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Michael W. Smith: Going Global

  • Andrew Greer
  • Updated Nov 18, 2008
Michael W. Smith:  Going Global

Since Michael W. Smith released his first live worship record in 2001, the 25-year veteran has released a Gold-selling sequel, Worship Again (Reunion), a couple pop records, a greatest hits and a Christmas collection and garnered a few Platinum certifications, a handful of Dove Awards and a GRAMMY.

But none of these projects or accolades compare to Smith’s recent experiences overseas. From Asia to Africa, Smith has trotted the globe to witness firsthand the plights of the impoverished, affording him a fresh perspective on worship and granting him the inspiration for A New Hallelujah, an epic musical experience recorded before 12,000 worshippers at Houston’s Lakewood Church earlier this year.

During a day off from the “United Tour” with Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael discusses the preparation (and vision) for A New Hallelujah, its international influence and how worship is more than just music.

CMP:  A New Hallelujah is your first worship-specific record since 2002’s Worship Again. What inspired you to record another worship album versus a new studio record?

Michael W. Smith:  It was my intent to do a pop record, but it ended up coming down to the kinds of songs I was writing. I think I began to search my heart, and it felt more corporate. I thought, “We need to do this thing live.” 

I still struggle calling these records “worship” records because I have a different interpretation of what worship is, in that I think it’s a lifestyle. Worship should be everything that we are and everything that we’re involved in—the people we run into, hanging out with your kids—it’s all an act of worship to me.

CMP:  Worship music is generally tagged as “vertical music.” Can worship music also be “horizontal,” encouraging us to reach out and take action?

Michael:  I think we need just as many songs that do the horizontal thing. In my opinion, we can worship until we’re blue in the face, but if we’re not feeding the poor, taking care of the orphans and looking after the downtrodden, then I think we’ve totally missed it.

We started getting big mega-churches, and we have great styles of worship; and then we leave the parking lot and see the homeless man, and nobody stops. We’ve got to get it together and get back to what’s really important and what resonates with the heart of God. We can sing songs, but we’ve got to be hands and feet as well. … Didn’t mean to preach a sermon. [Laughs]

CMP:  We know about your involvement with the ONE campaign, Compassion International and your close friendship with the President. How have these relationships shaped your worldview and the themes on this record?

Michael:  I began to realize [that] I can make a difference. We all have a voice. We can all stand up for what we feel like is important—what can change the world.

You mentioned the ONE campaign and my involvement with Bono. I end up talking to the President, and we got this 15 billion dollar bill passed to allow this anti-viral drug into these AIDS-stricken nations, especially Africa. And it’s working.

It’s up to us. There’s no Plan B. There’s no Plan B. It’s time to make a difference.

Look at the African Children’s Choir [featured on the record]. Although they are in the choir, they represent the poorest of the poor. These kids are all orphans. They [brought] a lot of joy to [that] night.

CMP:  Speaking of the African Children’s Choir, A New Hallelujah definitely has a global emphasis.

Michael:  I was very inspired by my time overseas. Stuff that was going on in Brazil, South Africa and Kenya was amazing. It was an incredible time of worship. So that’s probably why it has a bit of an international flair. It is definitely different than the other two [worship] records.

CMP:  Tell me more about preparing for the night [of the recording] and the night itself.

Michael:  There was a lot to think about. You’ve got the African Children’s Choir. You’ve got the technical stuff. We’re doing a DVD [releasing Spring 2009]. Pulling the songs together, trying to get the arrangements right; and everybody’s working on lights and all this stuff.

I wanted to get prepared and then let all that go and not have to think about any of that on the night [of the recording]. I wanted this to have so much authenticity. We weren’t trying to whip anybody into crazy emotions or have some sort of pep rally. [We just wanted to] let it be authentic and real.

I think it connected. And when people respond, all of a sudden you’re in the middle of a big experience, a God experience. I believe people were touched that night, and it translated to the CD. And I think we probably have a good chance, by the grace of God, for this record to connect with people all around the world.

CMP:  Share the story behind the record’s closing track, “A River Is Rising.”

Michael:  We had rehearsed all week, and we were recording on Friday night. Thursday morning, I woke up in my hotel room, and I felt this kick [drum] going on in my head. I started writing this song lying in bed. I guess I was just excited.

I showed up an hour and a half later to rehearsal and looked at the band and said, “Guys, I’ve got a wild idea.” As soon as I say that, they all run. [Laughs] But then we started playing this song, and 36 hours later, it’s on the record. It was crazy.

CMP:  With the wealth of great worship songs in the market, how do you select songs for a worship recording, and how do you prepare yourself to contribute songs to the collection?

Michael:  On the songs that were familiar I just tried to pick great songs. We made Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” really big. When you have 12,000 people in the house, it’s just going to feel big. Another great song is “Mighty to Save.” I’ve been leading it for two years in my church, and it works every time.

In terms of contributions, I just started writing love songs for God. “Deep in Love with You” is probably one of my favorite songs on the record because it was so heartfelt. I started a journal and discovered I was writing lyrics and having ideas that I’ve never had before.

I think there are more mediocre songs out there than great songs when it comes to worship music. That’s just my opinion. I wanted to throw my songs up there against all these other songs I could’ve picked because I wanted to raise the bar.

CMP:  With all the passion and energy that goes into preparing a worship night of this magnitude, how do you also encourage 12,000 people to move beyond the church walls and take action?  If that’s even a fair question.

Michael:  Yeah it is.

I still meet so many people who struggle with self-worth. They struggle with “Does God really love me?” and “Maybe if I do all the right things, God will love me more.”  There are all kinds of reasons for that—bad father figures, moms checking out and bad theology—and the Gospel called “Grace” has not been preached.

God doesn’t just love us, but He actually likes us. He’s so very fond of us; that just floors people. So many have based their life on performance instead of response.

I believe when you get that message you will automatically get out of the walls of the church. That’s when [the church] will become hands and feet. They’ll go out and open up orphanages. They’ll go build a house for Habitat, and they’ll mentor a kid in boys club or a girl with a drug addiction.

Because it’s not about you; it’s not about the job; it’s not about the car; and it’s not about the house you live in. You just become very secure in who you are, and then you want to go out and change the world, because you realize it’s not about you.

CMP:  So it’s a response to the reception of Grace?

Michael:  It’s a response. It’s not performance. I’m not saying there are not ramifications for sin. My dad loved me well. If I broke the law—if I broke the rules—I paid for it. But it didn’t have anything to do with whether he loved me.

CMP:  Celebrating 25 years of making records, how does A New Hallelujah prepare us for the next chapter of Michael W. Smith?

Michael:  I’m not really sure. And I’m OK with that. I’ve always said, “God, when the inspiration comes, it’ll come.” I’ve never fought it. I’ve never tried to control it. So I’m not going to change my plan.

I do believe that when I hop back in the studio, it’s going to gush out. I just have to be ready to hit red, to put it in record and see what happens.

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©2008  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.

*This interview first published on November 11, 2008.