Christian Music, Divorce and Triathlons: An Interview with Big Tent Revival's Spence Smith

When you get outside and realize there's tons of people in the world that love Jesus just as much, if not more, it really questioned my faith.
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When I talked to Spence Smith, a founding member of the five-time Grammy-nominated band Big Tent Revival, he had just come back from a run, which was appropriate given that Smith is a triathlete who took up the sport after a divorce left him feeling like a failure.

These days, if Smith picks up his drum sticks, it's usually to play with one of the bands he collaborates with as an artist relations professional with the international aide agency Compassion International. He's also a social media and marketing consultant.

On a trip to Ecuador earlier this year, Smith asked a Compassion coworker to marry him. She said yes.

Scheller: How do you maintain your faith and spiritual life both in the Christian music industry and traveling so much?

Smith: I grew up in the Church of Christ, which is notorious for no instruments in worship. ... So when our band formed, I was not listening to Christian music. I did not know there was a Christian music industry. I just knew that there was this guy named Michael W. Smith and this girl named Amy Grant out there. ...

When we started the band, we started because we really loved music and we really loved Jesus. That was about it. Walking out of the Church of Christ and into that environment was pretty eye-opening because I literally had grown up thinking -- because that's what we were taught -- that we were the only ones going to heaven.

When you get outside of that and realize there's tons of people in the world that love Jesus just as much, if not more, it really questioned my faith. What I realized after a few years of being in the band was that I wasn't in this band because this band needed me or that God needed me to be in this band to help lead people into relationship with Christ. I really felt like I was in this band because it's where God needed me to be to keep me in check and help me to grow.

So it was a growing experience for your faith rather than a destroying one?

Right. But because of that, you start walking through all these different denominations, playing for everything from Southern Baptists to the most Charismatic church out there. So you see everything in between. None of us spoke in tongues, so we played shows where promoters spoke in tongues and if they found out we didn't speak in tongues, it's like they were trying to get us saved again and that just wasn't us. ...

We ended up seeking out different people to walk alongside of us as road pastors or advisors or mentors. A guy that we had for a really long time who still does this for a bunch of mainstream artists is a guy named Michael Guido, and he was pivotal in our growth and in how we handled things relationally within the band. ...

People always thought that we had tons of groupies and girls hanging around our band. For whatever reason, we just weren't that band. ... We took steps to make sure we were being accountable to each other and to the people we were working with. And so, I think that set us up for some pretty big success when it came to relationship and family and how we lived out our lives.

I will say this: there are lots of things that I experienced in Christian music that makes me very leery of Christians in general. Me, being a Christian, I walk very gingerly into situations where I know it's going to be a heated discussion or a controversial issue, because most of the time I think they're uncalled for.

What do you mean by that?

It could be anything. It could be walking into a church that you're going to play at and all of a sudden you find out that the pastor is pretty egotistical. You basically want to kind of separate yourself from having to play to the whims of the senior pastor. If you walk into a situation where the senior pastor or the youth pastor is the big man on campus, and all of a sudden you're 10 times bigger in popularity than he is, then it becomes an interesting situation.

We stayed away from issues that people fought about denominationally. For instance, our lead singer was very adamant about presenting the Gospel at as many shows as possible and giving people the opportunity to come to Christ at the show, and we were fine with that. That's just part of who Big Tent was. In the process, we would go hang out during the day in this town, and we would ask questions like, "What's it like for the church here in town?" Nine times out of 10, people would say, "We're having a real problem getting the churches to come together to help this town out. These denominations just will not work together."

Our lead singer would get up and he would present the Gospel and all these people would come forward and pray to receive Christ and it was all good. ... Then he'd go through the whole line of denominations and he'd say, "We talked to people in this town and you guys have a real problem about churches coming together. Why does it take a show coming to town to get you guys all in the same room?" He would just encourage them to get in a room together more and to do things together. We really wanted to try to bring people together.

Coming out of working in Big Tent and working for Compassion has been an even more incredible experience because I got all that experience dealing with different denominations and people, and now I work for an organization that is very adamant about staying non-political and non-denominational. ... When you walk up into the office in Colorado Springs or hang out with any of the staff, the denominational lines aren't there at all. It's that way politically too. ... We have one goal and that is to help release children from poverty in Jesus name no matter where we go to church.

Tell me about Big Tent Revival. Did the band break up or go on hiatus?

We basically started forming in 1990. By the time we got on the road and started playing shows, it was around 1993. Our first record came out in 1994 and then we came off the road at the end of 2000. When we officially came off the road, we told people we broke up. There was all this record company politics of saying, "No, tell people you're taking a break." We said, "Wait, man, we gotta go get jobs. We can't just tell people we're taking a break. No one's going to believe us." We worked that all out and, about a month after we got off the road, I got this job with Compassion.

Since then, we get together and play shows every once in a while. ... We left as friends and we've become better friends since. I think for us it's just a matter of wanting to play together because we miss hanging out with each other.

How did you come to work for Compassion International?

Big Tent represented Compassion International and I really fell in love with the organization the first time I went on a trip. ... I told the guy who was our artist guy, "If anything ever happens to this band, I'm coming to work for Compassion." I didn't realize that years later that would actually happen. ...

When I got the job, it was a big risk for them because they'd never hired a musician. It's been one of the greatest experiences of my life. ... My job specifically is to work with artists and creative people. Part of my passion is to bring people into a bigger worldview than just what they're dealing with locally.

Your other passion, I know, is triathlons. When did you start doing that and why?

I was coming out of a divorce about six years ago and I really needed to get my head together. I felt like a complete failure. I had failed in one of the greatest gifts we are given in life and I (we) just couldn't make it work the way it was supposed to. The YMCA had this sign on the board that said "Running Group: Tuesdays and Thursdays 9:00, Brentwood Y." I thought, "I work from home. I can do that." I went the first time, I walked in this room and there's like 20 ladies standing in this room. ... I was the only guy that ran with them and they just totally took me under their wing. ... It was cool and I did it for a year and I loved it.

I noticed at that time that I wanted to get stronger as a runner. I used to be a swimmer and I heard about this swimming group that was in town and I went to check them out and lo and behold, they were a swimming group that trained for triathlons. ... I started swimming with them. ... I did one triathlon at the end of the summer, and I fell in love with the sport. The next summer, I trained for triathlons for the whole summer. I did eight triathlons that next summer, sprint distance and Olympic distance. At the end of that summer, because of all the community and friends that I've made through that process, a bunch of us decided to do Ironman Louiseville for 2009. ... I've been doing it ever since.

How do running and triathlons nourish the rest of your life?

There are good days and there are bad days when you run. There are some days when your legs are sluggish. I think life is like that. There are some days you wake up and you feel like you can tackle the world and things are going to be good, and there are some days when you get up and you're like, I don't even want to get out of bed. I can't do this. But you have to make a choice. Part of this comes from going through my divorce. I chose to say, "I'm not going to be one of those guys who's going to wallow in this and let this get the best of me. So, I'm going to choose to get up and make the best of it." ...

What I learned through training for Ironman is that there are a lot of Type A personalities that do triathlons. They're very competitive. They're very high energy. But doing something that's an endurance sport separates those who are driven from those who are determined. Driven people usually quit. What happens is they drive, drive, drive and they go for it; and then they decide when they hit a roadblock, they're not going to do that anymore because the path isn't that easy, so they go a different direction.

Determined people will see the end result and when they hit a roadblock, they go, "All right, here's a road block. How do I get around it? Does that mean I have to back up a few steps, take a break? If I get injured, do I have to call it off for a little bit? But I still have this goal ahead of me and even on the days that completely suck, I've still got to recognize that these are sucky days and I'm OK with that. There's going to be a better day coming. So, let's just get through."

That helped me get through Ironman. It's helped me get through difficult times in my life. It helps me walk with my relationship with the Lord in a way that's much more honest and real than it ever has been because I have days where I have to recognize that my relationship with Christ is truly a relationship and he is perfect. I in no way can expect to be perfect. So I treat my relationship like I would with anyone else that I dearly love. And that is, some days I'm going to have bad days and some days I'm going to have good days. That if a friend is truly a friend, they're going to be there for you no matter what.

Because you've talked about your divorce, I want to get some context for it. Was being on the road so much a contributing factor?

I was off the road by the time we divorced. I was traveling still, about half as much. No, it was definitely a relational thing.

How did you navigate that within the Christian world that you move and work in?

It was difficult, to say the least. Part of it was because she and I together in town were kind of high profile in the circles that we move in. She does publicity and we both work in the Christian music industry. So we definitely had to deal with a lot more than probably the average person would have to deal with in a divorce when it comes to stuff like that.

What I basically did was I just laid low. I set some ground rules in my personal life and I just made sure to not cross those lines so that I could be very accountable and know that I walked through things the best way that I could. There's nothing easy about divorce. In the end, when we went our separate ways, even though it was rocky, when it comes to the friends and people that we deal with, we didn't lose that. In fact, I think it kind of enhanced some friendships.

We only see each other two or three times a year at an event, but I would say over the past year, we've had some pretty good reconciliation on the level of friendship and respect. When it comes to dealing with each other in work-related matters, we're both right on top of it. It's been a real blessing for me and I'm really proud of her. She's remarried and she's doing a lot of cool things in her life, so it's just been good.

I think the interesting thing is that it's taken something like that to bring me into really discovering the person that I am now. I think walking into this next marriage, had I not gone through the divorce and learned what I've learned about myself, I don't think I could walk into this marriage as well as I feel like I'm going to.

Congratulations to you both!

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