Caveat lector: in this series, I haven’t aimed for blanket descriptions of common styles or broad trends of the 80s. This has merely been a look at some of my own notable worship experiences in the 80s.
In the 80s, when I was living in Beaumont, Texas, a couple of folks believed in me (or at least thought the new music teacher would probably be able to lead singing), so I got to plan the worship flow on Sunday mornings about once a month, and I also planned some devotional times on Wednesday nights for a group of 100 or so. I no longer have printed copies of those devotional sequences — partly because I printed them on little quarter-sheets of paper in about 8pt font, and it’s too hard to read them anymore.
I remember my song lists as being God-focused some of the time and thematic most of the time — if only because of persistent worship content. In general, I would have led songs such as “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love,” “The Steadfast Love of the Lord,” “Jesus Is Lord,” and “Praise the Lord, Ye Heav’ns, Adore Him.” (If you looked for it, you could find some worship content back then — in the hymnals. Worship didn’t begin with so-called contemporary songs of the 70s, 80s, and beyond.)
Bill, another song leader in Beaumont with similar training and inclinations, encouraged me a lot. Tommy was a strong leader with a balanced repertoire. Clem, a deep thinker with a huge heart, had not been leading much when I was there; I have a vague memory that he had been discouraged by some because he was putting “too much” into his worshipping, but for whatever reason, the church wasn’t getting the benefit of this Godly man with gusto. I’m in touch with him more these days than with the others and am sorry I missed out on him then. A couple of other leaders leaned clearly toward songs that had little to no worship content, and I remember sometimes being upset when they led songs (mostly on Sunday nights) that I experienced as trite and/or irreverent. It was not the men — they were good guys. No, it was the songs they chose.
Later, when I lived in the Chattanooga area for a year, I visited 3-4 churches, leaving with feelings brought on by a junk-food diet during corporate¹ worship. I elected to be part of a little church in a little town called St. Elmo. It was a historic building with three or four dozen, mostly aging folks. Having decided it was a good place to be and to try to offer something, I settled in.
I remember very little about worship in the St. Elmo Church, except that a septuagenarian named Roy Songer was one of the other song leaders. Nice name! And a Chip Mc_____, too. Very nice folks there, but the worship times there, or anywhere else in the area, were anything but nutritious. (Could be because there was not a single copy of anything but the 1970s Alton Howard² and V.E. Howard hymnals to be found in any of those churches I visited. Just puttin’ that out there. . . .)
I was starving.
Then my parents reminded me that a family we knew was working with a church on the north side of town — Hixson, to be precise. During a visit there one Wednesday night, I got tears in my eyes during a devotional time led by Danny Cline. Forethought was in evidence, and Danny led sensitively — and led a song with some spiritual depth to it. Sensitivity and depth were not to be taken for granted in the 80s of my life, for more than one reason.
The song I recall so vividly was not “pure worship,” as I might say about “Lord of All Being” or “For the Beauty of the Earth.” It was more a deeply devoted prayer, I would say . . . although, if you’ll spend a few moments with these words, you’ll not only realize how they might have fed my starving soul in the 80s, but you might just worship the One who understands trial, forgives, and bolsters us as we look to Him.
In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall,
Nor for fear nor favor suffer me to fall.
With forbidden pleasures would this vain world charm,
Or its sordid treasures spread to work me harm,
Bring to my remembrance sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance, cross-crowned Calvary.
Should Thy mercy send me sorrow, toil and woe,
Or should pain attend me on my path below,
Grant that I may never fail Thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever cast my care on Thee.
– James Montgomery, 1834
¹ This series is mostly about corporate (group) worship I experienced in the 80s. In Chattanooga, could I have worshipped on my own? Of course, but I wasn’t conscious of God much in private then, and am not too much more likely to be caught worshipping in private now, either. I did worship on my own a few times during the past few days, but most of that kind of activity would be reserved for the 90s and early 00s in my life.
² Alton Howard’s Songs of Faith and Praise (1994) was a vast improvement over either edition of Songs of the Church, but still lacking in terms of certain editorial decisions (e.g., way too many descants) and the inclusion of about 50 songs that in my opinion don’t merit being sung anywhere.