(My father wrote this article, which was originally published in the Baptist Record, February, 2013.)
Back in 1707, a well-known Christian author and independent thinker named Isaac Watts published a song which has become a staple hymn for generations. Marching to Zion was a masterpiece of hymn writing. As a child, I learned the words to this beautiful and inspiring melody.
What escapes many is that, in the second verse, Watts inserted a line which was (at the time) highly controversial. “Let those refuse to sing,” it went, “who never knew our God!” Churches during this period were embroiled in a controversy over whether church music should consist only of straight Psalms, or should include hymns. Often, church members would walk out or stubbornly refuse to participate when hymns were sung. It remained a controversy for many years to come.
When I first began my ministry in 1949, the idea of actually paying a staff member (other than the pastor) was a new one, especially in small churches. Now, this profession has become an established part of most churches. This is but one change among many. In the past few years, we have seen what seems to be an increasingly-rapid change in our worship experiences. Some of these have been accepted easily, others not so much. Examples include the introduction of praise songs, the elimination of hymnals in favor of digital screens, and the use of praise bands.
Often, these issues become defined in terms of generations. “Older folks just don’t understand what it takes to reach youth these days,” say young people. “Young people have lost touch with our traditions,” say some older folks. They are both right, and both wrong!
Through the years, I have seen churches divide over what seemed to me like the most petty of issues. Satan must delight in such things, because they divert the church’s attention away from its primary mission. The Great Commission clearly compels us to focus, above all else, on sharing the life-changing Gospel truth of Christ with the world. Any other concerns are secondary. Jesus knew that His people could be vulnerable to division and attack by the Enemy. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, before His arrest and crucifixion, Christ prayed that his church would “be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you.” – John 17:21.
Christ’s Church is created by and infused with the Holy Spirit. It is a living organism, which can and should change with the times, yet must never, ever lose its primary focus of reaching the lost.
I must confess that it took me a long time to be comfortable with what I used to refer to as “canned” (recorded) music. When singing solos, I prefer to be accompanied by a pianist (preferably by Willa, my beautiful wife of nearly 58 years). Being able to direct choral groups accompanied by piano and organ has been one of my great joys in life. However, I must also admit that I have been deeply moved at times by contemporary music. There are many Christian artists out there who are using all forms of musical expression to touch lives for Christ. It’s not all my cup of tea, but as long as they are true to Scripture, and are responding to the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t have to be.
In my humble opinion, dear reader, we must decide whether we are going to continue trying to reach the lost in a world which needs Christ more than ever. We could stand on tradition with our arms crossed, and let the current generation go its own way. Or, we could watch the joy on young faces as they express truths from the stirring of the Holy Spirit within them. Older folks may have learned our own “praise songs” from a shape-note hymnal, but to us, they are how we express our own love for God. We often have valuable lessons to teach. But regardless of whether we are “young” or “old”, or our styles are “traditional”, “contemporary”, “blended”, or whatever, we must all make sure that our messages and actions are grounded in Scripture.
So the next time you come across that great old hymn, remember that although our world may be unrecognizable from that of Isaac Watts, the truth of Christ has not changed, whether it was 64 years ago, or 300, or 2,000. Our only choice is whether we are going to carry out our mission, or not. I say we carry on!
Thomas A. Moak, Jr. is a graduate of Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Mississippi College and holds degrees in Religious Education and Church Music from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Willa have served at numerous churches in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee during 64 years of ministry. Most recently, he “retired” after 12 years of directing the 75-member Lincoln Chorale, an award-winning senior citizens’ choir he founded. Tom and Willa live in Bogue Chitto and attend First Baptist Church, McComb.