back burner for a while. Every time I sat down at the keyboard, more worship came out. I said, "Oh, I think I'm supposed to do worship ... again." So I put everything on hold and did Worship Again.

Ministries Today: Do you think there are groups jumping on the worship bandwagon?

MWS: Yep, I do. Some people are doing worship albums because they think they'll have some success with it these days. Five years ago, they'd have tried to do a pop album. It's the "whatever works" mentality.

Of course, not everybody's that way. Most are very sincere in their desire to create something honoring to God and to praise and thank Him.

Sometimes, it's the record companies, not the artists, that are to blame. The companies push artists into doing whatever's popular at the time. Right now, that's worship.

Ministries Today: Is there anything else about the current "worship boom" that concerns you?

MWS: Well, I think there are some churches, especially large ones, that are very closed to change. They've been doing things the same way forever. Why consider anything new? But they're missing a great movement of God.

I really believe all this new interest in worship--the people getting interested and the new music that's coming out--it's all a great new thing God's doing. I'm not saying you should forget the things God has taught you, but God is doing something new right now, and it's wonderful. Can you hear it? It's in the music.

Ministries Today: Pastor Smith!

MWS: I sort of pastor at New River, though not in the strict sense. I pastor through my fingers, leading worship. That's a part of pastoring people. I'm not the greatest speaker in the world, so I keep my sermons under 10 minutes.

I'm always intimidated, thinking of all the great speakers out there, the Jack Hayfords. I'm on the road with Max Lucado, and I feel like a little peapod, so small next to him.

Ministries Today: Whether you are leading worship in a church or an arena, is there anything one can do to get the audience more involved, more into the worship?

MWS: The most important thing is doing the right songs. You can tell which songs are moving your listeners, which ones are touching them.

Some songs will always do it. "Open the Eyes of My Heart" is one that is a slam-dunk. People respond to it all the time; I do, too. A worship leader needs to know the ones that always turn hearts heavenward.

Then, if the songs they're doing aren't cutting it, go to the surefire songs. After that, even ones that are great, but weren't quite working before, might now.

Ministries Today: So, what now?

MWS: That pop record I started three years ago is now back on track, and I'm just absolutely thrilled with it. It feels like the old days again, getting back and making great music, and so I'm on target doing this. I'll be spending the next six months doing that record. And I want to continue to lead worship.

Let me tell you, I'm in awe that I get to lead worship in such a God-filled time as this. I'm seeing people react in ways that I would never have seen 10 years ago. It's astonishing to me. What a wonderful time to be a worship leader.

Bob Liparulo writes regularly about cultural leaders from his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His thriller novel, Comes a Horseman (Nelson), comes out in May 2004.

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