Another Take on the Organ

macro photo of piano keys

Editor’s note: In a spirit of open dialog, this post was submitted in response to Josh Buice’s recent article, “Why Is the Organ Relevant for Major League Baseball and Irrelevant for Local Churches?” We hope you enjoy this friendly counterpoint.

I don’t follow baseball, but I am fascinated by the fact that the organ is still strongly associated with America’s great pastime. As Josh Buice pointed out in an article posted here recently, this keyboard instrument has maintained a place of significance in baseball for many decades. Why, then, Josh asks in his article, has the organ fallen on hard times within the church?

I wish to echo some hearty agreement with Josh’s appreciation of the organ, but I also hope to offer some helpful clarifications and a different perspective on the matter.

The organ is a wonderful instrument. I have no desire to disparage the instrument nor those who champion it. I’ve witnessed the construction of two sizeable pipe organs and have marveled at the engineering and artistry they feature. What’s more, the organ is a spectacularly helpful instrument for the church when it supports and encourages congregational singing, particularly homophonic singing (think four-part hymns).

But the organ can also work against congregational participation, as many of us have experienced. For the organ to serve congregational singing, it must be played in a specific manner, utilizing appropriate ranks, performance techniques, and maintaining a volume which does not supplant the congregation’s voice with its own. Some organ performances are just as complex, entertainment-oriented, and earth-shakingly loud as a rock concert. There’s a reason Stravinsky called the organ “the monster that never breathes.” I love these experiences as performances, but this approach does not serve congregational singing well. Instead, they encourage me to watch and listen.

Many modern praise bands make the same mistake. Complex, entertainment-oriented, and earth-shakingly loud are all-too-common descriptors for many modern worship gatherings. But the modern praise band does not need to function in this way. The same things which mark helpful organ accompanying can also be true of a modern praise band: the band must play in a manner that supports the congregation, they must utilize supportive sounds and timbres, and they must keep the volume at a reasonable level—one where the congregation’s voice is served rather than overshadowed (room acoustics may play a major role in perceived volume as well, by the way). Praise bands can collectively produce sounds that complement the human voice and encourage congregational singing.

Returning to baseball for a moment: the heartiest congregational singing (yelling, at least) I’ve experienced at any sporting event (though my experience is admittingly limited) was at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Fans sang along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”—a band-driven song—at the top of their lungs. A band can, indeed, inspire congregational participation.

All this is to say: I do not believe the organ is inherently superior to the modern praise band. Both require great care and artistry if they are to serve congregational singing well. I often tell my guitar students that their instrument is both a blessing to the church and a curse upon it. It’s a blessing because it’s so accessible. If your church lacks instrumentalists, a willing congregant can learn the guitar relatively quickly and serve his or her church’s singing in a short time. But the guitar is also a curse because it’s so accessible. Many guitarists never move beyond four chords and a capo. I hope to encourage guitarists, drummers, and all sorts of church musicians to grow as skilled, congregationally-minded musicians. I want to help them develop techniques for their instruments which serve their congregation’s singing rather than detract from it. After all, I agree with Josh enthusiastically on this point: the congregation’s voice is the most important instrument in gathered worship.

Let’s return to Josh’s question: “Why has the organ fallen on hard times in the church?” Musical paradigms change. Some historic proponents of plainchant would object to the metrical harmonies of organ-led singing as performance-oriented, overbearing, and detracting from worship. Church counsels were convened over the controversial use of polyphony (look up Palestrina for more here). Each major musical innovation since Christ ascended has been met with resistance and controversy. The fact is: the New Testament does not speak to the issue of style in the ways that we might wish. The styles we employ today—even hymns with four-part harmony—would have been foreign to the New Testament’s authors and original audience. Hymns and modern worship songs alike, as we know them, came hundreds of years after the canon of scripture was closed. Modern worship songs are not inherently inferior to classic hymns. Both traditions contain wonderful and terrible songs.

My goal here is not to convince you to aim for one musical approach or another, or even to argue for either’s legitimacy; it is only to express the variety that exists in Bible-believing, gospel-adorning, God-honoring churches, and to point out that these churches address these varying musical paradigms with varying musical tools. Any approach to music can be driven by a desire to entertain or by a desire to honor the Lord.

More to the point: no musical style nor musical instrument can, on its own, please God in worship. Christian worship is only acceptable when it is wrought by the Spirit of God, offered in Christ Jesus, and rooted in his word; worship that pleases God is worship in spirit and truth: a Spirit-wrought response to God’s self-revelation. Neither homophonic hymns nor modern worship music can even begin to address this spiritual task apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Inspiring singing which honors God is a work of God, not a work of music.

I’m thankful for Josh’s willingness to publish this article. It is a sign to me that a guitar-playing church musician like myself has a place within the fellowship of G3 Ministries. I am happy to lock arms for the gospel with church organists and church drummers alike.

To explore gospel-centered gathered worship, join me and my friends at the inaugural G3 Biblical Worship Workshop on February 8-9 at Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. Perhaps we can sing together there, accompanied by their new organ.

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