Celebrating Grace

Monday I attended the premiere of a new hymnal, Celebrating Grace Hymnal.  I drove to Atlanta Sunday after leading worship music at First Baptist Church Lawrenceburg in order to attend the Monday events surrounding the release of this new compilation.  I was present for a couple of music reading sessions that included anthems created as companion support material for the hymnal.  I was also able to attend a session where co-authors discussed philosophy and usage of an online support tool they are calling “the worship matrix.”  The day ended with a two-hour-long hymn sing/recognition service.  It was a day of conflicting and contradictory emotions.  The famous Dickens quote from Tale of Two Cities came to mind, “they were the best of times, they were the worst of times.”  I need to explain, and I am trusting that you will be able to understand my ramblings enough to at least see my own catharsis of the day, but I hope you might also gain some insight, however negligible, related to your own church’s worship influences.

I would hasten to offer kudos to the framers, artistic and editing talent, and visionary business entrepreneurs behind the Celebrating Grace Hymnal project.  Tom McAfee is a sharp business mind, a deeply committed Christian, and a young man wise beyond his years.  One of the smartest things Tom did, proving his business acumen and knowledge of Baptist music, was to recruit Mark Edwards to be involved in the project and eventually to be the face associated with its development.  As the project development progressed the list of Baptist Church Music heroes lengthened.  Though scattered to places not associated with their names in days of their earlier Baptist prominence, the pending impact of such a grouping of Baptist musicians was unmistakable just the same.  There was Terry York, who had been a primary player in the ’91 version of Baptist Hymnal, and whose word skills are matched only by the level of reflective thinking behind them.  There were names of educational prominence like David Music, Milburn Price, Paul Richardson, and others who had been monumental voices in the lives of countless music ministers trained at the seminaries where they had once served.  There were composer/arrangers well-known for quality musical treatments through anthems and instrumental writing, now tending to enhance the materials available for this new work.  The likes of David Schwoebel, Joseph Martin, Benji Harlan, Ralph Manuel, Ron Boud, Sharon Lyon, and Stan Pethel were on the list providing strong indication as to the level of artistry likely to result.  From what I saw and heard on Monday the resultant product is all you would expect from such a list and more.  The Monday night hymn-sing was a glorious festival that accomplished the task of demonstrating the material of the hymnal and its companion products, but also proved to be a celebration of worship singing by choirs, children, and congregation.   Each attendee having received a copy of the hymnal, the hymn-singing rang full in the resonant sanctuary of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Standing in the balcony between two of my brothers in ministry, Tennessee music ministers, Phil Lundy and Richard Dickerson, I felt almost as if a part of the “great cloud of witnesses” at times.  I was in a position to observe participation, but could not, nor would not resist participating in the singing as an act of Christian worship.

You may be asking, “so where’s this conflict of emotions?”  As an apologist for congregational singing looks like after such a day and evening I would simply declare, “all is well” and move on.  As wonderful as the music and fellowship experiences of the day were, they brought to mind unresolved conflict that lives in Baptist life whether we admit it, or not.  So many of the musicians involved either in the compilation of the Celebrating Grace Hymnal and/or its support materials, are somewhat estranged from present day Southern Baptist life in the main, either by their own choice, by exclusion, or through a chasm rooted in differences of artistic, stylistic, or theological origin.  While the later is obviously the most weighty of these, it occurs to me that to my knowledge such has never been discussed openly among the musicians themselves who tend to be the heard voices within camps that are heading in different directions.  Those riding down either of these paths wearing blinders will likely say, “Paul, you are just in your own crisis of indecision, or inability to reconcile your thinking.”  Believe me, such possibility is often considered.  That consideration, however, tends to wind up back on a divided highway where tension is the norm, and any attempt to dismiss one road or the other seems less appropriate for faith communion than living smack dab in the middle of the tension created by convergence of both roads.  That spot is not between the roads, but rather seems a point of merging, where a way learned as “right” seeks to make room for a way being practiced by many thought to have its own way of being quality, spiritually expressive, and to have a kind of correctness of its own.    

I congratulate those who took part in giving us Celebrating Grace Hymnal.  It now joins the Baptist Hymnal as a possible choice as the primary corpus of a church’s worship.  Like the Baptist Hymnal it also becomes an outstanding resource as supplemental material for choirs, instrumentalists, and congregations who select the other hymnal as their primary book from which to sing God’s praise.  While the “tale of two hymnals” bothers my spirit, I join the prayer of Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace,” a song in both books.

Personal health issues prevented my experiencing the rollout event for the official Baptist Hymnal that bears that name, but I have participated in numerous other events associated with its release.  Each of the two books tells something of its own story, which will likely mark Baptist worship for some time.  While each contains significant amounts of diverse material, historic and new, each one reaches toward very different eras and authors from which to pluck the bulk of its fruit.  If you consider the whole of Baptist history these books participate in some interesting streams.  The General – Particular Baptist divide, and the Sandy Creek – Charleston Tradition split of Baptist worship have representative material that finds its way into both of these latest Baptist generated worship songbooks.  No one ever declared truce in either of those struggles, nor the worship war cries of the last 25 years, but there is some synthesis of those stripes in the new compilations of songs that will cross the lips and help form the faith of Baptists in worship for the near future at least.  Some evidence exists through the two hymnals, including the very fact of their dual existence, of new separations that bypass a group of 20th Century hymnological and church music giants on the one hand, and minimize a body of southern gospel and Christian pop genre on the other.  As one deeply influenced by all these stripes I lament the quick dismissal of any.  They are woven into my (our) fabric to some degree or another.  They play a part in our spiritual formation as individuals, as a denomination, and among the vast array of Baptist churches.

Room does not allow for the full-on discussion that needs to occur to carefully examine value systems that may underlie either the “need” of two hymnals, or the production of the same.  I am purposefully avoiding the political – theological SBC divide of the 80’s that no doubt plays a big part in all of these things.  Suffice it to say for now that neither a hot pursuit of “soul-stirring” effect that seeks to attract people, nor the pursuit of musical excellence for its own sake which displays fine art and displays “the best” is adequate to serve as controlling point for singing in worship.  Neither of these can ever substitute for the mystery of theocentric worship that depends wholly on Christ, is scripted by the Spirit through the Word, and reaches the Father on His own terms as acceptable worship.  Perhaps for now we need only to take pause, and simply note the tension of convergence that perhaps we might worship with awareness that our world is broken, and in need of reconciliation.  We need a Savior in whom all things are held together.  Perhaps He will surprise us and be found in our singing.  If and when so, it will certainly be a miraculous act of His grace, and nothing less.  And when such happens, whether as a tiny incremental turning, or a monumental leap, I pray we will be faithful in celebrating grace.

May we celebrate God’s grace such that its salvation of our own soul effects us to allow grace itself to characterize our attitude toward one another.

Celebrating Grace,


Explore posts in the same categories: Hymnals, Singing Worship, Worship Reminders, Worship thoughts

5 Comments on “Celebrating Grace”

  1. Wayne H. Randolph Says:


    Thank you for your blog on the premiere of the new hymnal, Celebrating Grace. I had planned on attending, but we are in an interim, and I could not get away. I. too, share your feelings about the “tale of two hymnals”, and a sense of sadness that I detected in your comments. In seemed that even in the midst of the long denominational struggle, our music remained separate, or was able to rise above the conflict. We still had our “book of common song and worship”. That is no longer the case. It is as if the final thing that at least we shared in common is gone. I know that through the years all of us used music with our choirs from other publishers, and not just Broadman Press, but we still had our book of common song.

    We will probably get the Celebrating Grace hymnal here at Second because it fits our style of worship, but a part of me will wish for the days before the struggle and division, knowing that we can’t go back.

    Thank you for your insights each week. They are very insightful and helpful and inspirational. I am sorry I can’t participate more in TBC music events. If you are ever down this way, let’s do lunch.

    • pclarkjr Says:

      Thank you, Wayne. I find concourse in the shared lament (I hope it is deeper than “misery loves company”). I would love to have lunch together and hear of your continued journey with Second Baptist. Would love to have you at TBC events any time you are able. The Celebrating Grace hymnal is a fine instrument with some gems that were new to me. Rich blessings to you.

  2. Bill Alexander Says:


    Our church has two Baptist Hymnals in the pew rack along with a copy of the Bible. Neither are ever used by the members because we have a tv screen with the song selection there. Our sanctury has about 8 screens to observe. The words can be easily read without having to find the selected hymns or scripture.

    I can not find a reason for our congregation to spend much needed funds to purchase more song books that will never be opened. Let’s spend the funds more wisely in this down attendance and less funds time.


    • pclarkjr Says:


      I certainly appreciate your concern that we be good stewards of the Lord’s money. Churches that use screens exclusively in worship may be less likely to need hymnals. They certainly are unlikely to experience such as a “felt need,” since words are delivered in eight to ten bite size chunks to them. My own church uses both screen and hymnal, augmented at times by lyrics printed in the printed bulletin. I trust that in each instance our purpose is to engage with the living God, with one another, and to proclaim Christ. As one who consults often with churches, I have some concerns that are addressed to some degree by utilizing hymnals. Some of these concerns are:
      1. Hymnals allow us to review lyrics sung after the fact
      2. Hymnals (or printed text) allow parents to guide children more closely during singing, and to point out specific development concepts they may feel needed
      3. Hymnals encourage music reading, or at least lay a foundation for such in a musically illiterate culture (this is never the primary concern, but rather included in our consideration of what it may mean to offer the Lord our best offering of praise.

      4. Hymnals can be purchased for home use – duplicating in the home what is available to assist worship in the gathered congregation.

      Indeed, if songbooks are never to be opened, then such a purchase would be foolish and wasteful. The more important consideration would be, “Are we encouraging people to worship in the way that best serves their spiritual formation and the longterm building of God’s Kingdom?” This is an question that can only be answered by those in responsible positions for leading worship.

      I would be interested in your reflection on these thoughts, and pray you hear them offered respectfully.

  3. Ms. Sydney Wheat Says:

    I wanted to comment on the controversy about “In Christ Alone.”
    My thought is that the “wrath of God was satisfied” is true.
    God poured His wrath for our sins on His Son. Isn’t that what the cross is all about?

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