Michael W. Smith at Southeast

By Lisa Buth


When he said good-bye to the people at Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, in April, Michael W. Smith never imagined he would see them again in three months. After all, there was no pressing reason for him to return.

After the success of his last live worship CD, he said he’d never record another, that he didn’t want to “manufacture” in people’s hearts what the first one did on its own. But there were just too many worship songs tugging at his heart, too many lyrical opportunities to lead people in worship.

He felt God compelling him to do it again. And Southeast was the first place he considered as a recording site. He recalled his first visit and the worship experience he shared with the congregation. They, too, remembered . . . and they came.

In the stillness of the predawn hours July 19, the line began to form. One man arrived at 4 a.m., 30 minutes before the atrium doors were unlocked by security guards and more than 14 hours before the actual performance. As daylight began to break on the new day, others began to trickle in.

When Smith returned to Southeast, he was far from alone. The “Pied Piper of Christian music” brought the people of Louisville with him. The atmosphere in the sanctuary was charged with electricity as more than 9,100 people from across the United States – and some from Canada – squeezed into every available seat in the huge sanctuary to be part of music history that Friday evening. The crowd came to lend their voices to Smith’s second live worship album, Worship Again (release October 22).

The live recording of the service led by Smith was the climax of excitement that had been building since news of his return to Louisville became public. The first person in line, Southeast member John Shelley, recalled the experience of worshiping with Smith just three months earlier, and he wanted to relive it, up front and personal, one more time.

“I couldn’t not come,” said Shelley, 63, who hadn’t even heard of Smith before his first appearance at Southeast. “I had to come back.” At 4 a.m., Shelley began his daylong vigil. Ninety minutes later, he was joined by two young women. Eventually, people flooded the atrium.

That evening, when the auditorium opened, the sanctuary began to fill at an astonishing rate. Within 10 minutes, the main floor was full and worshipers were directed to the first balcony, which filled to capacity shortly thereafter. It wasn’t long before the second balcony brimmed with excited, chattering people. The overflow was directed to the upper fellowship hall, where a large image-magnification screen was set up to connect latecomers to the concert.

Smith started the service with “Step by Step” and flowed from that song to another and another, encouraging the throng to worship loudly along with him. Although he said little between songs, he did tell the crowd that when he began considering the idea of a live worship recording at Southeast, he thought, “I wonder if they would have us back.” The crowd thundered its consent.

Later, Smith explained he had a heart for the unsaved and felt it was his mission, and that of all Christians, to “further the kingdom.” He urged worshipers not to build walls around themselves by having only Christian friends, but to “be a friend to somebody who doesn’t know Him.” He concluded, “You’re called to spread the gospel.”

Whether bending close to the piano (his head dancing slowly in rhythm to the songs), walking the platform playing his guitar, or speaking boldly of his passion for the Lord, he succeeded in leading people in worship.

  (Published December 22, 2002)


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