By Sean Plank
I’ve always enjoyed watching TV preachers. I know that sounds weird, because most people can’t stand them. To be clear, I’m not talking about the ministers who preach exclusively on TV (a lot of those guys are kind of shady). I’m talking about the pastors and ministers who broadcast their regular worship services on TV. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, I would sit in front of the TV on Sunday mornings and watch a couple of guys on the local ABC station, known to me only as “channel 36.”
One of the guys I watched was an old, white-haired man that took a sharp breath between every sentence. I remember his enthusiasm for whatever he was talking about. I loved it. I always felt better after listening to him, like I had hope about something. Later, I would learn this is a mark of Jesus, because he, too, inspired hope, among other things.
The preacher’s name was Brother Byron Jessup. I even wrote him a letter once, and he wrote a letter back. I was thrilled. I also received the King James Version Bible on audiotape from his church. It was like Christmas came early to me that year.
Another guy I loved to listen to was Wayne B. Smith, then the minister of Southland Christian Church, a huge church. I didn’t know anything about Southland, but I loved watching Smith. His laugh always made me, as a kid, feel like he really loved what he did. I couldn’t say that about all the preachers I had seen.
Smith also reminded me of my great-grandfather, although I didn’t realize that until later in childhood. I vividly remember the first time I heard the complete story of Jesus. It was around Easter time, and I was watching Smith.
This explanation was simple to me. A man came, lived, did miracles, and died. But then he rose again. And he did it just so I could be something else. Not just a person, but a person with a purpose. Even as a child, around 7 or 8 years old, I understood this. It was because of Wayne B. Smith that I later came to know Jesus personally. The way he carried himself and what he said from the pulpit often reminded me of things I had heard about Jesus.
Not long ago I completed a paper for a seminary church history class I was taking. It was one of those end-of-the-term, want-to-pull-your-hair-out research papers. I chose to write about the shift of church planting since the 1950s.
As part of that paper, I researched the history of Southland Christian Church, as well as Wayne B. Smith, who planted Southland in 1956. I learned some things from Smith that I can definitely use now as a church planter and minister. Maybe you can use them too.
• Always be ready to laugh. Smith’s laugh is one of his distinct characteristics. It starts from the belly, and it’s loud and booming. The guy is always having a good time, no matter where he is! I know that isn’t true about some church leaders, and that’s unfortunate. I think people are drawn to Smith because of his laughter.
That’s the reason I love watching late-night TV talk shows like Jimmy Fallon. It just feels like you could sit down with Smith or Fallon and develop a stitch in your side from laughter. You want to be around these people because they inspire life in every situation. So, be a person of laughter. I learned that from Smith.
• Change is necessary, and it is usually good. In 1995, Smith announced his retirement. He would step down from Southland so the church could bring in a new leader to lead it in a new age. He started the church in 1956, and knew some things would have to change to reach people beyond 1995. He knew he didn’t know how to do that, and so the church should bring in someone who did. That’s incredibly mature and wise.
Eventually Southland hired Mike Breaux, and he led the church into the new millennium. When Breaux stepped down, Jon Weece took the stage as leader, ushering in new methods of church ministry. Smith loves it.
A couple of years ago, Smith came out in the middle of one of Weece’s sermons to talk about the new campus Southland was opening up at the old Lexington Mall on Richmond Road. Was Smith bitter? Did he think the project was a waste of money? Not at all! He loved it!
He talked about the building and its beauty. Then he shared his excitement for the people who will be affected by this new campus. This leads me to the next point . . .
• It must always be about the people. It’s well-known Smith would take buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a box of Kentucky chocolates to people he visited. In fact, that’s how he negotiated for the land where the Harrodsburg Road campus currently sits. He cares about people, and he still visits with people. He is the definition of a servant leader. Even when he couldn’t visit with you, you still felt like he cared about you.
Even though I had never met Smith, I remember sitting in my living room as a 9-year-old and feeling like Smith knew me and wanted what was best for me. I’ll never forget that, and I hope I have the same effect on people in my ministry.
In 2012, while working at Kentucky Christian University, I got an opportunity to speak to Smith for the first time in my life. Bob Russell, a friend of Smith’s, was speaking in chapel and Smith accompanied him. As chapel ended and people left, I remained seated, talking to a few friends. I looked up and saw Smith, using a walker, going down the aisle beside me.
I walked over, opened the door, and waited for him to go through. As he passed, he looked at me and asked me my name. I told him, and then I just blurted it out: “Thank you for what you have done in your ministry. If it weren’t for you and for The Southland Hour, I probably wouldn’t know Jesus today.”
He was silent at first as he looked at me, and then he asked me what I’m doing now. I told him I worked at KCU, but I was preparing to leave to plant a church. Then he asked for my address so he could send me one of his books to help me out, a book that includes many of his sermons and illustrations.
It looks like I was right, even as a 9-year-old. Smith cared about me before he ever met me.
I received the book, and it is one of my favorites. Not because of what the book says, but because of the author. I think it is fitting that the best advice I have ever heard came from Southland’s current leader, Jon Weece: “Everyone is important.”
I think I know why Weece said that. Whenever you meet Wayne B. Smith, it is obvious he believes it, and he carries it out every day. May I do the same.
Sean Plank serves as lead follower with Middlepoint Christian Church, a church plant in Middlesboro, Kentucky.