Pipe Organ in Worship

A friend recently emailed me a question: “Is there a place for the Pipe Organ in a worship service consisting of praise and worship, and contemporary hymns?” Here are some thoughts.

Unfortunately, people tend to hold their affinity for music more dearly than doctrine. We must guard ourselves from this tendency. Church music based on truth is a good tool for teaching and for assisting folks to engage in worship, but nonetheless, music is merely a tool. It is God alone and His Word that are central to worship, are absolute truth, and are to be held in highest honor.

There is no style of music that is inherently good or evil. In regard to music style in the church, the question is not “Is it right or wrong (or good and evil)?,” but rather, “Does it edify or is it fitting in our given context and culture?”

Warren Wiersbe has compared songs and music to clothing. Some old clothes don’t fit any more, so we throw them out. Some we dust off from time to time for certain occasions. Some classic clothes we wear quite often.

Amusingly enough, much of our preferred music and instruments today were frowned on in church history. Musical notation of chant began in the 900’s in Europe. Chant progressed to 4-part harmony in France in the 1200’s. John Wycliffe complained that only choirs were involved in church singing in the 1400’s. Martin Luther introduced congregational singing with popular German folk tunes in the 1500’s. Benjamin Keach introduced psalm and hymn singing to English baptists in the 1600’s. Ira Sankey’s pump organ and solo singing were seen as worldly in the 1870’s and 1880’s during D. L. Moody’s revival meetings. The piano was controversially introduced to the American church in 1910 by Charles Alexander. Guitars were fought over in the 1970’s Jesus movement and are still seen as controversial in some circles today.

Pastors and worship leaders need to take stock of their people. If you have guitarists, utilize them. If you have folks that play orchestral instruments, find a way to utilize them. If you have talented organists or pianists, utilize them. Even if it’s not every week, at least find some way for people to serve in the church and utilize their gifts and abilities. Otherwise, we are saying, “We don’t like your gift and ability, so just stay in the pew and be quiet.” I have a worship pastor friend who rotates his church worship styles every 6 weeks or so. It’s a great concept, and the variety is nice. Over the time span of 2 months, there is something there for everyone.

Ultimately, people are priority and not one certain instrument. How often we are guilty of abusing the word NEED (I NEED a pianist, I NEED a guitarist, I NEED a drummer, etc.). Sure, we may really desire certain instruments and some are probably more crucial than others in a given context, but we must not make an idol of one preferred instrument.

As for the question of using a pipe organ, it just depends on your culture and context. In a grass hut church in Africa, no, the pipe organ is not practical nor edifying. For a cathedral in Europe, maybe so. Even in Southern Baptist life, this may vary from church to church. I know of a SBC church that recently spent several million dollars to purchase a pipe organ from Europe. This decision really limits this church in priorities and finances and locks them into one worship style. Spending several thousand dollars on a good keyboard with organ sounds/pads is probably more practical for most churches than spending millions on a pipe organ. We must also recognize that it is much easier today to find a skilled pianist than an organist. The times have changed.

For our church worship context, we use a pipe organ pad on our keyboard several times a year for a hymn or worship anthem. To borrow the clothing analogy from Wiersbe, the pipe organ is a nostalgic outfit we like to wear occasionally.

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3 comments on “Pipe Organ in Worship

  1. penter says:

    I agree with your thoughts … it is very easy to get priorities in an order that values material assets rather than the skills that people have to offer.
    I believe that this has contributed to the demise of the church organist whose investment in time and money to develop his or her skills has been largely unappreciated in recent times.

  2. Angela Manwiller says:

    Thanks for this, Josh. Can I print it off and give copies to our music committee to read and consider? We are in a church where music style is a big issue for some, but thankfully not divisive (yet). Some older folks have “sheep swapped” to our church because we still use the organ, and sing hymns from the hymn book. Yet other folks are coming who really appreciate the solos done with guitar or contemporary solo tracks, and want more of that style. 2009’s committee needs wisdom and grace in this area…

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    © Joshua Berrus. Website: http://www.joshberrus.com.

  3. Malcolm says:

    I just stumbled across this post and I think it is brilliant and echo the though that it would be a very valuable bit of insight for a worship committee.

    In this day and age it seems that it makes little sense for most (I did not say all) churches to spend any money on pipe organs when there are modern alternatives that are far less costly and far more versatile. Pipe organs and worship bands just do not mix. At my church once and a while I get a request to use the old pipe organ in something we play and I tell people that it just doesn’t work.

    On the other hand, like you, I do sometimes use the pipe organ pad on our keyboard.

    The keyboard is just far more flexible and, as far as we are concerned a better investment for the future.

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