When I was growing up in a Baptist church, pipe organs were on their way out. In fact, the church I attended never even had one, and they unceremoniously trashed their weak electronic number over 25 years ago in favor of a succession of latest and greatest synthesizers. These days, their numbers have dwindled among Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, and are close to extinction in evangelical circles. In more than a few cases, they sit decaying like the one above: sad, uncomfortable reminders of the church’s former place in American society.
You can imagine my surprise to see this recent post shared several times in my Facebook feed. Written by a Baptist, the director of LifeWay Worship, no less. While I’m sure the two of us are quite different both in theology and approach to corporate worship, I was more than a bit intrigued. I don’t know when the last time I heard clear support for the pipe organ coming from the SBC.
That led me to think a bit about why the organ is so important to me personally, and more importantly, why it was unchallenged for centuries as the best accompanying instrument for corporate worship. Here are a few reasons I came up with.
1. It sustains. When it comes to singing, this is the most unique and important aspect of the pipe organ. Think of any other instrument commonly used in worship. Guitars, piano, percussion, or anything else. Once you play a sound on any of these instruments, what happens? It immediately begins to decay, necessitating more fills on the piano and more chords on the guitar. But singing doesn’t work this way, and the continuity of the sung line is often disrupted, sometimes violently so, by the constant reiteration of pitch required by the limitations of other instruments. But the organ’s sound lifts and sustains the voice of the congregation through each phrase.
Here’s a great example of how sensitive organ accompaniment can sustain a congregation’s voice.
2. It fills a room naturally. Speaking of limitations, without amplification, it’s impossible for any other instrument to fill any but the smallest of spaces. The organ thrives in an open room, and consequently allows for a more organic accompanying sound. There is a reason organ accompaniment in church endured for centuries. It wasn’t because it was current. It wasn’t because it was cool. It wasn’t that it helped people feel “connected.” It was because the organ is uniquely able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing. As it fills the room almost like sunlight through open windows, the organ warmly invites even hesitant and untrained singers to join in. I have nothing against the piano or guitar. I’m even an enthusiastic (though terrible) pianist myself. I listen to guitar driven music all the time. But those instruments were simply never meant to accompany congregational singing, and even with amplification, they are not well-suited to the task.
3. Its range is massive. The organ can play from the quietest piano to the broadest forte, and can do so with a countless number of sound combinations. It’s palate of textures and colors is seemingly unending, and when played artistically and sensitively, it can breathe musical life into any part of the Gospel story.
4. It facilitates a wide range of musical styles. As I talked about in another recent post, there are many styles of music that reside under the umbrella of traditional worship, and the organ can quite competently accompany almost any of these.
5. Organs are relatively inexpensive. Now hold on a minute, you mean all those good folks who have commented that organs are too expensive for most congregations are wrong? Well, not exactly. They do require a substantial investment. But there are alternatives to building a brand new organ. You can buy an older, restored instrument that will more than adequately meet your needs. But even a new organ would likely require a lower overall investment than a state-of-the-art audio system. With routine maintenance, your organ could last for centuries, while the new audio technology, also requiring a substantial initial investment, would need to be replaced many times over.
Is an organ absolutely necessary for corporate worship? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve known many people from acappella traditions, and I heartily affirm the way they keep and maintain the human voice as the primary instrument in Christian worship.
But the reality is that most congregations need accompanying instruments. If your church is thinking about getting rid of the organ, don’t. Just don’t. And if your church is one of the many that houses an unused pipe organ, thinking it’s inferior, uncool, or passé, call someone who knows what they’re doing at the AGO, another church, or a nearby university to help you uncover the endless possibilities that sit ignored while the band strums on. It could completely change the way your congregation singing and bring a new dimension to your sacred storytelling.