Michael W. Smith, Making a Ministry

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One day, a six-year-old girl from Quiaquil, Ecuador received a sponsorship from Compassion International. The sponsor was an American who became very involved in the girl’s life, calling her, writing her and even paying for her to come visit America and spend time with his family. The sponsorship so radically changed the girl’s life — improving her living conditions and that of her family — that 20 members of her extended family came to know Christ. That sponsor was Michael W. Smith.

At last count, Smith and his family sponsor five children through Compassion International. Gavi, the girl from Ecuador whom he has sponsored since she was six, is now 20 and has recently married. She and Smith still talk frequently by phone. When Smith talks about Gavi, he does so with fondness, confessing that it frustrates him because they still struggle with language differences. He vows (again) that he is going to learn Spanish. Throughout the years, Smith had the honor of presenting Gavi with her high school diploma. She, in turn, surprised him in Nashville, Tenn. a few years ago, when she showed up at the Dove Awards to present him with an award.

Since Smith partnered with Compassion International 15 years ago, he has recruited monthly sponsors for 22,000 impoverished children across the world. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, recounts stories about Smith faithfully talking about the worldwide relief ministry at each of his concerts, telling people how they can, and should, feed and clothe the children of the world.

“The thing I most admire about Smitty is that he has this huge presence and great following, but he’s very focused on God and he’s absolutely genuine,” says Stafford. “We could say, ‘Smitty, push a bit harder or tell it more compellingly,’ but he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is be himself, because of the respect people have for him.”

Because of his success in music, Smith has garnered influence and gained access to many of the world’s rich, famous and powerful — even the president of the United States. He has used that influence, not for himself, but to build ministries like the new Rocketown Youth Ministries building in Nashville, Tenn., which aims to help disadvantaged kids. A longtime friend of the Bush family, Smith has spent time at the white house with both former President George Bush, Sr. and President George W. Bush. According to Smith, former President George Bush, Sr. was chairman of a fundraiser that raised $2.3 million for Rocketown. An anonymous donor agreed to match the amount, making it $4.6 million.

Always having a heart for youth, Smith and his wife, Debbie, originally launched Rocketown Youth Ministries in 1994 and lost the building lease in 1997. Relocated from Franklin, Tenn., to downtown Nashville and reopened in January, Rocketown is a safe place where kids can come to dance, hear live bands, play video games, skate (board and inline) and hang out with friends. The 40,000 square-foot building is home to a coffee house, an all-ages nightclub, a 13,000 square-foot skate park and soon, a cyber cafe

At Rocketown, the staff not only provides safe entertainment, but strives to help the more than 1,000 kids who cross the threshold each week with problems such as eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse and neglectful parents.

“We are here to be that one person in a kid’s life that remembers their name and is consistent,” says Matt Grace, administrative director at Rocketown. “We aren’t pushy or obtrusive. We are consistent in a world where things change everyday, where parents, teachers and friends are inconsistent.”

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Of course the goal at Rocketown is to draw non-Christian kids and tell them about Jesus. Rocketown does have skate group Bible studies and well-known Christian bands that share their testimonies, but they also have secular music and bands (carefully selected). The key is to get to know the kids first and then share the gospel with them.

Smith has always been involved in sharing the gospel, but that sharing took new shape for Smith when he founded New River Fellowship Church in 1999 on his farm in Franklin, Tenn. Since moving to the local YMCA, more than 300 people gather at the nondenominational church to hear Smith, a co-pastor, sing and preach God’s Word.

Michael and Debbie Smith felt God lead them to create this informal church where the focus is, what else? Worship. Another twist is that New River doesn’t have a senior pastor, but three co-pastors: Smith, Raphael Giglio and Colin Campbell, who serve as elders, offering service in their areas of gifting. According to Giglio, his gift is planning and administration, while Campbell’s is pastoral counseling and Smith’s is worship and vision for the ministry.

Smith has always had a heart for the land of Isreal and for the Jewish people to come to know Jesus. Much of their mission outreach is directed to Israel. Giglio explains that, at New River, the congregation celebrates some of the Jewish feasts, such as the Passover meal, to incorporate their Jewish roots into their current practice of Christianity.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about New River is that Michael W. Smith is one of the pastors and the lead worshipper. According to Giglio, Smith is always giving himself into worship and letting God take over. Giglio recalls many times this has happened, including back in 2002, when he joined Smith to record the album, Worship, at Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Fla.

“I anointed him with oil and prayed over him,” remembers Giglio. “And there was this holy, heavy moment, where he challenged us all — regardless of what we have done in the past-to pour our hearts out before the Lord and approach this worship time with as much boldness, with as much sincerity and excitement as the Lord led us to. Then, he fell on the floor and he was weeping, along with several others in the room. When we went on to the stage, the dam burst forth, and we erupted in joy and excitement.”

Nobody leads worship like Michael W. Smith.

Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.

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