R.I.P. Smittie

Scan0018 John Austin Smith ("Smittie" to me), a friend of mine and a legend of San Diego Youth Ministry in Churches of Christ passed away of a heart attack in his sleep yesterday. He was only 44 years old. In his 44 years, he impacted countless lives, including my own.

I first met him when I was serving as an intern at the La Mesa Church of Christ (in San Diego) as an intern back in the early 90's. He was a neighboring Youth Minister for the El Cajon Boulevard Church of Christ.

I liked him immediately. Not only because he was friendly, easy-going, and cared about young people. He really took me under his wing in a non-patronizing way when I was a 19-year-old intern. Those who respect and honor interns are the real deal. We spent a lot of that summer together, organizing camp together, etc. I learned a ton from him. He was one of those street-level sages who just understood people…he had an emotional IQ off the charts.

Our friendship continued and grew over the years. At the very least, each year at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures we would see one another, give each other a man-hug and catch up. Most recently he was living in the Portland area, running a camp that taught "green" farming techniques to underprivileged and at-risk youth.

His greatest legacy will be not only the kids that went through his youth group, but the number of kids in his youth group that went on to become youth ministers. He had an exponential impact, helping young people grow up to become leaders in the church while never letting them feel unloved for even a split-second.

We church folk don't appreciate and care for our youth ministers nearly enough. They often serve as the "low man/woman on the totem pole" in the eyes of the church, even as they partner with God to shape the next generation spiritually. We need to do better here.

Here at NCCC, we just hired one of Smittie's former youth group kids to serve in Youth Ministry. I knew that if Smittie was a mentor for him, he'd seen Youth Ministry done the right way–out of sheer passion for God's work in the lives of young people. Smittie left a wonderful spiritual legacy, and I am honored to have known him.

R.I.P., Smittie. I'll be seeing you.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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6 thoughts on “R.I.P. Smittie

  1. John…you are the kind of soul that leaves footprints in another’s heart, a twinkle in their eyes, and joy in their life….You’ve touched so many lives without much effort…you knew me for only a little bit and offered to help me no matter what the cost…you offered to fly me home so that I could get out of an emotionally and physically stressful house…I was sad to hear from good friends that you made your final journey “home.” But I have to remember that you are one that will have mountains of riches in heaven. In Christian love…..

  2. I grew into Christian maturity with John Smith. He was a kid a couple of years behind me who I could count on in a youth group divided – you know the phenomena, some kids want to be there and are zealous for the Lord, some are being forced to be involved and decide to subvert the group. John was like-hearted and sincere. Even as a youth John displayed the great wisdom and empathy that would characterize his life. I consider him to this day the most empathetic person I have met in my life. Were he to have lived in another era and time, he might have been the chief of a peaceful tribe. Of course, the day things turned warlike, he would have turned the leadership mantle over to a warrior. John was a man of peace who took to heart the passage “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
    I know modern culture puts a premium on titles. Unless someone has a Ph.D in this or a Masters Degree in that, they are often discounted as an amateur. To my knowledge there is no degree offered in understanding the human heart, and John understood it and sought to understand it as much as anyone I have known. He was a better counselor and more natural counselor than many experts who hang a shingle and charge big bucks. There are literally hundreds of people, myself included, who benefited from John’s patient understanding and counseling. And having been a mentor of sorts to John and an older Christian brother, it must not have been easy for him those times when he lovingly took me task… gently informing where I had hurt someone. Only the truest, most honest friend can do that.
    John’s death hits me hard because I had so wanted to locate him and continue in an active way our friendship which time and distance had interrupted. Indeed he was high on my list of people to contact when I resolved January 1st to seek and establish contact with those people who have been so important in my life. I spent several hours trying to locate him through internet searching, but could only find old links. But that is the trouble with googling a “John Smith.”
    Now that I think about it, there is no more appropriate a name for him than that. John Smith is not the name of a man who seeks the limelight or individual distinction. John was never the main attraction, the star, the keynote speaker. John wasn’t about personal glory. John was about looking at that audience and seeing the outsider, the fallen coutenance, the inner pain that someone was masking. He could pick up on that like no one else and give it comfort and companionship. He was like a doctor in that way.
    He is reunited with his God, his Maker, his Lord. That is a beautiful and heartening thing. And we are left behind feeling that much more outnumbered by his loss. Maybe some of the young people he mentored and counseled will take up that ministry of peace and comfort. Maybe they will be the John Smiths this world so much needs.

  3. Thank you, Tim, for honoring J’Austin in this way. He is the only person I have ever known that wore a rare spiritual second skin. It was like an aura. Through those baby blue eyes he saw the soul of every person he ever encountered and was never put off by the things others found repulsive; he was always drawn to the source of their pain and the pulse of a heart that he knew God sought with vigor. It was amazing to see how the hardest hearts melted and trusted the gospel that they saw lived in the real life of John Austin Smith. He wore his love as a robe that invited all. One of the greatest jewels Austin left for all of us is that our witness would be so much more impactful if we were willing to risk accepting and loving others right where they are. True faith leaves room for Jesus to save and souls to journey in search of Him. Enjoy your reward, my friend~

  4. You hit the nail on the head, Tim. It’s funny, I know you from my Pepperdine days, but I had no idea you knew John Austin, my former youth minister:) Your comments about his “exponential” work were perfect. John was a fantastic man and his spiritual impact is something only God can measure…I’m so happy for him that his work here is complete.