Grace, says Avalon leader, no longer taken for granted

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Michael Passons had often sung about grace, but somehow had taken it for granted.

“God has been teaching me about his grace,” said Passons, the founding member of Avalon, 1998’s Dove winner as New Artist of the Year on the basis of their self-titled inaugural album, “Avalon.”

In March of this year, the group received its second Dove, when their “Testify to Love” was named best song in the pop-contemporary category.

“We take this word for granted,” Passons said, reflecting on grace, part of title of the group’s second album, “A Maze of Grace.”

“You hear it all your life, especially growing up in church and hearing the songs, sermons and Sunday school (lessons). But we really don’t know what that word means.”

Besides Bible study, last year Passons immersed himself in “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” an award-winning book by Phillip Yancey.

Taking time out from a hectic schedule that kept the group on the road every weekend in 1998, he listened to God speak through that book and in other ways.

For Passons, an awareness of grace goes back a long way. To encourage every teenager who feels like a geek, there is Passons’ story. Twenty years ago, he wasn’t a handsome, versatile singer.

A country boy who grew up outside Yazoo City, Miss., he dealt with his “uncool” status by secluding himself on the family farm. After school, he often rode horses or four-wheelers.

“I did have friends at church and that was a saving grace,” he said. “I loved hanging out with my friends after church on Wednesday nights and Sundays.” His musical roots are singing in the choir first at Center Ridge Baptist Church and, later, First Baptist Church of Yazoo City.

Actually, his vocal range, mellow tones and confident stage presence make it difficult to envision him as anything but an extremely talented musician.

Ditto for his group, whose “New Artist” Dove puts them alongside past winners like Jars of Clay, Point of Grace, Take 6 and 4Him.

Attend an Avalon concert and you’ll clap and sing along with the overlapping vocals and determined melody line that drove their first six singles to the top of the charts.

Passons leads out on “Testify to Love,” which holds the distinction of being the longest-running Christian AC song at No.1, and the title tune to “A Maze of Grace.” But he doesn’t hog the spotlight, sharing it in turn with mates Jody McBrayer, Janna Potter and Cherie Paliotta.

In just four years, the group has performed in front of nearly a million people -- a long way from those awkward days in Yazoo City.

“It’s funny,” he chuckled. “You start to hear from people in high school who didn’t have much to say to you then. But I take every opportunity to be thankful for where I am and not think more of myself than I should.

“I know this is a blessing from God and he’s given me this opportunity. I want to use it the way he would like me to and represent him in a fashion that’s very God-like.”

Still, the past taught him an important lesson. His self-esteem no longer lies in being part of the hip crowd, because the Lord provides his worth.

People tend to think of themselves in relation to the most important person in their lives, he explains. If you put other people in that position and they don’t really care for you, the result is a poor self-image.

But with God in that position, his love and guidelines offer stability and value. Not to mention his leadership, which Passons credits for guiding him down his current path.

Though he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior many years ago, there’s no way a 9-year old could understand the wisdom and vastness of God’s love, Passons said.

He saw that grace unfold after he earned a degree in classical piano at Mississippi College. Friends at First Baptist Church of Jackson -- where he was in music ministry -- convinced him to move to Nashville, Tenn., for a shot at the big time.

After touring two summers with a New Jersey-based band, he ministered as a solo artist for more than four years, performing for youth groups and in summer camps and concerts.

His presence in Music City also led to the opportunity to audition for the record company that wanted to assemble a modern, Christian version of the 1970s group Abba.

“By opening doors and shutting doors, I’ve somehow ended up here,” he said. “God is leading.”

Said fellow Avalon member Janna Potter, “People love to know that to the best of your abilities you are living out what you sing about. Even though I don’t have all the answers, I’m going to let God have control of it and see what he does.”

The group’s third album, “In a Different Light,” was released in March.

Reprinted from Challenge, a magazine published by the North American Mission Board for the Royal Ambassadors program. Bruce Sims, a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist, contributed to this article.

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