Southern gospel singer and songwriter Squire Parsons performed a concert at a country Baptist church last year, the night before Easter. I have heard his name all my life. “Sweet Beulah Land” (1979), a family favorite, catapulted Parsons to fame in southern Gospel circles. I have also heard him sing on Gaither Homecoming videos. In Precious Memories (1994), Parsons performed “Is Not This the Land of Beulah” with Cynthia Clawson and Terry Franklin.
Still, I did not know what to expect at this concert. Although I love many Southern gospel songs, I prefer other genres so I was unfamiliar with most of Parsons’ repertoire. I had never heard of this country church before either, fearing I might become lost on winding back roads. But I finally found the church and parked next to Parsons’ tour bus, having arrived in time for a seat. I usually attend churches with stadium-like sanctuaries that seat hundreds, large choir lofts, state-of-the-art computer screens, and multi-stall restrooms. This country church had none of those things. The sanctuary, which seated only fifty, also gave me no place to hide. However, I soon learned my way around the church and then scanned the merchandise in the front hallway.
The middle-aged pastor opened the service with prayer. Then two elderly men, one on the piano, led the congregation in some favorites: “Because He Lives” (Bill and Gloria Gaither) and “Heaven’s Jubilee” (Pace and Speer). These men were pitiful, but humble and sincere. Songs about the resurrection and heaven were also to characterize Parsons’ ministry that evening. When he finally took the stage, Parsons looked old and tired as he coughed between songs. The congregation later learned that he had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, during a bout of pneumonia. Parsons had a second bout of pneumonia and a heart attack two years later, so he missed the wedding of his youngest son Samuel. Because he was on anti-immune system medication for his chemo treatments, Parsons could not greet anyone with a handshake.
Yet this humble old man still had a gift. In a strong tenor voice and with Samuel as sound man, Parsons sang some solos from his newest album. One was about a woman discovering a Gideon Bible in a hotel room; Parsons related anecdotes about their ministry in Asheville (his residence) and in his home state of West Virginia. Then on the keyboard, he and Samuel performed a few duets to celebrate Easter weekend – songs like “He Came to Me” and “The Old Ship of Zion.” Samuel’s wife Leah later sang “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” (Andrae Crouch). Finally, Parsons performed the first lines of “Is Not This the Land of Beulah” (which I learned was from his late father’s days) before the family segued into “Sweet Beulah Land.” In song and in voice, the old had met the new. Leah sang “I Bless Your Name” (Selah) during the altar service. Then a member of the congregation led everyone in a closing prayer.
Parsons said he was glad he was introduced to gospel music before he heard Elvis Presley. He also noted that while some gospel fans like the music, he prefers the gospel. I wish more Christian music lovers would heed this truth. Too many worship in the natural plane of the music instead of the spiritual plane of the anointing. What I loved most was Parsons’ warm and tender anointing, which made everyone cry. I have attended many Christian concerts that reflect my varied interests: Anointed, Avalon, Charles Billingsley, Christ Church Choir, the Crabbs, Ernie Haase and Signature Sound, Dallas Holm, the Katinas, Crystal Lewis, Babbie Mason, Newsong, Guy Penrod, Selah, Allison Durham Speer, and the Talley Trio. I enjoyed most of these free concerts, but I rarely cried. Except for Guy Penrod and the Crabbs, only Parsons sang with tenderness – a real anointing that produces tears. But it is rare. Too many people care more about merchandise or performance than ministry. Is this true of everyone I hear in concert? No. Many are sincere. They want people to hear the gospel, in story and song, and they give altar calls. [I question the sincerity of those who do not.] However, too few people are tender. Too few sing in the power of the Spirit.
The next morning, I attended an Easter service at a Southern Baptist church. Its stadium-like sanctuary seats hundreds, with giant screens and multi-stall restrooms. I sat in my favorite spot too, a lower balcony yards from the stage. The pure-in-heart worship leader led both the choir and congregation in song after beautiful song: “Prepare Ye the Way,” “They Didn’t Know,” “It Is Done,” “In Christ Alone,” and others. This service perfectly reflected my music and church preferences, my spiritual comfort zone. Yet as much as I enjoyed it, I felt little spiritual tenderness. Musical perfection and sincerity are worthy goals. But without tenderness and anointing, what good are they? Can the lost be saved or the saints renewed without such demonstrations of the Spirit? Even worse was the sixty-year-old pastor’s pitiful attempt at a sermon. He could not stay on topic and often tried to use humor. As a result, the gospel “message” had become a mess. Parsons, however, was both humble and serious and his message was simple but profound. The gospel flowed out of him like a river. Parsons can teach the modern church many things about worship. Will they listen? No.
“Beulah,” Hebrew for “married,” refers to the marriage supper of the Lamb; that day is almost here (Revelation 19:7-9). The phrase “Beulah land” (Isaiah 62:4) also refers to heaven. Thanks to Squire Parsons’ four-decade ministry, many people feel closer to it. I pray the Lord both heals and blesses Parsons and his family for many years to come.