Wayne Smith, Southland Christian Church's founding minister, still sharing gospel, chocolates

Catching up with megachurch founding minister Wayne Smith

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 15, 2013 

  • What you don't know about Wayne Smith:

    ■ A main road in the Firebrook subdivision, Wayne's Boulevard, is named for him.

    ■ A building is named for him at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, as well as a chapel on the campus of Cincinnati Christian University.

    ■ His sermons were hand printed. Smith did not type.

    Excerpts from Smith's collected sermons and speeches:

    Sermon: On America: "Let me tell you something, America at her worst is better than any other nation on the face of the earth at their best."

    Sermon: The truth about abortion: "There are people in this auditorium who have had abortions. I have no idea who you are. The last thing I want to do is to lay a guilt trip on you. There's no such thing as a small sin and a big sin. Sin is breaking a relationship with God. ... All you need to do is to go and sin no more. The Bible says if we confess our sins, He is willing and able to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

    Membership of Southland Christian Church (approximate, 2013):

    Jessamine campus: 8,000

    Danville campus: 800

    Richmond Road campus: 4,000

It's 17 years after Wayne B. Smith left the pulpit at Southland Christian Church. These days he does business from a sunny seat at Donut Days on Southland Drive.

The still air, heavy with carbohydrates and sugar, periodically erupts with the sound of Smith's still-resonant preacher's voice, like a top note of Jimmy Cagney mixed with a base of gravel road.

He walked the surrounding area once, door to door, starting a church. Now he presides informally over the racks of cream horns and confetti-spangled cupcakes, with a view of the area that gave birth to one of Kentucky's biggest megachurches.

Would Southland Christian Church have gotten where it is today, with thousands of worshipers and campuses in Danville and Richmond Road, without Smith?

"The answer is no to that, real clear," said Jon Weece, senior pastor at Southland Christian. "That DNA transferred into the life of our church and 50-plus years later that's still our heartbeat. ... Wayne's thumbprint is still on everything we do."

Periodically Smith and Weece have a meal out at a Waffle House.

"He keeps things very simple," said Weece. "You never leave a conversation with Wayne without knowing that he cares about you."

These days, the church differs in its ministerial approach to current societal issues from the Smith era. Smith proudly wrote in one of his memoirs that his successor Mike Breaux "changed everything" and in the process drew 1,000 more people to worship each week: "You want change. You need someone who can speak with experience and authority."

Smith never thought he'd see church attendance break 4,000. Recent attendance figures for Southland's three campuses show 8,000 at the Jessamine County location, 4,000 at the Richmond Road location which opened earlier this year and 800 in Danville.

The new Richmond Road location "is marvelous," Smith said.

"It's beautiful. Just the lobby is six times bigger than our original church (on Hill-n-Dale), which was 30 feet by 60."

In a book about Smith's life, Love, Laughter and Leadership by Rod Huron, Smith is asked, "If you were not a conservative, what would you be?" His answer: "Ashamed!"

He may be 84, but his conservative credentials are still rock-solid. He's still virulently anti-abortion. The monument in Frankfort Cemetery to honor unborn children is dedicated to him.

During his decades in the public spotlight, he weighed in against businesses opening on Sunday, against Sunday alcohol sales, against the lottery and abortion and for capital punishment. Smith was against divorce, but in 1995 changed his mind.

In his biography Smith said that all that opinion leading wasn't as easy as it looked.

"No one likes embarrassment," he said. "I do a lot of things in the ministry I do not enjoy doing, but it's my duty. You ought to take a stand, because it's your duty."

In 2002, Smith wrote the Herald-Leader to take a stand on the drive for expanded gambling: "Gambling costs our state far more than the intake. Moses warned the children of Israel of the folly of wanting what your neighbor has. ... My prayer for those voting is to be leaders. A leader has the guts to vote for what's good morally for the people of the state."

He still finds ways to take charge of a conversation. During an interview, Smith whips out a copy of his biography and encourages the reading of pages 181, 182 and 183. He pauses, in the manner of a minister whose congregation may be dozing off on a warm summer Sunday.

"That's 181, 182 and 183," he says once again, watching closely as the idea is finally preserved in a reporter's notebook.

Here's what it says: One day during Smith's tenure a caller who watched Smith's sermons on TV said he wanted to speak with "the head hog." When the secretary took umbrage at calling her boss a hog, the man replied he was a hog farmer who wanted to donate $500 to the church.

The secretary said: "Wait a minute — I think the big pig just walked in."

At the time, Smith was overweight. In a sermon he said that the weight bothered him, but added: "If only perfect preachers stood in the pulpit, we would not have a message. ... Is that an excuse? No, it is a statement of guilt and also why I'm preaching."

Smith has often comforted the discouraged and bereaved with fried chicken and Old Kentucky Chocolates. He disarms with humor, a raucous laugh, an endless supply of yarns and an apparent inability to hold a grudge.

Humorist Carl Hurley called him "America's funniest preacher."

Sometimes he has needed consolation himself: In 1985, on his way to a wedding, he was in a serious traffic accident and was briefly in the intensive care unit. He was in the hospital for 29 days.

Despite a stroke on Labor Day 2012 that affected his right eye, Smith is still in demand as a speaker. But, he says: "I don't go out of town. I don't fly."

The Southland Drive where he is sitting was in the early '50s called the Southern U-Pass; before it was a retail corridor, the area had been a dairy farm. When Smith was a young minister, Emmett Milward of Milward Funeral Home enlisted Smith's help to get the street renamed so it sounded like a place of business rather than a railroad track.

Explanations abound for how Southland Christian Church became a megachurch. Smith was a magnetic character, the Lexington-Nicholasville area was booming, the modern praise style of worship was just catching on.

Smith expounds on one of his favorites explanations: The church got lucky. IBM hit Lexington with an influx of educated young families in the 1950s, leading to a construction boom all over town and the need for churches that were poised to get bigger.

Smith had been walking the area around the location of the original church on Hill-n-Dale Road, pounding doors. Hill-n-Dale Christian is still in business; Southland left it in place when it moved to Jessamine County.

In 1992, Southland applied for a conditional use permit for its Jessamine County church, to sit on 42.5 acres. The first hearing went badly, and the next day, Smith went to see Barbara Hunter, who lived on a horse farm next door.

He took a bucket of chicken and a box of Old Kentucky Chocolates.

Hunter asked for a berm along her fence line and trees planted every 20 feet. The church got its permit, and Southland continued to grow.

The story is vintage Smith. Unassuming, determined and friendly with many of the area's leaders, he was uniquely poised to take advantage of the city's sudden expansion of churchgoers, in areas from financing to public relations.

Smith had come to Lexington after leading two churches, one in Grant County, another in Harrison County. He had graduated from the Cincinnati Bible Seminary after finishing high school, where he describes himself as a terrible student.

But he had a gift for public speaking, and a call to the ministry.

That's another part of the theory about how Southland boomed. Smith was known to Lexingtonians by television broadcasts of Southland services. He was a defender of family values before family values became a catchword.

But writing the sermons was never easy

"It's a terribly, terribly hard job," Smith said, adding that sometimes he would get up at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning to put the final touches on a sermon to be delivered that morning.

Smith once asked a secretary about the difference in sermon-writing habits between himself and his successor, Mike Breaux. She said that Breaux started on Monday.

Smith's response: "Monday? I didn't even pray about it until Thursday!"

Nonetheless, he liked Breaux's philosophy on sermons: "I refuse to be boring."

He doesn't go over 30 minutes a sermon: "If you hold someone over 30 minutes, you're not as good as you think you are."

Now, he goes to three church services a weekend: one on Saturday evening at Southland, and two on Sunday elsewhere.

"For 60 years, I've heard myself," Smith said. "Now I love listening to other people preach."

A favorite sermon, and perhaps the one for which he is most remembered, is the Super Bowl sermon "Playing Hurt,"

"Why do people hang on? Because they're surrendered to a cause they love," the sermon goes. "You either play hurt or you don't play at all."

He still lives in a house purchased for $21,500 near the Hill-n-Dale Christian Church. He has been married to his wife, Marge, for 61 years. The pair have two daughters and five grandchildren. Smith did not get his tongue-in-cheek request that his grandson from daughter Judy Speakes be named Wayne Smith Speakes.

Smith does water aerobics three times a week at the Lexington Athletic Club. While he was initially reluctant to turn up in public in swim trunks, Smith eventually realized that all people in their 70s, 80s and 90s look much the same: bumped, scarred and, as Smith would say, playing through the hurt.


What you don't know about Wayne Smith:

■ A main road in the Firebrook subdivision, Wayne's Boulevard, is named for him.

■ A building is named for him at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, as well as a chapel on the campus of Cincinnati Christian University.

■ His sermons were hand printed. Smith did not type.

Excerpts from Smith's collected sermons and speeches:

Sermon: On America: "Let me tell you something, America at her worst is better than any other nation on the face of the earth at their best."

Sermon: The truth about abortion: "There are people in this auditorium who have had abortions. I have no idea who you are. The last thing I want to do is to lay a guilt trip on you. There's no such thing as a small sin and a big sin. Sin is breaking a relationship with God. ... All you need to do is to go and sin no more. The Bible says if we confess our sins, He is willing and able to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Membership of Southland Christian Church (approximate, 2013):

Jessamine campus: 8,000

Danville campus: 800

Richmond Road campus: 4,000

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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