This past week, my children and I have been watching the Atlanta Braves take on the Houston Astros in the 2021 World Series. As committed Braves fans, we’ve waited a very long time (predating my children’s birth) for the Braves to make it back to the fall Classic.
As we’ve watched the games each evening, one thing that I’ve noticed is something that transcends baseball. It has to do with music. Specifically, it has to do with the use of the organ as a ballpark staple. The Braves, along with a number of other MLB teams, have a staff organist who sits in a room high above the field and plays an organ during the game. And the organ is used for far more than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The instrument was first introduced into professional baseball back on April 26, 1941. A pipe organ was installed behind the grandstand at Wrigley Field, and during the game organ music echoed out across a baseball stadium for the first time. Soon the trend of a ballpark organist was one of the game’s most recognized players.
Matthew Kaminski (@BravesOrganist) who plays the organ for the Atlanta Braves selects pieces of music intentionally designed to keep the fans engaged in what’s happening on the field. During the fourth game of the 2021 World Series, Kaminski began playing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” as Luis Garcia came to the plate.
What’s the reason? It’s connected to the fact that the Astros’ starting pitcher has a very unique windup in his approach to the plate as a pitcher. It looks like he’s rocking a baby in a cradle-like position with his hands. So, this prompted Kaminski to call attention to that reality by using music which caught the attention of many fans—in person and on television.
Beyond the noticeable eclectic style of some organists who play for MLB teams, the real question is why does Major League Baseball view the organ as relevant while many local churches continue to view the organ as irrelevant? After nearly 80 years, more than 50% of MLB teams have a live organist at the ballpark and a good percentage of the other teams pipe in organ music through prerecorded musical pieces. Why has the organ fallen on hard times within the church?
The Organ Is Better Than the Band
In recent months, we have purchased and installed a new organ in our local church’s worship auditorium. In fact, I would urge you (if you’re a pastor) and your local church to do the same. You ask, what’s the big deal about an organ? The fact is, the organ as a single instrument is far superior than the modern praise band.
The organ actually mimics and complements the human voice by sustained sound that is not possible through other instruments. Unless you have a full symphony—the organ is your instrument of choice that prompts the congregation to sing. The fact is, the modern praise band encourages the congregation to watch and listen while the organ encourages the congregation to sing and participate. While many instruments are mentioned in both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, without question, the most important instrument is the voice of God’s people (search “sing praises” and note the number of psalms that are cited; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Modern contemporary “Christian” music is written and designed for entertainment rather than congregational singing. The organ is likewise completely absent from the contemporary Christian music industry. However, if you trace the music of the church back through history you will note how they used the organ for the purpose of congregational engagement. Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer and musician who championed the use of the organ as a powerful musical instrument. Although a struggle existed during the post-Reformation era due to the fact that many people associated the organ with the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, the instrument was soon embraced by the church as a tool that was used for the purpose of congregational singing, and rightly so.
When it comes to the local church today, many people believe that complex is better than simple. Often pastors believe multiple layers of instrumental accompaniment is the best approach for congregational worship. However, that is unrealistic for many local churches—especially small congregations or young church plants. Therefore, if a church could have only one instrument to accompany the people and lead the congregation in worship, the instrument of choice would be an organ.
The Organ Is Relevant Because Worship Matters
Trends come and trends go, but worship matters. Sadly, many associate the organ with high church worship rather than congregational worship. The level of congregational engagement in a worship service should matter to the church because it matters to God. Making a decision to push the organ out in order to replace it by other more relevant, contemporary, or cool instruments is a big mistake. If relevance is based on cultural trends rather than congregational engagement—it’s easy to see how the organ can get pushed out the back door. However, if relevance is based on congregational engagement—the organ will beat out all other instrumental choices hands down.
In short, how the congregation sings matters. We live in a time period where bands and professional vocalists have replaced congregational singing in the life of the church. On any given Sunday, people show up to local churches prepared to sway back and forth as they’re moved by the music while merely mumbling the words as the large lyrics appear on the screens at the front of the room. If you were to suddenly stop the music on any given Sunday in most local churches you would be shocked at the lack of congregational singing. The voices of the congregation would be so low it would be an utter embarrassment. For far too long, we have been conditioned to watch the worship on the stage rather than engage in the worship of God. Sadly, the worship services of many local churches have become a stage play rather than congregational worship.
Certainly we can fall into the trap of being entertained by the organ like many people are entertained by a praise band. If we learn one thing about MLB, the organ can entertain people too. However, what we must likewise see is that the organ beckons a response from the people. It should be an utter embarrassment if the gathered fans at a ballpark sing more enthusiastically during the seventh inning stretch as the organ leads in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” than the local church sings in response to the gospel of King Jesus.
Go buy an organ!