At age 12 in 1941, Wayne B. Smith dedicated his life at a Christian camp to preaching.
“That turned out well,” Smith said understatedly in a video of his ministry recently produced by Southland Christian Church, a start-up church of 152 in 1956 in Lexington that he led to become a church of more than 3,700 upon his retirement in 1995.
It took about a dozen preachers Wednesday afternoon to conduct Smith’s funeral at the megachurch on Harrodsburg Road.
With more than 1,000 people in attendance and many others watching live on Southland’s Facebook page, they remembered, celebrated, laughed and wept at the passing of the preacher who once was dubbed “the Bob Hope of the Ministry.” Smith died last week at age 87.
Smith acknowledged that as a preacher he remembered more jokes than scripture. Often his body-shaking chortles while telling jokes in a sermon were funnier than his material.
Besides his humor, people remembered him Wednesday for his generosity and love for others. He often took large KFC buckets stuffed with fried chicken to the needy. Near his casket were KFC buckets holding beautiful flowers.
Large screens in the church’s main auditorium flashed photos of Smith’s life before the two-hour service began. One showed him at the groundbreaking for Southland. Several showed him with his wife of 63 years, Marjorie, who died in 2014, and their two daughters, Judy Speakes and Jana Thore. One even showed him from the shoulders up in a bathtub, wearing only glasses and a smile.
The church’s hallways featured memorabilia from his life. As a loyal University of Kentucky fan, Smith had a picture frame with a Wildcat photo and this inscription: “If you lead a good life, go to Sunday school and church, say your prayers every night, when you die, you’ll go to Kentucky.”
The program for the funeral called Smith “the preacher’s preacher.”
On hand to pay respect were dignitaries ranging from former Gov. Ernie Fletcher to Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
Fletcher called Smith “a wonderful friend and spiritual counselor.”
“Sometimes he would just call to encourage me,” Fletcher said. “He was also an essential member of my spiritual team as governor. Once a month he would come to the mansion with a small group and discuss the state of affairs, offer suggestions and pray for our commonwealth.”
Wally Rendel, pastor of Jessamine Christian Church in Nicholasville, said Smith told him three years ago to be in charge of his funeral.
Rendel said Smith’s last pulpit was an extemporaneous message of encouragement to a group of ministers in Jessamine County the day before he died. He said Smith quoted his favorite scripture, Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Jon Weece, Southland’s lead follower/elder, described Smith as being “funny” and “faithful.”
He said Smith, who enjoyed eating, once said, “It’s better to eat a donut with enemies than a salad with friends.”
Weece said Smith was faithful in preaching the truth in love.
Brewster McLeod, Southland’s community support pastor, told several PG13-rated stories about his longtime friend.
He said Smith once said when he was mulling getting a water bed that he feared his wife and he “would drift apart” or it would become “the Dead Sea.”
Another close friend, Chuck Lees, read one of Smith’s favorite poems, The Man Who Couldn’t Save by Edgar Guest. It’s about a man who “didn’t leave much in the bank, it is true, but did leave a fortune in people who knew.”
Paul Prather, a Mount Sterling preacher and contributing columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, praised Smith’s integrity. “He was a character but he also was a man of character.” He added that Smith was “even nice to journalists.”
Barry Cameron, senior minister of Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, said Smith was “incredibly good” as a preacher, especially with his timing and humor.
“His greatest quality was love,” Cameron said.
Bob Russell, retired senior minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville and one of Smith’s dearest friends, said nobody influenced the Christian church like Wayne Smith.
“Every preacher would tell you how they hated to follow Wayne Smith,” he said, adding that “he could get next to your heart more quickly than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Before interment at Lexington Cemetery, Smith got the last word at his funeral.
In the Southland video played to the congregation, Smith said he always wanted to be a preacher.
He said his lifelong motto was “Preach the gospel, brother, preach it. Preach it high where men can teach it. Preach it low where men can reach it. But preach the gospel, brother, preach it.”