(Originally published on 27 December, 2011)
Throughout the 1990s, churches experimented with the “seeker-friendly” or “Willow Creek” philosophy of church marketing. One of the underlying premises of this philosophy was, if you want to attract “unchurched” people to your church, then the last thing your church should resemble is–a church. Pulpits had to go, replaced by flimsy music stands that could be removed at a minute’s notice. Baptismal fonts and Communion tables had to be kept sight unseen (only to be brought out for the midweek “believers’ service”: Sunday was reserved for the “unchurched”). Many churches got rid of the choir (as we saw last time) in favor of more showbiz-oriented “worship teams” or “praise teams”. In some cases, the choirs stayed around, although they were usually relegated to the role of background singers for the “stars” on the worship team. But even if the choir escaped the axe, the organ (and the organist) almost never did.
So far, the American church in the 21st century is exploring emergent and missional philosophies. (I realize that these terms are not synonymous, but there is considerable overlap between the two.) One of the encouraging aspects of these current trends is that churches have finally realized that most worshipers are longing for a sense of connectedness to historic Christianity. People want to know that they are part of a larger story: a story that began long before we arrived on the scene and that will continue long after we are gone. Seeker-friendly churches could not deliver the goods in this area. Seeker-friendly worship was extremely tied to its own temporal and geographic context, whereas emergent or missional worship tries to reflect a more global view as well as what Robert Webber called the “ancient-future” outlook. One important element, however, is still largely missing:
Bring back the organ.
If you ask the average person on the street what a church is “supposed” to look like, they will most likely mention pews, stained glass windows, pulpits, altars, etc.: all those “churchy” furnishings the Willow Creek movement tried to eradicate. Similarly, in surveys, people routinely associate church music with hymns, choirs, and organs. In Western culture, the sound of a pipe organ is probably the most “churchy” sound people can imagine. For some reason, church leaders have got it in their heads that “people don’t want that,” but this is mistaken. Marva Dawn, in Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, cites a survey of American Christian teenagers which reveals that the type of music they deem appropriate for worship is music that is characterized by all these “churchy” elements: choirs, hymns, and the organ. Adults suppose that teens will consider rock and roll the most appropriate for worship, since that is what they prefer to listen to in their daily lives, but this is not the case. So by removing “churchy” music and instruments in the name of “what the young folks like” actually results in an environment that young people actually find fake and, frankly, embarrassing. If the survey Dawn cites is any indication, when young people go to church, they want it to “sound like church.” They want it to “feel like church.” Most churches can take one simple step that will go a long way in recapturing that feeling:
Bring back the organ!
Besides the fact that most people connect the sound of a pipe organ with church more than any other sound, there are many sound reasons (pun intended) for retaining (or recovering) the use of the organ as the primary instrument in worship.
1. The organ is the best man-made instrument for supporting congregational singing. I say the best man-made instrument, because the best instrument for encouraging singing is the human voice itself. One sings more freely and with greatest confidence when one is surrounded by good singers. But if one is going to have accompanied singing in church (discussions of accompanied vs. unaccompanied singing will have to wait for another time), instruments that most closely resemble the human voice in terms of sound production will encourage better singing than instruments which differ from the human voice. The human voice is a wind instrument: supported air is sent through the larynx, causing the vocal folds to vibrate, thus creating sound. The organ is a wind instrument too: actually a collection of wind instruments all in one place (reeds, flutes, trumpets, etc.), and one person can play them all simultaneously. The piano is a percussion instrument, not a wind instrument. As soon as a note is struck on the piano, the sound immediately begins to decay. That does not encourage sustained singing “on the breath.” This is not to say that the piano is not a great instrument, or that great music has not been written for the piano: I am a pianist myself and love the instrument a great deal. But it is not well-suited for accompanying congregational praise. Neither is the guitar. The guitar is, technically, a stringed instrument, but it is played as a percussion instrument (by plucking or strumming the strings), not in a sustained manner (bowing) as other stringed instruments can be played. Guitar-led congregational singing is inevitably throaty singing, and is usually pretty anemic as well, except for those who are singing into microphones, and then, of course, their voices are being artificially amplified or “lifted up,” and there should be no artifice in our worship. Forced, throaty singing does damage to the musical instrument that God gave each of us (our voices): God’s people need to learn to sing “on the breath” (note: this is not the same thing as breathy singing!), and accompanying singing with wind instruments, such as the organ and/or a brass choir, is one of the best ways to encourage healthy singing.
2. The organ is made up of choirs. In my previous article (about choral music in the church), we saw that biblical worship is all about choirs. If Christian worship is fundamentally choral worship, then it follows that instrumental choirs would accompany the singing of human choirs (remember that the congregation itself is one of those human choirs). One should assemble brass choirs, woodwind choirs, handbell choirs, etc. to use in worship, but it is impractical to use these on a weekly basis. (I do not recommend the weekly use of a church wind ensemble or orchestra, as they are almost always out of tune and do not play together, due to their limited rehearsal time. It seems more desirable to have these groups make contributions to worship frequently enough that their gifts are being employed, but not so often that their performances sound thrown together. Worship should not be artificial, but it should not be shoddy either.) Employing the organ is a way to have wind-ensemble-led congregational singing every week. Furthermore, the various choirs (ranks) or families of pipes that make up the organ mean that there can be an almost limitless variety of tone colors in the worship service. A talented, thoughtful organist will change registrations as necessary to complement the changing moods of the various stanzas of the hymns that are sung.
3. The organ is a powerful instrument. It is no wonder that the organ is called “the king of instruments.” Such power is useful in painting a picture in worship of the majesty and grandeur of our God. Now many instruments can produce loud sounds, but in the case of the organ, it is the instrument itself, not the performer, that is the source of this strength. A pianist must exert his strength to play loudly, drawing attention to his own might. Playing the organ indeed requires great skill, but the player himself is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the instrument, so the “Look at me!” factor is much less in the case of an organist than with a pianist, guitarist, or other instrumentalist. It helps to have such an instrument in worship that points beyond ourselves, particularly one whose power comes not from the one playing it, but from the wind, as God reminds us that life is to be lived “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit (Heb. ruach, “breath” or “wind”), declares the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).”
4. The organ is a very expensive instrument. Yes, I see this as a plus, not a drawback. Too often churches assume that “good stewardship” means being cheap, but some things are worth the money. Christ’s honor is worth the money. We live in a nation littered with disposable-looking metal buildings erected as houses of worship because it was the cheap thing to do. Contrast this with the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of Europe, which took centuries to complete. Those who began building those churches never lived to see their completion. In many cases, their children never lived to see the completion of these churches. That is dedication to something bigger than one’s self. That is looking past one’s own nose. Evangelicals gather in their disposable buildings and play disposable music on disposable instruments. An organ installation, by contrast, is a permanent thing. It says, “We are committed to excellence in church music, and we want to encourage that excellence for many, many generations to come.” Isn’t Christ’s honor worth that? Spend the money on something that will last. Let the world keep its disposable music.
5. The organ can help create a “church culture.” The church should not follow the world; rather, in all areas, including the arts, the church should lead the way, setting the example of excellence, and let the world follow suit. For the past century or more, the world has led the way and the church has followed suit, usually with results that are far from excellent. Evangelical Christians in particular have been known for creating inferior copies for themselves of things that already exist in the world. This is what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “the Evangelical ghetto.” Or, as Ken Meyers has put it, Evangelical Christians have learned to be of the world but not in it. Instead of aping the culture around us, the church should be creating a “church culture” that is superior to anything in the world. In church music, the organ is the cornerstone of the “church sound” and thus of a church musical culture. With the exception of some concert halls and old-time movie palaces, churches are pretty much the only buildings where pipe organs can be found, and since the organ is not a portable instrument, that also means churches are pretty much the only places that pipe organ music will be heard. This means that the sound of church music will be unique. A renaissance of interest in pipe organ music will also mean that those churches with fine pipe organ installations will be in demand as locations for recitals, which can only help further the church’s visibility in the community.
Colleges in this country have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of organ majors. It is no wonder: young people have grown up in churches in which, if there was a pipe organ, it sat in a corner gathering dust. Since so few churches are looking for organists, the job prospects for young people who might desire to become organists are slim, so they major in something else. But it is not too late. Forward-thinking churches can, and should, endow organ scholarships for the purpose of raising up a new generation of skilled, theologically-minded church organists who can help create a new, more excellent culture of church music. If your church’s organ is in disrepair, have it fixed. If it has fallen into disuse or is used rarely, have that problem fixed too. Search for a gifted, dedicated organist (i.e., one who takes his/her job seriously and will practice accordingly), and reward him or her handsomely for undertaking this important part of leading in worship (you pay peanuts, you get monkeys). We need to restore the “king of instruments” to a place of prominence, as it can help us exalt the King of kings like no other instrument can.
Bring back the organ!