George Beverly Shea How can we begin to measure the lasting effect of the life and work of George Beverly Shea, upon the worship of evangelical churches?  Like Buryl Red, though in very different ways these two giants of church music have left indelible marks on our worship language and means of expression as we proclaim witness in song and as we consider what it means to engage in spiritual worship “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

At 104 years of age, George Beverly Shea was known as “America’s Gospel Singer,” even though he was born in Canada, and sang in innumerable foreign countries as part of the Billy Graham team, in addition, of course, to singing in every state in the union.  At his memorial service Shea was referred to as the “Gentle Giant,” a fitting moniker given his humble demeanor and self-defacing humor.  Shea, along with Cliff Barrows, made up the principles of the Billy Graham evangelistic team.  His rich baritone stylings were a hallmark of every evangelistic service.  Even in latter years as new artists were included in the crusade programs, crowds waited with anticipation to hear the signature songs, The Love of God, The Wonder of It All, How Great Thou Art, or perhaps his best known musical offering that he scored at age 23, music for the poem by Mrs. Rhea Miller, I’d Rather Have Jesus.

Author, teacher, Reggie Kidd reminds us, “For two millennia, Christians have sung their theology – from catacombs to dorm rooms, and from cathedrals to football stadiums.  Every distinctive shape the faith takes finds its own musical voice.” (With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship)  No doubt the faith has been shaped through the years of the American church of the frontier, and the subsequent revivalist movement of which the Graham team provides the apex.  I would go as far as to say that most churches in my own Baptist faith tradition have patterned worship liturgy, at least as much, and many of them more, after the Graham crusades’ programs than by historic patterns of church practice.  Given this influence, we must pause to consider more resolutely not only the form of the crusade team, but as we say, “farewell” to this dear saint, George Beverly Shea, we must consider the consistent message and substance of the song(s) he sang.  It was GOSPEL – not in style, but in content.  It presented life-change, either by testimony, I’d Rather Have Jesus, or by biblical story, Ninety and Nine, or by a kind of spirit of abandonment to worship and wonder, The Love of God, The Wonder of It All, and How Great Thou Art. 

For many years, and some to this day, pastors – preachers – evangelists, looked for a Gospel-singer/soloist to serve as their own George Beverly Shea (combined with Cliff Barrows) as their right hand to flank them in weekly worship in attempts to re-create the crusade atmosphere in their own church.  Though there are multiple issues to be addressed in this ethos that deserve prayerful reflection, still this worship has served to shape much of where we find ourselves today.  For many in my own denomination when you say “Traditional worship,” it is this ambiance that comes to mind.  George Beverly Shea’s influence in this arena is paramount.  His signature voice, literally and figuratively, will remain with us in many ways even as he joins the mighty chorus of Heaven.  One cannot help but wonder if he will compare notes with other preacher – songster teams like John Calvin and Louis Bourgeois, John and Charles Wesley, Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, or Billy Sunday and Homer Rhodeheaver.

The passing of Buryl Red and now George Beverly Shea is fresh reminder for all who share in ministry through music that we have opportunity to give voice to faith, witness, and worship through song.  While it is extremely rare for individuals to propagate the volume and depth of influence that has grown from the lives of these two men through their profound giftedness, talent, skills, and opportunity, it is, nevertheless, critical that each of us recommit ourselves to see the Christlike characteristics that they demonstrated, and to imitate those.  I will likely never write a Celebrate Life musical, or even an In Remembrance of Me song.  I can, however, seek to serve with the kind of humble spirit and treat persons with the kind of gentle caring that characterized Buryl Red.  My voice will no longer croon the baritone strains with the kind of richness and attractive potency that defined the solo voice of George Beverly Shea.  I can, however, offer my body including every utterred sound as a “living sacrifice as spiritual worship,” prayerful that God will be glorified, and trusting His Spirit to turn little into much for His Kingdom.

You and I are also leaving our signature upon the worship life and language of those with whom we live and serve.  Let us be faithful in making melody with thankful hearts for His glory.




Explore posts in the same categories: Choir Ministry, Church Music, Congregational Singing, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Private Worship, Shared Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leader Relationships, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

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