The last time she was in Washington, at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Sandi Patti sang four songs and got four standing ovations. The Gospel Music Association's Entertainer of the Year for 1983 and 1981 won't be expecting that kind of reaction at her Constitution Hall concert on Tuesday, but she may get it anyway.

One thing with Patti: you won't have any trouble deciphering her message. Her father was a minister of music and one of his earliest lessons stressed the importance of words. "Some people speak, or give lectures: I'm uncomfortable with that, but I'm comfortable with singing," Patti says of her musical ministry. "But I still want to say something. If people can't understand what I'm saying, if they can't hear the lyrics, then there's really no reason for me to be singing. That's why I put so much emphasis on the lyric, so the message is very clear."

Even in gospel, there is the danger that the messenger might sometimes become confused with the message, says Patti. "Unfortunately, it happens much easier than people realize. All of a sudden, when you start to look at your priorities, you spend more time worrying about what you're going to wear and how you're going to sound. Then, what really is the message? It happens too easily. It's very important for me every day to keep my priorities checked, think them through, verbalize, possibly write them down -- that constant thought to make sure that the reason I do what I'm doing comes out very clear."

Patti, who has been singing since she was 2 1/2 (including a lot of session and advertising work in college and tours with the Bill Gaither Trio and the Billy Graham Crusades) is held up as a role model to many young girls. "I do get many letters saying, 'When I grow up, I want to be like you,' " she says. "When I grew up I wanted to be like Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand. Everybody is going to be drawn to somebody. What is important for me to do is not encourage them to be like me as much as I want to encourage them to be the kind of young person that God wants them to be."

Since giving birth to daughter Anna six months, Patti and her manager/husband John Helvering have cut back on concerts a bit, to about 100 a year. On the road, though, Anna is always with them. "She travels with us and she is a great roadie. We couldn't ask for any better."