I know what you’re thinking. Organ: funeral, ball game, grand dusty cathedral. Why should modern Christians of such a technological age revisit a thousand year-old instrument? Don’t worry, I will not be trying to punch another hole in my Weird Music Preferences and Opinions card here. The truth is, our Christian culture is missing out on one of the great blessings to the Christian church, an instrument with capabilities that lend both strength and maturity to how we worship. Only a caricature of what it once was, the pipe organ has endured a history that has left it unloved or at best uninteresting to most Evangelical Christians in America today. By remembering its origin and the theology connected to its design, we can push air once again through the pipes with joy!
First, the pipe organ was built for the Christian church. It was installed into the actual walls and framework of protestant and catholic churches and cathedrals throughout western civilization. No other instrument is installed with such permanence. This is not an argument of who had it first, rather this is a call for Christians to revisit the value of this instrument not in the narrow light of its present-day uses, but in the broader light of history. The pipe organ’s design was intentional, purposeful in church worship, and ever pointing to God as no other instrument was made to do.
Second, the pipe organ highlights God’s diligent sovereignty in creation. All is lifeless without His hand as the organ does not spontaneously create music without a master’s hands. The hundreds of pipes and sound combinations require the fingers of a master musician on the keyboard manual and the subsequent inspiration of air through the bellows and pipes. The hollow tubes of metal and wood stand dormant until this inspiration gives way to sound. The pipes of various lengths and sizes remind us that through the multitude of layers in God’s created order, all come under submission to the composer and chief musician who gives them life and purpose. The pipe organ’s bellows moving air through flue and reed pipes much like the human lungs moving air through larynx and vocal reeds is a creational model of the Holy Spirit breathing life and transforming cacophony into a symphony of sound that proclaims his goodness and glory.
Third, the pipe organ illustrates the corporate nature of weekly church worship. It is no coincidence that with the rise of individualism in Christian worship, the church’s corporate instrument has become silent. While the organ can be played in a relatively quiet volume and mellow texture, its full voice capabilities drown out any other single instrument much like a full symphony orchestra possesses the power to drown out a solo voice or even a solo classical instrument. This is often noted as a negative characteristic when, in fact, this is a great guard against sentimentalism and the tendency to view worship as introspective or individualistic. The church comes together as the body of Christ each Lord’s day, not as individuals who happen to be in the same room singing personal love songs to Jesus.
If we want an instrument to woo us and pull on our heart strings then we must look elsewhere, for the organ’s size and sound stand immoveable against one person. But, when we remember that the goal of weekly worship is for the whole church on earth to gather together singing praises to the Creator, we can become a boisterous group of singers able to partner with the robust and hearty sounds of the organ. While other instruments need extra amplification when accompanying hundreds of people, the pipe organ is able to surround the voices in the room and lead them with strength. This is why the pipe organ has long been the instrument the church has seen as the musical scale model of the breadth and depth of the Christian worship service.
Fourth, the pipe organ reminds us that corporate worship is warfare. Look no further than how the organ pipes are categorized into groups or “ranks” to see the comparison to the ranks of angels in heaven that are constantly around the throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.” Just like in 2 Chronicles 20 where King Jehoshaphat sends the choir before the army singing, “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever,” so goes the pipe organ before the voices who sit, stand, and kneel in the sanctuary pews each Lord’s Day. We must see the organ as the choir that leads the choral army into battle during the Christian worship service. This means that the organ must not be played in any way that distracts from the singing and mission of the service.
Practically speaking, a service needs accompanists, not performers ornamenting or impeding the progress of the people singing in worship. Musicians today are viewed not as servants but as celebrities. The church is heavily influenced by this thinking. Look no further than where we place our church musicians today. They stand on a stage in front of the people unlike the back or balcony of churches past. Remembering we are servants in the Lord’s army helps us as we participate in His triumphant battle each Sunday.
The pipe organ is made up of so many different stops, pedals, and sounds designed to come together in a gospel tapestry that shows the complex and glorious diversity of creation. Like all of creation, this is a reminder that we must be faithful in our worship and witness as the Church.
You might expect this article to end with a call for pipe organs to be installed in all churches today. Instead, I would simply urge you to remember this instrument and use it where possible. The skill and cultural understanding required to use such an instrument well is not an overnight shift, but remembering its value historically and theologically will lend maturity to the next generation. We must give thanks and seek wisdom and growth as the body of Christ in how we use the organ and all other gifts of creation to God’s glory and our good. Organ: creational, corporate, triumphant! Sound the battle pipes!
Jarrod Richey is the Director of Choral Activities at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana. He serves on the staff of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church and recently recently founded Jubilate Deo Summer Music Camp in Monroe. This essay was first published at Kuyperian.com.
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