When I was 11 years old, the pastor of our very small church asked me to sing a solo for the evening service. I’m not sure why he took that chance on an 11- year-old girl, but he did. I squeaked through the song and started to sit down, feeling totally embarrassed. He stopped me in my tracks and made me get up there and do it all over again. By then I had more confidence, and it went better. I didn’t know much about singing, and certainly nothing about ministry, but that was the start of my ministry of singing for the Lord. Since that time I have sung many times and have picked up a few things along the way. Here are a few practical suggestions to help distinguish between truly ministering and just singing a song.
The first and foremost consideration is your own spiritual condition. This is an absolutely essential component if you are going to minister. It is understood that you are a bornagain believer in Jesus Christ as your Savior, but is there any sin in your heart that would hinder the Spirit’s working? God may choose to minister in spite of a dirty vessel, but why should that even be an option? This is one of the reasons I am so thankful that God has given me a ministry of singing—it constrains me to confess my sins and walk the straight and narrow path. Make sure you are a Spirit-filled singer.
Choice of Music
Pray over and think through your choice of music. I have gone through many pieces of music only to reject them and start over. The music must be God-honoring. The melody, harmony, accompaniment, and whole structure of the piece should be interesting enough to compel people to listen. It should also be simple enough that people can follow the melody and “get it” upon first hearing. The accompaniment should not overwhelm the words. The music should go hand in hand with the words. The words are all-important. You are communicating divine truth!
The best pieces are, of course, straight Scripture. But finding the right tune to fit the Scripture is sometimes difficult. Also consider the occasion for which you will be singing. Is it a church picnic? An evening evangelistic service? Amorning worship service? At our church, for instance, the soloist’s special music in the morning worship service should be about the person or work of Jesus Christ. A soloist who truly communicates can have a profound impact on the service. Singing about the Lord is a good goal for every service, not just for Sunday morning. Testimonial songs are fine, but they tend to focus on what the Lord has done for me. Do not make man the focus. Sing about the Lord, not about yourself.
Be selective. Alot of music out there has a nugget of truth in it and repeats that nugget over and over—and that is about all. If the words do not have enough “meat” in them, look for something with a message that some people can hold on to and take home with them.
Be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. Many times a certain song will go through my head for months. I pray about it and ask the Lord if He would have me sing it for the next special. Many times the answer is yes. Sometimes the music is chosen for you. Sometimes the season narrows your choice. If it is six days before Christmas, everyone expects a Christmas song. Usually, however, you have to make the choice. Choose prayerfully a song that will genuinely minister.
Choice of Accompanist
The accompanist can make or break your special number, so choose one who is right with the Lord and has a servant’s heart. If you want to do a key-change at the end of verse two, for instance, make sure your pianist can do one and do it well. The accompaniment should complement the singer and not vice-versa. Other instruments besides piano are a welcome addition to a special number and can add a variety and beauty that enhances the message, provided they are not overpowering. Don’t forget that sometimes an a cappella piece (or even singing one stanza a cappella) can be effective in conveying the message.
This needs special emphasis. We have all heard someone sing an absolutely gorgeous rendition of some song—but many of the words were unintelligible. The words matter most, for they minister truth. (Even instrumentalists can minister more effectively if they think about the words and color the tone while playing.) Open your mouth! Enunciate! Make the words clear. Finish the ends of the words. If you have to, sacrifice some of the roundness of the tone to communicate the truths.
In singing as in speaking, facial expression is an important element in accurate interpretation and effective communication. “You mean contorting my face?” you ask. Well, maybe not “contorting,” though it may feel as if you are doing that if you are not used to it. Make your face match the words. I would suggest practicing diligently in front of a large mirror. Be hard on yourself. This is not about “performance” or “theatrics.” This is about ministry. If the text says, “O sacred Head, now wounded, / With grief and shame weighed down,” you should not be smiling gleefully. If it says, “I’ve found a Friend, oh such a Friend,” you should not look as if you’d just lost your best friend. Don’t go overboard; that in itself can distract from the message of the music. Find a good balance. When you are singing as a member of the congregation, practice really thinking about the words and moving your facial muscles to agree with the statements of the song. If you minister in a choir, that is an excellent place to practice and develop this communication technique, since you are already ministering the words.
Familiarity with Your Piece
It would be wonderful if I had the time to memorize every line of every song I have ever sung. Memorization is always best, and if you can memorize, by all means do so. Since that is not always practical for me, I have adopted the “familiarity method.” I meditate on my song and sometimes type out the words so I can refer to them often. I also add breath marks where needed and practice the piece quite a bit. I plunk out the notes on the piano and go over it in different ways (just the melody line, just playing the piano part, just playing the chords). Recording and replaying your song on a tape will also help work out any problems you may have with the piece. The more comfortable I feel with a piece of music, the less likely I will be to slip on the words or the notes or the rhythm. I will just need to glance down occasionally so I can maintain eye contact with the congregation. Preparedness is a major key in unlocking the difference between having a real ministry and just singing a song. (Note to music directors: Be sure to give your singers plenty of notice for adequate preparation— preferably at least two to three weeks.)
Not long ago I had an exceptional answer to prayer. In the middle of my year-long struggle with allergies, I was scheduled to sing. The only problem was that I did not have much of a voice. I prayed and prayed, but things did not look very good on the day before. By then it was too late to call for a substitute. The Lord’s Day morning came and I still did not have much of a voice. In fact, I was cracking and breaking through the congregational songs, but still praying. I got up to sing and the Lord wonderfully helped me through it. Not one crack distracted from the message. The great God I sang about is real. He does answer our pleas.
Pray over your song. Pray over your time to minister. Pray for the people receiving it. Pray for your pastor and the message he will bring. Pray for the entire service. This is serious business! Souls are at stake. The Lord’s honor is at stake. God’s pleasure is our aim. It could be that your ministry will touch someone’s heart and show him the Savior whom he may not know. If you view special music as just singing a song, prayer will change your perspective.
At the time of original publication, Bonnie Oberg was an active member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.
(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)