Technically, the American Guild of Organists is a secular organization.
But take into account where most of the nation’s organs are located and how they are used, and there’s an obvious faith connection.
“Even though it’s a secular organization, in a way, it’s a religious organization,” said Dan Talbot, secretary-treasurer of the guild’s Baton Rouge Chapter.
“Some churches believe the organ is going by the wayside, but it has led services for so many years,” he said, adding that “what it takes an orchestra to do, an organ can do on its own.”
The guild on a national level and on a chapter level promotes organists who can play hymns and lead worship services, Talbot said, adding there’s even a service-playing test the guild uses to confirm musicians are up to that role.
“Hymns are very important to the chapter and to the national organization,” he said.
To that end, the Baton Rouge Chapter, along with First Baptist Church, is sponsoring A Festival of Hymns, an ecumenical worship service featuring Christian hymns from a variety of denominational traditions.
“Everything is going to be music based,” Talbot said. “There’s not going to be any preaching or anything like that. It will strictly be music leading people into worship.”
The festival is at 4 p.m. Sunday at First Baptist, 529 Convention St. A rehearsal for the festival choir, open to singers who want to participate, is 2 p.m.
A similar festival last year drew more than 100 singers for the choir, which will help lead the congregational singing and perform one or more anthems during the service, Talbot said. Accompaniment will include organ, piano, brass and timpani.
Benjaman Harlan, who will lead the music, suggested choir members wear “nice, but casual clothes and comfortable shoes.”
Harlan’s personal and professional experience with hymns is extensive. He has written and arranged hymns, served as a church music minister and as an educator of church music ministers.
He still serves, in an adjunct capacity, on the music faculties of Louisiana College in Pineville and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. As music worship strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, he works with church musicians across the state.
Though many churches today are employing what Harlan describes as a “rock band” approach to worship music, he cautions against assuming that hymn singing is on the way out.
“People will criticize the hymn as being old and outmoded,” Harlan said, while noting that hymnals, in fact, offer a range of music spanning centuries including the 21st.
“To me when I sing from the hymnal, I feel like I’m holding hands with people throughout the ages,” he said.
“In five or 10 or 20 years, the landscape of what people will sing will be very different from what it is today,” Harlan predicted.
As with previous times, much of the popular contemporary music sung in churches today will be forgotten, while some of the songs will find their place in “the larger canon of Christian song that will exist for centuries or millennia.”
To Harlan, a great hymn begins with a great text of “beautiful words that say timeless things that can appeal to emotion and intellect.
“I’ve always loved the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ that exists in almost every Protestant hymnal,” he said. “It’s a Trinitarian hymn that speaks of the triune divinity, and it has a wonderful hymn tune.”
Among the hymns planned for Sunday afternoon’s festival are “Come Christians Join to Sing,” “Lift High the Cross” and “We’re Marching to Zion.”
Harlan said he hopes singing hymns Sunday night will make a difference for all who come out: “I’m hoping that when they leave, they are touched on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels, that the mind sees these great songs, but the experience of them reaching into the heart.”
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