The Early Years: Living the Life of a Prodigal
About the Guest
Christian recording artist and three-time Grammy Award winner Michael W. Smith talks about his formative years on today's broadcast with host Dennis Rainey.
Michael W. SmithMichael Whitaker Smith was born October 7, 1957 to Paul and Barbara Smith in Kenova, West Virginia. A sister named Kim would follow. Michael was a typical boy – active in baseball, his family’s church activities, and playing piano. But in not-so-typical fashion, he wrote his first song at age five. At the age of ten, he made a decision to give his life to Christ. He dreamed of playing professional baseball. Michael attended college at Marshall University in West Virginia but after one sem...more
Michael W. Smith talks about his formative years.
The Early Years: Living the Life of a Prodigal
Michael: All my friends were older. Me being a sophomore, they're all in college, and I thought that was cool, I'm hanging out with these older people, and they're all into the Lord and reading the Word, and we're singing praise songs, and …
… and it really affected my life. Then a year-and-a-half later, two years later, all these people had graduated from college; they all get married; they move off. All of a sudden the support team seemed to kind of disintegrate, and I'm standing going, "Wait, whoa, what happened?"
Bob: Before long, Michael W. Smith was learning an important lesson about the power of negative peer pressure, too.
Michael: Then, all of a sudden, a little thing, "Oh, yeah, come over here, come over here and take a ride with us," and "I'll try it one time, it won't hurt," and all I can tell you is I got deceived. The Lord said if there's a favorite name you can have for Satan, he is the great deceiver, and I got deceived and, all of a sudden, I found myself in this pit where I couldn't get out.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, February 15th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine and today Michael W. Smith tells us about his personal experience with the God of the Second Chance.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. You would have known, if I hadn't mentioned it, that that was Michael W. Smith, wouldn't you?
Dennis: I would have.
Bob: A distinctive voice, whether he's singing or speaking and, of course, this week everybody is noticing that he's now a movie star. Michael has moved up onto your local Cineplex screen in a new movie that is opening this weekend that's called "The Second Chance."
Dennis: You know, we always delight in a great story that honors God, and Michael W. Smith's life has done that – most of it. What many of our listeners perhaps don't know about him is that in addition to the 25 records that were number one, the 10 Golds, the five Platinums, and more than 7 million records sold is that he went through a period in his adolescence when he rebelled, he became a prodigal.
I was traveling when he stopped by the offices here, and you sit down with him in a studio and let the tape roll as we took a slice out of Michael W. Smith's life, and I think you, as a listener, are going to really enjoy getting to know this great entertainer who is about to become a movie star in an up close and personal way.
Bob: Describe for me the home in which you grew up.
Michael: A great home. My mom and dad did a lot of serving, as they still do.
Bob: Your mom was a caterer, and she still cooks for some things for family affairs, but also when you get a group together, she'll still cater the meal, right?
Michael: Especially when the band, we all go into rehearsals, production doesn't come up, the lights don't come up, all the band wants to know – when is mom coming with the homemade rolls? She's terrific – my dad as well.
Bob: What was his influence on your life? If you had to look back and say, "Here is how he marked me as a young man growing up?"
Michael: You know, just the way he loved my mom. You got the sense that no matter what came his way, I knew deep down inside, my dad would never leave my mom, he'll never leave this family. He made a commitment, and he was a hard worker. He worked at an oil refinery, Ashland Oil. He worked swing shift all his life. If don't know what that is, days one week, evenings the next midnight. He coached me in every league that I was ever in baseball.
Bob: What did you play?
Michael: I played shortstop.
Bob: Yeah, were you any good?
Michael: I was a pretty good baseball player?
Bob: Were you?
Michael: That's what I wanted to do, growing up, I wanted to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
Bob: Played high school ball?
Michael: At 15 I didn't make the All-Stars. That's when it all changed for me. I thought, "You know, I think music might be my destiny." And knew deep down inside that God had somehow had a call on my life. I couldn't understand it, and I didn't even know how to explain it, but I just knew – I even walked down the aisle …
Michael: Yeah, I became a Christian when I was 10, walked down the aisle then, never forget it – then gave my heart to Christ, and then at 15 I walked back down. It's the only two times I ever walked down the aisle at my church.
Bob: And at 10, what do you remember about what it was that stirred your heart that day?
Michael: I just knew that I would never make it throughout my life if I don't have the Lord in my life. I truly believe what He did for me was really true.
Bob: You walked the aisle at 15 a second time, and that was saying, "My music belongs to you?" Is that what that was about?
Michael: Yeah, I just felt like it was a recommitment, but music had something to do with it. Again, like I said earlier, I can't explain it. It was almost like, "Lord, I'm going to commit my life to you in my service, in whatever that occupation is." I thought it would be music.
Bob: How did you wind up in Nashville?
Michael: I knew that there were three music capitals of the world, and that was Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, and I certainly …
Bob: … didn't want to go to the first two?
Michael: I didn't, which I probably belonged in LA, you know, in terms of the music that was going on, because I was a big Toto fan, and all the pop records were made in LA. But I moved to Nashville, because I had a few contacts in Nashville, very few, and it was only a five-and-a-half-hour drive from my hometown in West Virginia.
Bob: And did Mom and Dad say, "So long, God bless, this is fine with us?"
Michael: They did, but it was hard. Oh, my mom, oh, you know, I was 20 when I left – I think I was 20 when I finally left home and, you know, I sent resume, and I went and met with this publisher, and he loved my music, he hated my lyrics, but he just thought, "Man, you've got – there's something about the way you write music is very, very unique," that's what he told me. He says, "I think you should move."
So I went back home, and a month later packed up this beat-up Chevrolet. My mom, she couldn't watch me, she just lost it and ran back in the house, and I knew when I got on the freeway, I knew that I would never move back to West Virginia. I just knew it.
Bob: As you just had that sense, "I'll never be back here again," was that exciting or frightening or both?
Michael: Both. You know, you're going into uncharted territory.
Bob: You're on your own. Did you know anybody in Nashville? Like, was there a place to spend the night when you got there?
Michael: I moved in with somebody that I knew through another person and was going to go landscape, I was going to be a landscaper, you know, and …
Bob: Everybody's got to have a day job.
Michael: Everybody's got to have a day job, and then I would write songs on the side.
Bob: What do you think it was that first turned the trajectory of your life so that you were just heading down the wrong road?
Michael: Well, I think I was reckless, I think I was unwise, I thought I could play with the fire and not get burned, you know. You need to understand, all growing up I was just on fire – I was a Jesus freak, I was. I wore a big wood cross around my neck, had a leather Scofield Bible, and all the friends my age were all drinking 12 packs of beer and smoking dope, you know? I was in Bible study six nights.
Bob: And you were staying away from all of that?
Michael: Staying away from it. All my friends were older. They all were – me being a sophomore, they're all in college, and I thought that was cool, my hanging out with these older people, and they're all into the Lord and reading the Word, we're singing praise songs, and it really affected my life. Then a year-and-a-half later, two years later, all these people, they graduated from college, they all get married, they move off. All of a sudden, the support team seemed to kind of disintegrate. I'm sitting there going, "Wait, whoa, what have I got to hang onto?" And then, all of a sudden, a little thing, "Oh, yeah, come over here, I'll come over here and take a ride with us," and I'll try it one time, it won't hurt.
I kind of go, what happened? And all I can tell you is I got deceived. The Lord said if there's a favorite name you can have for Satan, he is the great deceiver, and I got deceived and, all of a sudden, I found myself in this pit where I couldn't get out.
Bob: Were Mom and Dad aware of what was going on?
Michael: Yeah, they were, especially the year after that, they really were aware. I mean, I'd probably know they were probably very aware from day one. They were trying to give me my space, I know they prayed for me big time, and I was confronted a few times by them, but it was never – it was always in love, you know, and I look back on it and go, "Wow, what a mom and dad."
Bob: If you found out one of your kids was off in the ditch, would you do what your parents did?
Michael: Yeah, definitely. I mean, my parents weren't hands on because I was in Nashville. That's when I had my little nervous breakdown, you know. You know, I'd probably just go love on my kids. If it was Ryan or Tyler, you know, I'd probably – the last thing I would was chew them out, because I think they know. They know the consequences. They are all, fortunately, are God-followers. It's pretty cool. Some more mature than others, where you see Ryan and Whitney, my 21- and 19-year-old, you sit and read a little bit of what they're journaling, you know, it's mind-boggling.
Bob: It's pretty awesome?
Michael: Oh, it's like you're sitting there and go – the whole career could all fall apart, we could go bankrupt, but you know what? I'm a rich man because of what's happening with my kids.
Bob: 3 John 4 says, "I have no greater joy than this – to see my children walking in the truth." That's true, isn't it?
Michael: It is.
Bob: You came to the end of yourself, you found yourself in the trough with the pigs. You said it was a breakdown? What happened?
Michael: It was 1979, it was October and, really, throughout that summer of '79, I knew that if I didn't make a change that I was going to potentially die.
Michael: I almost had a drug overdose. One time I didn't something really stupid, I thought I was dying. That woke me up. But as much as I tried to get out of the pit, I couldn't get out. I tried. I wanted to, but I couldn't. It was like I was stuck, you know? So I began to pray that God would do whatever He had to do to get my attention – break my legs, car wreck, just don't kill me, but get my attention.
Bob: You're asking for the discipline of God …
Michael: Because I know if He doesn't …
Bob: … you're dead …
Michael: … it could be over.
Bob: And did He get your attention?
Michael: He did.
Bob: How did he do it?
Michael: He took my joy away.
Bob: What do you mean?
Michael: I became very, very depressed.
Michael: Which is – I mean, talk to all my people – well, the folks I grew up with in West Virginia and who I am in Nashville. I'm, like, "Hey, what's up," you know, it's like, I'm a people person. All of sudden, boy, it all turned, and I know my mom and dad are on their knees. I know they're crying and praying for me every night. They know what's going on, you know, and they're – what can they do, you know? I'm an adult.
I'll never forget, I was in my kitchen at midnight, and I literally fell to the ground – I was all by myself – and I felt like I had a breakdown and for at least two hours, I was curled up like a baby, and just sweating and crying and shaking and it was just the weirdest thing. And I remember at the end of that, 2 or 3:00 in the morning, this calm came over me, and I felt like the presence of God showed up; that God came and stretched His hand, just like that painting, you know, that hand comes down from heaven and just came in through the ceiling of that kitchen and grabbed my hand, and I woke up the next morning, and I haven't been the same since.
Bob: A complete turnaround, I mean, walked away?
Michael: I remember I went out and tried to …
Bob: … tried to get high?
Michael: Yeah, and I hated it.
Michael: And I thought, "That's weird."
Bob: Yeah [chuckles]
Michael: And then I said, "God, is that you? Are you really taking my desire away? Oh, God, please take my desire away." Then, all of a sudden, I quit doing all those things. It's, like, it didn't bring any peace, and then I also get the sense of going, "Ooohooo, man, God has rescued me. Boy, does He have a plan for my life."
I think I was trying to write Christian songs, I don't know, that didn't work too well. And I walk in the next day, and my publishers says, "Can I see you a moment? I want to talk to you." He says, "Look, this is kind of bizarre. I really want you to stay here and write songs, but there's a group called Higher Ground, they're a Gospel group, and they're looking for a piano player. And my eyes lit up big time, because I knew that was the Lord. Isn't it interesting, the very next day after this breakdown, and I just said, "I'll take the job, I'll just take it." And, for the next nine to 10 months on the road with them, they nurtured me back to health spiritually.
Bob: Really? You have undoubtedly seen guys involved, either trying to get into Christian music or guys who have gotten into Christian music who have wound up messed up. Have you been able to go to those guys and, with the background you've had, say, "You've got to get some help, you've got to cry out to the Lord?"
Bob: You've seen it happen?
Michael: Some of them, yeah. You know what? In all that, I mean, you know, the wild thing is every one of us are susceptible of taking the dive. So what you have to do is you have to – I don't care how much you love God, there's traps out there. So what you have to do is you have to set up parameters and boundaries and support teams at all costs, period – at all costs. And unfortunately a lot of these young bands, some of these younger artists, they get pushed out there – I blame a lot of that on the record company. I won't get into all that, you know, we all care about their careers but what about their spiritual life, you know? And we throw them out to the wolves, and there's no pastor out there with them, and then it's just a complete disaster.
So a lot of times, I've been able to counsel and say, "Here is what I think you need to do" in terms of support teams and accountability. And I've, fortunately, had that in my life now.
Bob: Yeah, what do you do? What do you do? What kind of accountability? What measures have you set up?
Michael: I have some men in my life that I kind of hold myself accountable to. If they look and think I'm getting a big head and whatever, they'll come up and slap me around – "Snap out of it." They're not impressed. And then my biggest influence, other than my wife – she's probably my biggest accountability partner – probably the one person that's had the most impact on my life is my pastor, Don Finto, and I've walked with Don for – well, ever since that incident in '79, we've walked 25, 26 years together. So he has the real freedom to speak into my life.
Bob: As your career has gotten bigger – three Grammy Awards, 40 Dove Awards, 13 million unit sales – do the temptations get harder?
Michael: You know, I think the temptations are different. For example, the whole movie star, success, selling records, being the king of the hill, I could care less, because I know that stuff doesn't bring you peace. So, from experience, I know what brings true peace, is walking with God and being in His will. That's why I'm always, "God, don't let me miss it. It's too late to miss it." So I'm here for a short time, let me be about Your business and Your business only, because I know that's the bottom line, that's what needs to happen. But all the other temptations like, I mean, it could be, well, you think that – sometimes you think, oh, everything is cool in terms of other women and all that sort of thing – I am so in love with my wife, my marriage has never been better.
And, you know, you think you've got that old thing locked up, everything is cool, I'm not even tempted, and you think, "Wow, God, thank you for that," and then, all of a sudden, some woman walks by, and you do a double-turn, and you go "Whoa, wait, God, God," you know, and so you just – you know, you're tempted but what do you do with the temptation, and that's when you don't look back the second time, and you go, "I'm going to walk straight ahead and keep my eyes straight forward." It comes up, and it surprises you, that's the wild thing, and that's Satan, you know, just trying to trap you again.
Bob: Well, again, that is Michael W. Smith, who becomes a movie star this weekend, and would to God that there would be more movie stars who have that kind of a worldview, right?
Dennis: A family man, how about that?
Bob: And not only that, but someone who can articulate a story of being redeemed. He went from what could have been the destruction of his life and came to a place where not only has he experienced success but he has found the peace of walking with God.
Dennis: And just to apply to where families may find themselves today, just a couple of lessons from his life – friends were powerful in Michael's life. When he lost his Christian friends, he described himself as vulnerable. He lost his support group, and when we observe our teenagers hanging with the wrong crowd – Barbara and I, when we would do that, if we would see one of our children beginning to drift toward the wrong set of friends as we grew older in raising our children, we gave greater, shall I say, "reverence" to the power of those friends for evil in our children's life than we did earlier as we started out raising teenagers.
Bob: Well, you kept reinforcing that verse from 1 Corinthians, "Do not be deceived. Bad company corrupts good morals."
Dennis: I'm telling you, that verse is true, and you saw how close Michael's life came to destruction because of that.
The second thing that I really leave this story with today in terms of application, is the power of two things – the power of God in redemption of a human being, the Gospel does change people's lives, and we cannot look at a circumstance in a child's life, in a spouse's life, in a friend's life, and say, "That's too big for God. He can do it. He's been doing it since the foundation of the earth, and that's what God delights in. And the other thing is not only the power of God but the power of a family. Michael W. Smith is alive today because, humanly speaking, he came from a family that never gave up on him; that kept on pursuing him and loving him and reminding him of the truth, and you know what? Prodigals desperately need to be loved. They don't need to be enabled. They don't need us to reinforce them in their sin or rescue them at every point from the consequences of that sin, but they do need to be loved, and there is no greater place to find that than in a family.
Bob: You remember the message that we featured on FamilyLife Today – oh, I don't know, it's been a number of months ago by Phil Waldrip on the subject of prodigals. I think it offered some of the best counsel I've heard on that subject for parents of prodigals, and we got a great response from listeners. In fact, Phil has written a book on the subject as well, and we have both that message and Phil's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and if any of our listeners are in that spot; you've had a child who has wandered from the faith, and you're wondering how do we handle this situation, let me encourage you to go to our FamilyLife Resource Center and get a copy of the message from Phil Waldrip, the book that he's written on prodigals. There is also addition information on our website at FamilyLife.com. There is a 31-day devotional called "Encouragement for the Broken-Hearted Parent."
Again, the website is FamilyLife.com. If you click in the middle of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," that will take you right to a page where you can get more information about any of the resources that we have available for parents of prodigals. Again, our website is FamilyLife.com, and we also have the sound track from Michael W. Smith's new movie called "The Second Chance." It features songs from Michael, also Third Day, Fred Hammond, Andre Crouch, Jars of Clay, The Holmes Brothers, Ruben Studdard, who was on "American Idol," is on this CD as well. If you're interested in a copy of the original motion picture soundtrack for "The Second Chance," there is information about how to order a copy of that on our website as well.
The address again is FamilyLife.com, click where it says "Today's Broadcast," and you'll get information on all of these resources, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we can let you know how you can have these resources sent out to you.
When you get in touch with us, would you keep in mind that FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. Programs like the one you've heard today are made possible because folks who live in your community, in your neighborhood, folks you go to church with, have called in from time to time and said, "We'd like to help out with the costs associated with this program by making a donation." And maybe you've been listening for a while, and you've never done that. Can we invite you to become a part of that group of folks who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today by making a donation? During the month of February, we'd love to send you a CD as our way of saying thank you for your support of this ministry.
And the CD we'd like to send you features Jody and Linda Dillow speaking at a FamilyLife conference a number of months ago on the subject of intimacy in marriage. It's a powerful message about God's purpose and design for marital intimacy. We'd love to send you that CD as our way of saying thanks for your financial support, and you can request it when you make a donation online at FamilyLife.com. When you get to the keycode box, just write in the word "flame," and we'll know that you'd like to have the CD from Jody and Linda Dillow sent to you.
Or call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation over the phone and just let someone know that you're interested in the CD about intimacy in marriage, and we'll get that out to you as well. And thanks for your financial support of FamilyLife Today, we appreciate it.
Tomorrow we'll hear more from Michael W. Smith about his music and about his family, his marriage, and about the new movie, "The Second Chance," that opens this weekend. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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