Found Faithful As God’s People
By Micaiah Bolton
Dawson Memorial Baptist Church is a century-old Southern Baptist church whose worship is notable for its musical quality and focus on strengthening the faith of all participants. The congregation was organized in the suburban neighborhood of Edgewood in 1920. It was revitalized on April 5, 1925, by Lemuel Dawson, who became the church’s first full-time pastor. After Rev. Dawson’s death, the church voted unanimously to rename the church in his memory.
Over the years, Dawson has become one of the largest Baptist churches in Alabama (“What Are” 2016). It has grown from a congregation of four hundred to thousands of members who faithfully attend, in person and online, every Sunday morning. Traditionally Southern Baptist, Dawson has stayed true to its roots while growing and changing with its congregation and surrounding community. The church’s current senior pastor Doctor David Eldridge has greatly encouraged this attitude. Because of this willingness to grow, Dawson’s various ministries have grown in size as well as ability.
The Telos of Worship at Dawson
In a recent book, L. Edward Phillips, recommends identifying a church’s approach to worship by its ethos (or character) and telos (or purpose). The telos of an typical Sunday service at Dawson is what I would describe as “Strengthening of Faith.” The way the services are planned and carried out clearly shows that they are meant to be a grand reminder of all that Jesus has done, does, and will do for his people. Every part of worship–the music, sermons, baptisms, and communion–glorify the name of Jesus. This intentionality results in stronger faith throughout the congregation as a whole, as well as in each individual member.
A specific example of this is in the sermon that was given on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. Dr. Eldridge, preaching from John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, continuously led the congregation to be deeply moved by the peace, grace, mercy, and majesty of the moment Jesus revealed himself to Mary Magdalene. He emphasized the importance of that moment in minute detail in order to lead the congregation to remember and celebrate the victory of the resurrection. Assuring them that they have victory in Christ alone. The characteristics of this particular sermon are not far off from what you would hear on any given Sunday at Dawson.
God’s glory, power, and love are magnified through the God-given talents and intentionality of Dr. Eldridge, as well as Dawson’s staff and congregation. Each person who leads the congregation in worship, does so to the glory of God.
God and Music
If you ask around Birmingham about Dawson, you might find that it is most commonly associated with its music ministry. With an impressive adult choir, two student choirs, a children’s choir, an orchestra, a jazz ensemble, myriad chamber ensembles, and a talented Sunday morning rhythm section, it is obvious that Dawson appreciates quality music as well as a variety of different styles. Each of these groups are considered ministries of Dawson. The music and worship staff is intentional about calling members of the church, as well as those in the surrounding community who do not attend Dawson, to bring their gifts before the church as an offering of worship to God. The music ministry is headed by Pastor John Woods who does a fantastic job of incorporating at least one of these groups into every Sunday service.
Although Dawson does not consistently follow a set liturgical text, the staff is strategic and consistent in the way worship is presented. Dawson has high expectations for musical excellence and beauty. Dawson has always been a traditional Baptist church. For some years it offered separate traditional and contemporary services. Now it offers one type of service described as “modern traditional.” To accommodate the ever changing preferences of the local Christian community, Dawson does things such as playing Contemporary Christian Music on an organ and modernizing hymns to be led by a well-equipped praise band. Not only does this create an environment for healthy intergenerational worship, it also promotes discipleship through worship. The congregation is encouraged to lay down their musical preferences for the benefit of their neighbor.
In an average Sunday morning service at Dawson, the event that receives the most emphasis is the sermon. It typically lasts about thirty minutes. The second longest event is the music. It includes a prelude performed by one of Dawson’s many ensembles, three congregational songs, a choir anthem, an additional post-sermon congregational song, and an organ postlude. The music, cumulatively, is also takes up about thirty minutes, but on rare occasions, it has taken center stage. This was done purposefully because of the intention, time, and effort put into making sure the music beautifully complimented the sermon without overshadowing it.
The way the services are planned and carried out clearly shows that they are meant to be a grand reminder of all that Jesus has done, does, and will do for his people, for he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Every note of every song and every word of the sermon, and even baptisms and communion, focus all attention on the majesty and victory of Jesus.
I was fortunate to observe a specific instance of this in the prelude that lead into the first song of the Easter Sunday service. The prelude was called “Easter Celebration” and was performed by Dawson’s orchestra. It was a tremendous piece of music, with lots of soaring brass parts and horn fanfares. Behind the orchestra, the organ was blaring (in the best way possible). Brent Reeves, Dawson’s organist, quite literally pulled all of the stops out for this one. The prelude was consistently grand and exultant throughout, and, without missing a beat, it carried seamlessly into the extended introduction to the Easter Hymn, “Christ, The Lord, Is Risen Today.” During this extended introduction, John Woods, the music minister, led the congregation in a call and response using the “Paschal greeting,” “Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed.” This led immediately into a very grandiose rendition of the hymn.
Dawson’s staff and members love hard and love well anyone who walks through the doors. Dawson also has an extremely talented congregation. What the church’s leaders pour into the congregation flows out of each member, and accompanies the Word of God with reverence and humility. As Dawson’s website says, “Our Mission: To become and help others become faithful servants of Jesus Christ.”
Dawson Memorial Baptist Church
Address: 1114 Oxmoor Road, Birmingham, AL 35209
Services Observed: 9:45 Sunday morning services on March 14, 21, 28 and April 4, 2021
Video Archives: https://www.dawsonchurch.org/sermon-series
“Dawson Family Of Faith – Bhamwiki.” 2016. Bhamwiki.com. Last updated August 26, 2016. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Dawson_Family_of_Faith.
“Dawson · Home.” 2021. Dawsonchurch.Org, https://www.dawsonchurch.org.
“Music & Worship At Dawson · Dawson.” 2021. Dawsonchurch.Org. https://www.dawsonchurch.org/aboutmusicandworship/.
Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, & Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
“What Are Alabama’s Biggest Churches?” 2016. AL.com, July 20, 2016. https://www.al.com/living/2016/07/what_are_alabamas_biggest_chur.html.
Micaiah Bolton ‘23 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 18, 2021.