Those who know Bill Smith, the minister of music at Louisville’s First Baptist Church, know he walks in faith.
For nearly 39 years Smith has served his church and community, ministering not just through the music he directs and performs, but also through his gentle spirit and humble example.
Through his work leading the church’s choir, youth and senior adults and performing with the Sons of Jubal, a chorus of ministers of music from Georgia Baptist churches, Smith has shared the strength of his spiritual convictions.
“Just this morning I read this quote,” he said last week. “It was about faith and the idea that faith is not just a thing you have. It’s active, like a verb, not a noun, because it requires that you take action in order to demonstrate it. And you have to use it in order to get more faith.”
In two weeks he plans to practice what he preaches by taking a leap of faith in deciding to walk away from the routine he has followed for more than half of his life. Aug. 31 will be his last official day as minister of music in the church that has become his home.
“I’ve always been one to worry about money and savings and if I have enough,” Smith said. “And now I feel like God is saying, ‘Do you trust me or not?’”
Last year, on the Sea of Galilee, Smith had a spiritual experience that led him to confront his fears and strengthened his faith by requiring him to rely on it.
“When I was in Israel last fall with the Sons of Jubal, one of the first things we did was go out on a boat into the Sea of Galilee,” Smith said. “We were in three boats, and we linked them together and had a worship service. I just got so emotional because I realized that a lot of things I was holding back on and was anxious about was because I didn’t have the faith to do them. I didn’t even have the faith of Peter to step out of the boat.”
Two years before, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and while his doctor had recommended treatments, he had been stalling.
“I was just looking out at sea and got so emotional,” Smith said. “Here we were on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus did most of his ministry in that area, performed all those miracles. A storm even came up while we were out there. We all got drenched to the bone. The setting, the message, it all provided the right set of circumstances for me.
“As I processed that experience (on the sea) after I came home, I was able to take that and take a step of faith and have treatment for my cancer. There’s a step.”
He is also calling his retirement an act of faith. He turns 65 this year and has been thinking about it for some time. His experience, he said, encouraged him to go ahead a put a date on it.
“I know there are many steps in my life I haven’t taken, but with this I’m kind of jumping out there and I might go right under like Peter did, but it’s a leap of faith,” Smith said.
Even though Smith feels that he has been timid and that there have been many times his faith was tested and that he did not always rely on it, looking back at his life and his career, it has been there from the start.
He became a Christian at 11 years old, not long after his love of music began. The youngest of five children, he grew up with a piano and a clarinet in the house, instruments his older siblings played. He said he was given the choice between band and learning the piano. He chose band because they got to go the ball games and on trips.
His first trip out of the country was a band trip to Spain as a member of the All American Youth Honor Band, and it inspired a life-long love of travel. Later, it was his 40-year association with the Sons of Jubal that would allow him to perform and minister in Costa Rica, Panama, Germany, France, Russia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, North Korea and China.
While he made good grades in school, music was the only subject he really loved.
It was during college that he discovered a faith that was more complicated than the child-like experience of religion he’d had before. It was around the same time he was trying to decide what to study and what career path to follow.
“I didn’t know this is what God wanted me to do. But it started with taking a direction,” Smith said. “It’s what I tell young people all the time when they are wondering what God wants them to do. I tell them you have to take a step in some direction. The thing I felt for sure was that I wanted to live my life for Christ and nothing else was sure. It’s just evolved. I didn’t go to seminary thinking I’d be a minister of music. I just didn’t know. God did have something special for me and this was it, even if it wasn’t what I was looking for.”
In 1978, he accepted a call to take over as the minister of music and education at First Baptist Church of Louisville.
Over the years, his duties and a part of his title changed. He became a youth minister and years later was in charge of the senior adults. Through it all, he has remained the church’s minister of music.
“I’ve always considered myself a minister first. The church, God, called me here as a minister. Not as a minister who preaches, but to minister through music,” Smith said. “You minister to the people in the congregation. You praise God so that vicariously others can do that through you. What you are offering them is not just the entertainment of a pretty song, it can teach them something about God. Hopefully it’s music that is based on scripture or Christian doctrine at least.”
Smith has always thought of his personal ministry as one of encouragement.
“I have fallen short so many times, but what I’ve really wanted to do is show people that they have a gift in them that God can use,” he said. “It’s seeing something within somebody and pointing it out to them. Sometimes you don’t know you have a gift if someone doesn’t point it out and encourage you to use it.”
Smith did that for Hank Murphy, who grew up attending the church, graduated from Jefferson County High School in 2005 and has
been a worship leader with a large church in North Carolina.
“I definitely would not have become a Christian when I did without Bill’s influence,” Murphy said. “He was always honest with me about God and faith, Christianity and the Bible. I could always have real conversation with him and he always cared.”
There will be a luncheon in Smith’s honor on Sunday after the morning service.
“Bill has been so consistent in the way that he loves people, in his humility, in the way he loves and trusts God, to see that consistency for that long, it’s a big deal and it’s a thing that should be celebrated,” Murphy said. “Every honor that’s coming his way is well deserved.”