The Church Vocalist’s Quandary

I promise that this will be a difficult entry for me to write, and it may prove difficult to read, because we’re dealing with a subject that often proves easy to become about me and not about worship.

There’s little doubt to me or to those around me that the Good Lord gave me a fair amount of ability to sing. I don’t think there’s any way to go about hiding this ability in a worship situation—nor, in fact, do I think that we should. If we are truly called to “make a joyful noise unto the LORD”, we are to do so, indeed, joyfully, singing with all the ability we have, knowing that even the best among us only have those gifts due to the benificence of the Father, for whatever reasons amused Him as He made us. My gift may be to sing, and yours may be to comfort and grieve, but chances are that folks don’t come up to you after the service on Sunday morning to shake your hand and pat you on the back and talk about what a great comforter you are.

As you might surmise from all this, today was the first Sunday in which I was easily observable as a vocalist in my new congregation. Madison UMC is on Church Street in the Historic District, and our men’s ensemble is lovingly referred to as the Church Street Boys. [There is no truth to the rumor that First Baptist Madison’s men’s ensemble is named Old Baptists on the Block. We’re not sure who started that rumor, but we think it’s the non-denominational church on Sturdivant.] We performed two pieces in each service today, and I feel like we did a reasonable job with both works. Were there minor musical things that we should have done better? Oh, absolutely they were there, and the old choir hand in my head was mentally cracking the whip and screaming at us as we muffled vowels, swallowed consonants, and warbled and mushed around notes.

However, we did make a joyful noise unto the LORD that was fairly pleasing to the ear, and so began that timeless frustration of the special music participant—how do you deal with the accolades given to you after the service by your fellow worshippers? I have not, in my 27 years, ever come up with a reasonable solution. When one sings in almost any other situation in this life in front of others, these are situations where we vocalists desire recognition and adulation—we may seem demure, but the ego boost of nailing something is undoubtedly there. You want to be told that you’re good. [If this weren’t true, there would be no choral competitions, no all-district and -state choruses, nor any episodes of that insipid American Idol program.]

No matter how much one may feel like standing as a victorious prizefighter and showering in the applause after absolutely nailing a particular piece, this attitude does not befit the worshipper. If worship is truly returning to God the gifts that He has given to us for us to make Him known to the world, those who sing deserve no praise for simply doing their job. Yet praise is there, ready to be given: “Y’all sounded wonderful this morning!” “It sure is nice to hear y’all sing.” “I always enjoy hearing you sing!”

I’m always left stammering and stumbling through thanks and self-deprecatory responses to these greetings, because I truly don’t know how to respond. I feel that taking them wholly on face value is somehow disingenuous, as if doing so bespeaks a lack of reverence and humility. It seems to me that reverence and humility are essential to a proper worship setting, because our praises and glories are going to the God who is so ever deserving of them. It always feels to me as if accepting these praises somehow is an act of self-worship, something which we’re all certainly guilty of often enough.

I find that, as I reach this point, I have no ready answer to this conundrum. One would think that years of public singing in church would have brought me to a conclusion at some point, but it has not to date. I guess I’m offering this up out of frustration and false humility, a cry out to my fellow congregants for understanding. Of course, this very act is self-aggrandizing—Look at me! I don’t know how to take your adulation!—and I’m finally left with the feeling that I just need to hit the Publish button before all the lightning that’s been striking down on my fair city day decides to discharge through my head.

5 comments

  1. I think this is part of the reason I often choose to not get involved with worship ministries. I’m just not good at figuring out to balance the worship/performance/compliments/whatever thing. So I suppose I wimp out by just not doing it at all…

  2. Wooh…another “classic” dilemma!

    You’ve certainly hit upon a classic struggle.

    Here are a couple of things I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success:

    1) After I’ve preached a sermon, if someone comes up and compliments me on the job, I’ll usually try to engage them on a content level. I’ll turn it back to them and asked what especially blessed or ministered to or convicted them. That way we get the conversation off how well I did and on to what I really hoped to accomplish: changing the hearer’s life in some way. Not sure how you do that with music in all cases, but worth thinking about.

    2) The other suggestion goes back to my charismatic days. I remember hearing a teacher say that whenever you receive praise you should briefly acknowlege it to the giver but immediately “in your heart” put into a sort of mental offering basket. Then at the end of each day, offer all the praise you’ve received back to God as worship (kind of like casting our crowns before the Throne on the final Day).

  3. Yeah, I don’t know how you reflect the listener back to the subject matter with music, either. In an ideal world, your choir director and your pastor are on the same page, and we’re merely complementary to the greater message of the sermon. However, I don’t know how often the ideal is met. [Given that we sang of shepherds running to Bethlehem on the same Sunday where we covered a Gospel that doesn’t give you a synopsis of Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into the world … maybe we missed that mark.]

    I hope that, in some pathetic way, my entry here tried to reflect that. What an imperfect mirror I wield. [Please, groan with me!]

  4. Definitely a classic dilemma. I like the mental offering basket idea. I’m a worship leader, myself, and I’ve been singing special music at churches since I was a teenager. I’ve tried different things over the years, and was uncomfortable with the whole situation for a long time. However, I’ve found something that works for me, so I’ll share it in case it helps anyone else… (Sorry for the length… When I have anything at all to say, I tend to say a lot…)

    I believe there are two distinct issues: how I handle the praise in my mind and heart to avoid the pitfall of pride, and how I handle the praise in the presence of the praise-giver to give glory to Him and bless the person during the interaction.

    The mental offering basket is one way to handle my heart issue. I must have ways to prayerfully examine myself and catch the insidious thoughts and emotions of pride (or even fear — which is still self-absorbed). Catch those thoughts and cast them down (according to 2 Cor. 10:5). I must give them no place in my worship, no place in my life (because if I let them rest unchallenged in my mind, they’ll take root and grow). If I even suspect I’m feeling prideful about a “performance”, I repent and confess it to wipe the slate clean.

    Meanwhile, I’ve eliminated most of my discomfort in handling compliments by recognizing a couple of things. First, the person who comes up to me is expressing her own heart, and I have no control over her reaction to me. Second, Christ in me *should* be attractive to those God is calling.

    In dealing with people who offer comments, I witnessed many who seemed hurt or offended when I discounted their expression of enjoyment. Usually (especially early on) I was doing it out of a desperate need to deflect the praise away from my praise-hungry heart. So I was still self-absorbed in this act, rather than loving them by recognizing their honest desire to either bless me with their comments or to simply express what they felt. I realized after a while that it was kinder to simply say, “Thank you, I really enjoy praising God,” if I couldn’t think of anything else.

    In the end, the other person is not my responsibility. I don’t need to feel guilty if she misplaces her praise (only if I let it puff me up with pride). If her comments seem to give me more credit than I feel is proper, I respond with a redirective comment, such as, “We all have to be faithful with the gifts God gives us. I’m glad He blessed you through that song” or “Glory to God! It’s always my prayer that people will be touched by God when I sing.” But in the end, it’s her problem if she’s focused on me instead of God.

    The second thing I recognize is that if my heart is right, and my gift is being used in submission and obedience to God, I should *expect* people to be touched and ministered to. God places His gifts in us so that He can bless others through us. If we don’t use the gift, we’re disrespecting His desire and purpose for it. Christ in us is an *attractive* fragrance to those God has saved (2 Cor. 2:15).

    It’s a fine line, but I believe the Body of Christ needs to become (overall) more comfortable with the fact that Christ in us is a glorious thing, and become comfortable with our identity as His Body and as lights shining in the darkness.

    What good is a lamp on a lampstand that keeps insisting it’s just a humble garbage bucket? It might as well be under a bushel — at least then it wouldn’t be confusing everybody who talked to it. Don’t apologize for the Light that shines out of us in the purity of our worship and the glory of our God-given talents! Stand on the hill and let your light blaze, attracting all who would come to be blessed by the anointing of Jesus!

    So when the light in me blesses my fellow Christians, I try to just smile and say, “That’s Christ in me, my hope of glory! My prayer is that you be always blessed by what you see and hear in me, because of Him.”

  5. Geof,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with these thoughts. I’ve run through the same questions many times in my mind when people respond after a worship service I’ve lead or a special number I’ve sung.

    I don’t think my answers to the questions are really much different than what’s been said already here. When people come and tell me how much something meant to them or ministered to them, I try to make my response be “Praise God that He used it that way.” It’s not a perfect answer, but I hope that it deflects the person’s view from my gifts to the God who gave them.

    I also agree with the previous commenter that we need to become more comfortable with the understanding that God’s working in us will produce acts of beauty and glory. I mean, I’d privately acknowledge on some particular Sunday that the music was very good, and that my talents played some major part in that. So it seems silly to deny it if somebody else comes up to me and says basically the same thing. In both cases, though, my response should be the same – glory to God, not me.

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