Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Decline of the Church Organ

I came across this article this morning, and found it incredibly interesting (then again, I'm a nerd).  Actually, it's not so much of an article as it is an outline for a lecture that was delivered at a recent doctoral colloquium.

The outline lists several bullet points about why the use of church organs has been, and is, in decline in churches across the country.  Some of the reasons listed are simply preferential, and some are significant.  For instance, there's not much to be done about a "lack of qualified organists."  Also, organs are expensive - tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum, and hundreds of thousands if you're talking pipe organs.  Some churches just can't afford an organ.

It's also interesting to note that the lecturer assumes that the decline of the use of the church organ is a detrimental thing to church culture, and to worship in general.  I am inclined to agree, albeit tentatively.  Allow me to explain.

For example, he asserts that use of the organ is in decline because of the influence of popular culture on churches and Christians, and he implies that this is a negative thing.  This is no doubt true, but to me, this is not something that the church should necessarily push back against.  After all, the inclusion of the church organ in Christian worship was undoubtedly a product of cultural influence.  That is, there was a time when no churches had organs, nor would they probably have considered including one.  But as culture developed, having an organ in church became a desirable thing, and so the church organ became a staple of American churches.  For that church culture, and at that point in time, organs served their purpose well.  An honest look at culture and the church today, however, might point us in a direction away from an organ, and I think that's OK.  Maybe not ultimately desirable to everyone, but it's OK.  So to say that it's bad that cultural influence is diminishing the use of the organ in worship is necessarily a bad thing is not totally without it's own set of cultural influences.  It's not as though the organ is a divine instrument that was handed down to the church by God.

Worship style is, in large part, informed by cultural trends.  We are all cultural beings who live inside of a set of cultural norms.  Over time, those norms change, and the church changes with them because the church is made up of people who live in culture.  As what we all like and appreciate changes, so will how we do things in the church change (at least in a temporal sense - there are obviously many things about the church that don't and can't change, regardless of cultural influence).  Nowadays we see a lot of guitars and drum sets in churches.  Why?  Because those instruments have become a more mainstreamed part of our culture.  It's natural and perfectly acceptable to have a band be a regular part of a worship service.

I, for one, grew up in a church that, for half my life, had no other instruments in worship aside from a baby grand piano and an organ.  I am not attached to the organ, though.  Why not?  Because other than church, the organ has played no part in my life (pun intended).  For better or for worse, I have been much more influenced by the popular music of the culture, and I am inclined to appreciate the musical style of drums and guitars.

But the author also makes some great points about why churches seldom use organ music.  He points out that a lot of churches these days are focused on seeker-sensitive worship, and are therefore obsessed with every cultural trend in order to draw new people through their doors.  In this respect, I agree with the author that this would be a terrible reason to get rid of your organ, and an even more terrible way to "do" church.  We don't conduct our worship based on what people want to hear or don't want to hear, and we similarly don't build our worship around what the unbelieving world wants to experience through it.  To do so would be to cater our worship to sinners rather than God - a horrible thought.  Churches want to be "cool" in how they do things, and the public perception of the church organ is rather square, so the organ is being eliminated.  What a shame that churches would operate so pragmatically.

The lecturer also makes some points about how to "restore" the use of the organ in churches.  His best point in this section is this: "Educate our congregations and worship leaders about the true nature of worship itself.  God is interested in our hearts much more than the "art" which we offer to him in worship."  Amen, and amen.  In this sense, it doesn't matter what instrument is playing, or what style of music a congregation uses to worship, as long as the attitude of the heart of the worshiper is right.  Somebody who says they just can't worship to organ music doesn't understand the true nature of worship.  To get rid of an organ because a portion of the congregation "can't" worship to it is wrong, and exposes a significant lack of understanding about the theology of worship.  God can and does accept the worship of those with nothing more than a slide whistle and some empty coffee cans to bang on, provided they are focused on his glory and praise.

But there's another reason not to abandon the organ that I'd like to add to the author's list if I might, and it comes from my own experience of 32 years of worshiping with a diverse group of people at Riverview.  I believe there is still a place for the organ in the church because it reflects the diversity that exists in the church (at least in my church).  There are several members of Riverview who grew up singing old, beloved hymns on the organ, and for them, it is still a rich part of their heritage and culture.  To take that away from them would be unwise and unloving.  Moreover, our use of the organ speaks to our diversity.  We love each other, even though we're very different, and we express our differences through worship.

Yet another reason is the simple difference of feel one gets between an organ and say, a worship band.  contemporary worship music, I think, communicates a feeling of closeness and intimacy, while an organ communicates a feeling of grandeur and transcendence.  Both are intricately part of God's character.  He is definitely near to us and intimate with us.  But he is also the God of the universe who sits as Lord and judge over all people.  I think the organ communicates the latter very well.

On the other hand, we also utilize more modern instruments and worship for a significant segment of our service through the use of a worship team that includes the usual guitars, drums, bass, piano, etc.  To me, it's a wonderful blend of the various preferences felt and expressed in our congregation.

So for me, I would like to keep the organ.  Is it my favorite thing?  Probably not.  Is it my "default setting" when it comes to worship style?  Definitely not.  But there's a lot of value to having it, and I hope we have it for a long time to come.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

Your post is a wonderful response to the article. Personally, I thinks the organ's days are numbered. The culture as a whole has moved on. But we should not simply rip away a part of church for a certain generation. It will fade away in time, but why hurt others by willfully throw away their church?