In praise of hymns

By MICHAEL J. BROOKS / Guest Columnist

It was my privilege to know and work with the late John Atherton at First Baptist Church, Selma.

John delighted in classic hymns and stately choral music. One day a zealous member accosted him about the absence of so-called “praise music” and said, “John, our church needs to learn to praise God!”

John went home dejected and told his wife, Louise, the story.

“What does he think the church has been doing for 2,000 years?” she asked.

Louise was insightful.

The church has been praising God since the Resurrection of Jesus, though we praise him in many ways. Some Christians enjoy Southern Gospel music. The Imperials were my favorite group when I was a young person.

Some praise God with classical music, such as Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” or Handel’s “Messiah.” I conducted a funeral recently and the family asked to conclude the service with a recording of “How Great Thou Art” by Elvis Presley. The colonial Puritans sang scripture in “The Psalter.” And don’t forget bluegrass gospel. All are used to praise God.

I wish we had a better descriptor for the so-called “praise music.” Maybe “contemporary” or “chorus-driven” is better.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and my generation learned theology both from the Bible and from The Baptist Hymnal. It seems every day I remember a phrase to encourage me from hymns we sang in worship.

Recently our denominational publishing company asked me to write six short features for upcoming Sunday School materials as supplements to the lesson commentary. The assigned topic for one of the six was “Temptation.” I thought immediately of quoting an old hymn, “Yield Not to Temptation.” I didn’t find it in our hymnal and had to dig out the 1960 Baptist Hymnal to find it. I realized this hymn hasn’t been in our hymnal for years, yet I remember singing it as a teenager. And I remember how the lyrics urged me in times of testing to “Ask the Savior to help you, comfort, strengthen, and keep you / look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through.”

We called them “worship wars” when congregations fought over the kind of music they’d sing together, though now, thankfully, this seems to have lessened. We’ve concluded that we either must offer “blended” worship with a variety of music, offer multiple services featuring different music, or come to the realization that every church must find its niche, minister to its congregants and not try to be like another church.

I offer a salute to the classic hymns that taught me how to love, serve and praise God.

Reflections is a weekly devotional column written by Michael J. Brooks, pastor of the Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster. The church’s website is Siluriabaptist.com.