What’s STILL Great About the Organ? A Guitarist’s Perspective

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Style, Worship Theology & Thought6 Comments

I serve in a worship environment that some might consider akin to “the wolf lying down with the lamb.”  I share office space with a world-class opera singer and one of the finest organists in the Denver Metro region.  Many Sundays, I crank up my Gibson ES-339 in a reverberant sanctuary alongside a drum enclosure which shares visual and symbolic space with a huge, expensive Wicks pipe organ.  I am an ever-growing, ever-learning rock musician with a modest but effective bachelor-level classical music education.  And I love pipe organ music, especially when accompanying congregational hymns.

I have not studied the organ.  I only know of it from afar as an observer and up close as an organist’s colleague.  Many of my modern worship friends see it as an instrument which shares not only the size of a brontosaurus, but also its fate.  But here’s why the organ should never go extinct. 

1. No other single instrument has its girth of sound. 
The organ has a great dynamic range—it has low lows and high highs.  A great pipe organ can fill a three thousand-person auditorium with a glorious sound.

2. No other single instrument has its breadth of sound. 
An organ is “an orchestra in a box,” in a sense.  Its stops are intended to mimic the sounds of all the major classical instruments.  Perhaps we might quibble about how authentic certain instruments sound on the organ, but the color-choices afforded an organ are like no other instrument.  When I talk to guitarists about the organ, I liken its stops to electric guitar pedals in how they expand the color-palette of the instrument.  But, in truth, there’s no contest.  The organ has a much bigger selection of paint and a more expansive canvas.

3. Certain hymns struggle to be sung rightly without the musical framework that only an organ can provide.
I have heard many versions of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—rock, jazz, pop, even piano-led.  None come close enough to describing the “bulwark” that God is like the organ does.  If you take the “long view” of church music, the organ is a very limiting instrument, just like guitars and drums are.  However, the organ should have a valuable and lasting place in any church that wishes to engage in what it means to be the Historical Church in its worship.  This naturally leads to the next point.

4. Certain church music would be lost forever, and we are called to be an historic people, expressing an historic faith.
Several centuries of great western musical art was created in the context of the church, and much of that time was dominated by the organ.  Bach had a job, a repertoire, and a lasting place in western music because of the organ.  We would be wise to remember this.

Let me address one thought that globally-minded Christians would be quick to point out.  The organ is an instrument which is largely tied to an affluent western culture.  I agree.  A local assembly needs a significant amount of money, space, and resources to install and utilize a decent organ in its worship space.  A small church or a church which is characterized by people with lower income streams simply can’t afford this luxury.  And, if you were to go to the non-Western Christian contexts in which Western music and worship have not been a heavy influence, the organ would be a foreign, invasive, and ultimately distracting instrument to incorporate apart from a lot of time, education, and resources.

This all still doesn’t take away from the organ’s place in church music history and its power to be a strong leader in many worship contexts today.  God has seen fit to make this instrument a vital part of hundreds of years of our worship heritage as Christians, and I think that its extinction from Christian worship would be a travesty similar to the impoverishment we would have if we lost the repertoire of early Christian chants and hymns from the Ambrosian and Gregorian periods.

I could imagine a day in the life of church music in which a totally new and different instrumentation might emerge, such that those worshipers would begin to think of the rock band as passé and irrelevant.  Sold out modern worshipers need to be reminded of this in order to gain perspective on how our quips about the antiquity and irrelevance of organs sound to people who worship in the organ-led tradition.  I would encourage us to embrace a generosity of spirit wide enough to include this great instrument and the tradition which it accompanies.

6 Comments on “What’s STILL Great About the Organ? A Guitarist’s Perspective”

  1. This is a wonderful post on a topic with alot of currency for many churches. I agree that we all need to be more sensitive toward each other. But speaking as a 20 something Christian and soon to be father, organ music just doesn't do it for me or MOST people my age or younger. For the sake of the church and my soon to be born daughter, I think we need to keep moving forward sensitively. And for the most part that means fewer organs in churches and less use of the ones already there. At the same time we need to embrace as much of the music of the church as possible "in new skins".

  2. "Moving forward sensitively" would be to embrace diverse musical expressions rather than to narrow them to the taste of 20 somethings and younger. Time can change musical preference. Few 20 somethings still sing nursery songs, and there is a strong probability that when they become 40 somethings their worship vocabulary will also be different.

  3. Thanks, Ryan. I believe Carl is right, so we'll have to agree to disagree. Worshiping as a united body amidst a diversity of tastes and styles means that everyone has to die a little. You might be able to teach your child a much more profound Christian truth (than that "we must worship in our style) about self-sacrifice for the sake of the body. Imagine how impacted she would be by seeing THAT example!

  4. I went to a church recently in Oklahoma, by my cousins, and noticed the organ playing along with drums and the bassist. It sounded a little 80's but I can see the organ itself trying to weave itself into contemporary settings even though it may be with subtle sounds. The depth and power of the lows from it can bring out a lot of power in a song. I believe some indie/rock groups have already experimented with it such as The Opiate Mass.

  5. Great post Zac. I love modern worship but also love the fullness of a skillfully played organ. I know you will be moving to a church with one of the finest organs in the world. I hope you find great ways to integrate this amazing instrument into the mix.

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