How the Organ Could Make a Comeback in Modern Church Music

Zac HicksConvergence of Old and New in Worship, History of Worship and Church Music8 Comments

Yesterday, Coral Ridge announced our official partnership with our new Organist and Artist in Residence, Chelsea Chen. You can read all about it here. She’s remarkable from top to bottom, and she’s the right person to help us steward our 6600-pipe Ruffatti organ. It’s a stunning instrument, and it’s especially remarkable when it’s in capable hands. Coral Ridge has had a rich history of such capable hands, and Chelsea will be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in that line.

I have a theory…or a hunch…or at least a vision of a possible future. I don’t know whether it will come to fruition, but I hope and dream that it is so. I believe several things in church music are converging in a timely manner that will help see the organ into the future of church music. But before I talk about that, I want to offer my vantage point of where we are.

The Organ is Doing Fine vs. What’s An Organ?

Many can attest that the organ is alive and well and doing just fine. The American Guild of Organists is 300+ chapters strong, representing the full breadth of the United States along with a few places abroad. Young organists (like Chelsea) are still rising up in the ranks of fine musical institutions and are able to find jobs in various churches across the world. Organ builders still have new, exciting work. The organ has weathered over half a millennium of musical evolution, adapting to musical twists and turns. Modern organ giant, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), is one fine example of such adaptation. Dupré was accomplished and fully-studied in the organ’s past, having performed the complete works of Bach from memory, yet when you hear some of his glorious music (like his “The World Awaiting a Savior” from his Symphonie Passion [below], which was performed at our Christmas Eve services) it sounds nothing like Bach–a testament to adaptation and progression.

But then in church music there exists a “wholly other” dimension, which now knows nothing of the organ. Contemporary/modern worship has run its course, and, especially in evangelical circles, it is increasingly common that no one has even heard a pipe organ played, much less played well, much less played well as an accompanying instrument in worship. This generation is not hostile to the organ. It is indifferent, because it doesn’t know it. Such people might have some vague, third-party understanding that the organ is something old, stuffy, and for church music’s yesteryear, but that’s about it.

When Church Planting and the Dying Mainline Collide

So now to my theory (and obviously this is pertinent to Protestant Christianity). Two currents are coalescing. The first is that mainline Protestantism is continuing to decline, with its membership literally dying without sizeable replacement from the generations beneath them. The second is that we are continuing to witness a crescendo of young church plants centered around the major urban areas of the United States. The mainline churches are often the gatekeepers of their large, historic church buildings…many of which have pipe organs. In their decline, these churches are looking to the future of their space and making decisions about how and where it goes. Certainly, some of those churches have plans to see it into the future within their own fold. Others, though, not wanting their building to be razed and replaced by a shopping mall, are thinking more kingdom-oriented thoughts as they look around in their city and observe the emerging church plants. In short, there’s at least one possible future here where in the next 20 years we’ll see church plants come of age and inhabit historic urban church buildings.

Rock Bands…”What Does This Thing Do?”

These church plants are likely to be, when it comes to church music, pretty neutral to pipe organs. If anything, they’re intrigued by the “ancient, rooted, historic” feel of both the organ’s look and sound. You hear it, for instance, in how Mars Hill’s Ghost Ship incorporated cathedral organ sounds into their latest album, The Good King, on tracks like “Holy Holy Holy” and “Where Were You.” Something in them stirs when they hear it cranked up for the first time, overwhelming the loudest tube amps and drum kits with its colorful, symphonic grandeur. These bands are already made up of “artsy” thinkers, poised for musical eclecticism, who, if anything, will view it as a challenge to figure out how to get their keyboardist on the console during worship so they can meld organ with band. And the organ (and organists) will adapt.

Of course, this will go on in parallel existence with the established organ world that desires to preserve its literature and maintain its roots while seeking its own form of adaptation. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the fusion of new churches in old buildings will not be the greenhouse out of which the most fruitful future of the organ will eventually grow.

My hope is that, if this is the case, Coral Ridge can be uniquely poised to serve the broader church in this arena. We’ve been experimenting and thinking through what such fusion looks like (check out the first track on our upcoming EP, His Be the Victor’s Name as a foretaste), and God is developing the team here to journey well on this course.

8 Comments on “How the Organ Could Make a Comeback in Modern Church Music”

  1. Great post Zac! 'Holy Holy Holy' is my favorite song from Ghost Ship's new album! Our church meets in an old movie theater, so we don't have an organ, but I would love to recreate the big, powerful organ and have our band do that song. It's a perfect way to musically communicate the message of the song. I just want to shot "HOLY HOLY HOLY LORD GOD ALMIGHTY" every time I hear that organ interlude going into the end of the song. I've got an idea to visually reinforce that feel and power if we can find a great church organ patch on our keyboard.

    All that to say, Thank you for this post. I loved it!

  2. Just curious how you would assess the actual trend concerning the organ right now? I am really hoping you are correct. But my general sense is that is slowly (and perhaps not so slowly) declining. As shows, if trends continue, more than half of all Protestant congregations will often or always use electric guitars in worship. These surveys almost never ask about use of a pipe organ, a sign I fear, of how much it has been marginalized.

  3. Jordan, great questions. I don't have great answers. My "hunch" I suggest above comes from an experience I had stepping into a friend's church in Kansas City…a less than 10-year-old church plant that had just acquired an old, historic downtown building. It's also been a part of the conversations I've had with church plants who have held evening services in downtown cathedrals in Denver, where their attendance was greater than the regular church's Sunday morning attendance. They had hopes of one day buying that building…which had a pipe organ in it. I also know that some church planting gurus are talking about the urban changeover that may take place with many of these church plants moving into old, historic downtown buildings. The rest is just my own brain putting the pieces together alongside some church music trends I see and hear where pretty hip musical outfits (like Mars Hill) are sampling big cathedral pipe organ sounds.

    I glanced over the article/doc you posted. It's interesting. You're right, it doesn't tell us anything much about pipe organs. And pipe organs certainly have been marginalized in the contemporary worship world. But…what I'm trying to say is that that marginalization may be a blessing. The marginalization was so severe that the next generation functionally has no bias like their parents…and they actually might find it beautiful, fresh, and captivating…like some young adults are experiencing here at Coral Ridge.

    But I'd be stretching it if I were saying that the above post is a prophecy, much less a statistically-driven prediction. It's anecdotal, un-researched. It's more of something stirring in my gut and rolling in my head as I put pieces together and see what our experiments do.

    Thanks for the interaction!

  4. If the organ is to "make it", I think it'll have to become used as much as a texture instrument as a lead instrument. It'll come to play a role in some churches more like when electric guitars are used for texture or power chords.

    At least, that's how I think it'll work. I think the organ is the best instrument for congregational singing because of the way it sustains – it supports the congregation in a way a piano or acoustic guitar can't. At the same time, for more modern music or arrangements, a lot of the more intricate harmonies are going to have to fall by the wayside. When most acoustic guitarists try to play chorale arrangements it sounds overly busy.

    In my church, I have begun to think of the electric guitar as a "new" organ. With just a little compression, I can make the guitar sustain in a way that makes congregational singing easier. I've even used a pedal (POG2) to make the electric sound more like an organ.

  5. I'm a classically trained organist leading worship at a PCA church in Delaware. We have two keyboards, a bass, and drum set…but no organ. I have been scratching my head about this issue for years, Zac! I had the privilege of playing that Ruffatti in your church a few years back before Tullian was there (our college choir was on a tour). I really appreciate your insights and I am excited to see how you brothers down at Coral Ridge go about this.

    Pipe organs are awesome but the costs are pretty steep to upkeep, as I'm sure you guys know. I think going with an Allen would be the best solution for us at this point. It's a lot cheaper up front and easier to maintain. The sound on the modern Allens are pretty fantastic too, so it won't sound like you're at a baseball game. I'll be praying for Coral Ridge as you experiment with this. Please let me know how it is going. It's rare to find younger believers that are talented organists and musicians. God Bless.

  6. It would be great to see organs continue their comeback. Once a musician has basic piano skills, they can transfer those skills to the organ with the proper dedication.

  7. One of my highlights of church is when you walk to communion listening to the organ and hearing the choir singing on both sides of you as you walk through the chancel. You are right in the midst of the singing. The organ is a beautiful instrument. I recently had the joy of meeting a craftsman who gives life to worn organs. I found it interesting how organs are restored and wrote this brief article

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