Is organ music killing our churches?

As someone who happens to love love love classical sacred organ music, I cringed reading this piece by Jennifer Graham in the Boston Globe. She believes the decline in church attendance is directly related to the dogged and long-outdated use of church pipe organs. She focuses on the Catholic church, but let's face it, classical pipe organs continue to shake the rafters of most Episcopal churches as well. She writes:

“Who plays the organ anymore when they’re not trying to scare someone?” asks a post on YouTube, and the answer is, frighteningly enough, practically every Catholic parish. Despite the fact that the most recognizable organ music, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, opens the film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the pipe organ remains the central instrument, besides the human voice, of Christian worship. It endures not because anyone particularly likes organ music (there’s none on iTunes’s top singles this week, and, I’m betting, none on your iPod), but simply because it’s there. Usually ensconced in the balcony of a church, an organ is too heavy to move and too expensive to burn, so we might as well play the thing, no matter how many young people we’re scaring away.

Fifty years ago, there was hope that the organ, like the Edsel and woolly leg warmers, would eventually die of contempt. Vatican II gave birth to the “folk Mass,”a Peter, Paul, and Mary type sing-along that was earnest and soulful and completely right for the 1960s. It persisted into the ’70s, however, and there are still occasional sightings today, leading one to conclude that the Church, while accepting of evolution, refuses to entertain the concept in music.

If Darwin was right, the organ should have led to the piano, which should have led to the guitar, which should have led to a string quartet, or a harp, or even a return to solemn Gregorian chant . . . anything that doesn’t remind us of horror movies. But no.

What do you think? Is organ music scaring people away from church? Nicole Keller, a self-described "musician striving to be an artist and a person of faith while living in a world that strives to suck the artist and faith right out of you," takes serious issue with Graham. She writes:

Here's the deal: there are MANY, MANY, MANY reasons why attendance is down across the country. Do the research. You can no more say it's the music than you can say it's the horrible taste of the communion wine. But if we are really going to face the issue, we as church musicians must take some of the heat. The truth is, there are MANY, MANY, MANY worship services out there that are led with poorly played, poorly chosen music. It's just the truth. And again, there are MANY, MANY, MANY reasons for this. Such as:

-- There aren't enough well-trained organists/musicians available, so churches are forced to use unqualified people.

-- The pay is horrendous, so those who are well trained don't/can't take the positions where they are needed most.

-- The instruments are horrible and not well-maintained, which in turn does not encourage the congregation to sing well.

-- The leadership - lay or clergy - do not put enough emphasis on the quality of the liturgy.

-- The clergy and the musician for some reason can't play well together in the sandbox - doesn't matter who threw sand in who's eyes first - so the liturgy and the community suffers.

-- SOMEONE is lazy.

Read more of her thoughts here. What do you think? Is it time to kill all the organs? Or celebrate our rich pipe-organ roots while we battle all the stuff that's really killing our churches?

Comments (21)

We just did a liturgy survey of our parishioners and the biggest response we got was that people wanted more contemporary music (e.g. less organ).

As much as we all might like the old classics, I think there is a place for more contemporary musical styles. I have to admit, that's the one thing I really miss about the Roman Catholic church.

Generalities are not often helpful, a rule which is proven by Jennifer Graham's piece in the Globe. True enough, there are some bad organs and some good organs which are played poorly. To suggest, however, that organs are responsible for the decline in attendance is rather silly.

In addition to the thoughts expressed by Nicole Keller, there are other questions to be considered. What is the size of the building? Music in a store front church of necessity will be different from that of a large, Gothic stone structure. A rock band in a large Gothic stone structure would be equally as out of place as an huge pipe organ would be in a store front facility.

I hesitate to raise the issue of electronic organs vs. pipe instruments, but I have yet to hear a series of speakers no matter how carefully designed or placed, which can rival the sound of hundreds of pipes. It is a question of moving massive amounts of air which speakers simply cannot do. Some of the newer electronic organs are quite competent at lower levels of volume, but one can tell immediately the differences at so-called "full organ" volume.

The great classical composers have all written compositions with organ in mind. One wonders if, for example, Jennifer Graham enjoys the oratorios of Handel or the Requiem of Mozart. Does she cringe at Camile Saint-Saens' third symphony? How about the works of Palestrina, Byrd and Bach, all of which feature accompaniment by organ?

I do suspect that the future will find fewer organs accompanying liturgies in churches. Good pipe organs are very expensive to purchase and require ongoing maintenance. Many churches simply cannot afford them, and of those who can there are issues of stewardship to consider -- where are dollars best placed? That said, surely heaven must feature a grand Aeolian-Skinner organ of the Joseph Whiteford vintage!

Jim Hammond
retired cleric
Warrenton, VA

There are a lot of reason for the decline in church membership. It's silly to say the organ is the reason. We have a large and magnificent pipe organ and our music director plays it beautifully. What is a church to do with a great instrument that is so prominent? My only problem with it, is it ignores other instruments. I think the decline in attendance is more due to the churches being hypocritical, too judgemental and irrelevant to the lives of people.

Carl Sansoucy

My husband is an 8 o'clocker because he despises organ music. He refuses to attend the later service because of it. A special one service Sunday service he will attend but grits his teeth through it. In fact, I just had this conversation with the widow of a bishop this past Sunday! Her response was "The Episcopal Church has room for all, even those who don't like organ music!"

Laura Lewandowski

Larger churches put the question to the market test and offer two or more services on Sunday. Ours offers an early service without music, a mid-morning with contemporary music, a late morning with full choir and organ, and a late afternoon with contemporary services. The mid-morning and late morning services are meant to be and are our major services. But the service with organ has substantially larger attendance.

I'm not saying that's proof that at our church the organ is preferred. It could be that the mid-morning needs more resources. But let's not kid ourselves -- having several talented instrumentalists working together (which is what you need) is not a trivial exercise.

It does depend on the size of your space. You could have, say, one guitarist replace your organist/pianist in a small space. But pay them to be your music professional or you'll likely get what you pay for.

It seems there is room for both. Our church has recently been blessed by a new music director and she alternates organ with other instruments. Last week was incredible. There was a hymn set to a traditional Native American music. There was a drum involved. It was unbelievable. Clearly there are more factors that are impacting attendance but increasing the variety of music can't hurt.

In our parish, which is growing(albeit it slowly), we offer four weekend services. 5:30 Saturday, no music. 7:30am Sunday, minimal organ (Rite I). 8:45am, contemporary. 10:45, choral with organ.

The 8:45 is shrinking while the 7:30 and 10:45 are growing, mainly with young families.

There are other factors to consider besides the music style when looking at the reasons behind this, but the fact that young people are craving ancient, old spirituality (which traditional church music exemplifies) is a major factor.

Charles Everson

The problem with our Episcopal church music is not just the organ, of which I am not a fan, but also the Hymnal that we use with it. We drone through endless verses of nondescript songs Sunday after Sunday. This music was once contemporary for it's time, but is long past retirement age by now. In our culture which is saturated with music, i-pods and playlists, we need worship services that are a mix of the old (our roots) and the new (where we are as a people today).

At a former parish, we had primarily traditional organ music (albeit with an electronic organ) but once a month there was a praise band. On praise band Sunday, attendance dropped considerably. But at the same time there were people who said that the praise band was extremely meaningful to them. Personally, I'd love to have a string quartet, but hey its hard enough enough to find a good organist. All in all, the article is wrong to pin the blame on the decline of worship attendance on organs. But it is also true that whatever musical style is chosen it needs to be done well and with reverence.

Jon White

A number of comments here resonate with me. I have three major objections to organ music, or at least the way it's played.

1. The organ is very loud. In a packed church, that's fine. In a sparsely populated church, it completely drowns out human voices. I do not approve of having the music played on behalf of the congregation all the time. I think it theologically unsound: it robs us of agency.

2. There are a number of churches that only play organ music. That's a monoculture. I think this is theologically unsound in the US. I imagine you could pull it in countries that are in fact more racially homogeneous. Musicians: I understand that there is a large diversity of musical styles, and that it really takes practice to be competent in other styles. But is it unreasonable to ask all church musicians to have some diversity of skills? This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. If the answer's yes, then I guess I'll have to find a church that has musical diversity.

3. I have experienced church musicians who are primarily skilled in the organ who attempt to incorporate diversity by playing songs (e.g. from LEVAS, or a song written for guitar) on the organ. It sounds bad when this happens. I would make the case that this is theologically unsound (for cases where you are trying music from a different ethnic group). This criticism is an extension of #2.

In addition, Verlene's criticism of the 82 Hymnal deserves hearing. We have other liturgical resources that are not traditional organ hymns (LEVAS, Wonder Love and Praise, Taize). I know these represent additional licensing costs. But Christendom is too diverse musically and culturally for us to restrict ourselves to the 82 Hymnal.

I dislike organ music and about 90 percent of the 82 Hymnal songs. I am not alone. People like me are not asking for the 82 Hymnals and the organs to be burnt. We are asking for the Episcopal Church to not be a liturgical monoculture. But if we are ignored, we will either leave, or we will stay and mutter about burning the 82 Hymnals and the organs.

I think we need to expand the conversation. Musical style does matter to people, as witnessed by the above conversation. But, the issues in our dilemma (what draws people to TEC or turns them away) is deeper than jazz ensemble verses organ and choir. It is also about the poetic idiom of the song lyrics.

Imagery and vocabulary from the baroque era does not easily touch the soul of most millennials who never knew a world with out the internet. My children, now in their teens and early twenties, certainly find most of the 1982 hymnal to be archaic and out of touch.

Any thoughts?

This old and tired discussion has been going on since when? The 1960's? I personally love organ music. For some parishes, organ music is part of their tradition and identity. For others, it's a praise band. And, for yet other, it's something else or a combination.

The biggest thing is that nobody should try to be something they are not. The most important factor in any decision, whether liturgical or outreach or whatever, is authenticity. Is my parish being true to who it is? Does our music make our worship a comfortable and sacred time that fits the worshiping community?

There is no magic bullet to fix things, but I rarely hear someone talk about liturgical choices as reasons why people leave church. It is almost always because of the failings of the institution, not its worship.

Good Lord. Matthew is right, authenticity is key. But this keeps being brought up, and there's always the same people saying the same things blah blah blah, whereas from my perch, there's a church completely full of people who love what I do every Sunday, and ditto all around town here in Norman, and in OKC too. Futhermore, there are three kinds of events at the University of Oklahoma School of Music which ensure a packed house, y'all come early. They are the semester's opera production, a big choral work with orchestra, and classical organ concerts. There are never enough seats for big organ concerts, people are sitting and standing and hanging out in the next room and whatever.

The other day my boyfriend was running his recital, and since that organ at OU is basically in a grand lobby of the music school, there's a fair amount of traffic and lots of people get to hear organ music all the time. Well, he had just finished a Mendelssohn sonata, and these two frat boys stopped, clapped, gave him a thumbs up and said, "Man that was awesome! Great job!" I stood right there and watched them. Case closed.

Since this article is just about organ music, that's all I'm going to say. We've fought and fussed and snatched wigs over the 82 Hymnal and no one has changed anyone's mind, I even got told to shut up one time. My experience affirms the position taken by the counter article, presented above.

I attended the Roman Catholic folk masses of the 1960's and 70's. If I never have to belt out "Eat His bawwwdy, drink His bluhd," again, it will be too soon. Guitars, string quartets, brass bands can all add to the worship experience if they are done well. But my small parish can afford only one musician, an excellent organist/pianist, whose accompaniment supports and encourages those of us with less than great voices in a way that guitars never did. Another issue is singable hymns. The priest and/or music director needs to listen to the congregation, both when they sing and when they ask for singable hymns, even if they aren't the ones suggested for that day's readings. I don't know what will appeal to younger worshippers. Those few in their late teens and early 20's, whom we have had, liked the organ music and some joined the choir. I do know that our congregation likes the organ music enough that many stay in their seats for the entire post-lude and applaud, rather than going for their coffee.

I am not sure that responding here is good for my health/happiness, but it's Friday, so "what the heck?"
First, I am totally biased in favor of organ music. Why? I am an organist and I am currently "helping out" a reviving inner-city Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church. Before I arrived, the former organist had left and the church's liturgy was struggling. We sing about everything but the sermon, and the organ has been the major support for congregational music. That said, we also do Gregorian chant without accompaniment, both congregation and cantor (who sings all the minor propers for the mass from the English Gradual). When we can AFFORD it, we do have other instruments. I accompany certain music on our lovely Steinway piano. I recently "loaned" the church my harpsichord, and we have used a "digital" one in the past with instrumentalists. Last Christmas, we scraped together enough to pay a string quartet.
On the whole, the response to our music is quite positive. We are growing week by week and most of the "new" persons are under the age of 40. Having a 90 plus minute complex liturgical rite is not for everyone but it is "who we are." The organ is part of "who we are" and works for us.
As an aside, I am perfectly happy if someone wants to "step up" and take the responsibility of doing "contemporary" non-organ music with whatever instrument they want. Unfortunately, my past experience has been that it is often younger persons used to "garage band" jamming with little musical training and no particular knowledge of church music. It is a MAJOR commitment to produce new and APPROPRIATE liturgical music week after week and year after year. Most of our churches, I think, use organists as we are usually trained in liturgy and music and because we are ALL THEY CAN AFFORD. In an era where many churches are struggling financially, I just think that paying multiple professional instrumentalists to do the week after week and year after year work is just beyond what we can afford. If everyone is happy with pre-recorded MP3 files, then great - maybe that would get the "contemporary" feel that some seem to so strongly want. If persons really want contemporary non-organ music, then by all means, step up to the plate and offer YOUR musical services or cough up the money to PAY for it. Take the bull by the horns and volunteer to lead and accompany a contemporary service at your church. By all means "go for it." I can tell you most certainly that what most churches (particularly small ones) pay their organists would not buy much, however.

In our parish the level of musical participation is a lot higher for the organ hymns than for the guitar songs. A lot of the latter repertoire is hard to pick up, even for a semi-pro singer such as myself.

The whole generational divide thing is really the Church of the Perpetual Adolescence making another appearance. This is exactly the way people talked back when guitar masses were getting established, and several decades later, there are still kids learning the organ (and perhaps she's too young to remember Rick Wakefield and Greg Lake, but I'm not), and as she admits the folk mass has gotten rather dated-sounding. The subtext here is that organs are for old folks, and that the rest of us don't plan to get old or something. That my teenage kids hate the guitar mass doesn't count for anything because, after all, they aren't the experts on themselves; the forty- and fifty-year-olds who play the guitar mass are.

One final note: Graham completely misses the point of the power of that Bach toccata. She's objecting to it because it is effecting. The message to take away is that a great work on a great instrument is able to summon up the frisson of encountering the numinous, the uncanny, the spiritual almost without effort.

Here's an idea.

Why not, every so often, hand out cards and ask people what they would like to hear? And for what it's worth, I do have classic hymns on my iPod :)

I don't think there's much wrong with the 1982 hymnal that judicious hymn selection wouldn't fix. There is a huge range of material in it, and if some of the arrangements are sub-optimal (sorry, but I like the 1940 plainsong accompaniments better), and there's the usual round of uninspired stuff written by committee members and their pals, you don't have to sing the same thirty or so Victorian holdovers all the time. Sure there is some new stuff that would be worth including (e.g. Berthier's Taize chants), and there is a lot of not all that meritorious stuff (sorry, but I don't find much to like in WL&P).

The other thing is that I don't see why we should overturn our own musical heritage so easily. To begin with, we are much more eclectic than people want to admit: Harry Burleigh, after all, was an Episcopalian, and there's nothing inauthentic about accompanying gospel with a big pipe organ. We sing Lutheran and Genevan and medieval and folk and spirituals, cheek-by-jowl. Our hymnal is as diverse as anyone's and more so than all but a few. But the thing also is that there is a distinct Anglo/Anglican hymn tradition, and it's ironic that WL&P is titled after a hymn that sits in the dead center of that tradition. If you don't feel the power in the Lorica, in Old Hundredth, in Sine Nomine, then You're Singing It Wrong. We don't need a SWPL hymnal where the only thing we avoid is our own stuff, especially since much of it is as good as or better than anyone else's.

As far as volume is concerned: any organ can be banked down to a whisper, so if it's too loud, that's the organist's fault. Guitar masses tend to use amplifiers, which have no trouble outshouting any organ smaller than Atlantic City or Wanamaker's (and maybe it's just me, but has anyone ever been to a pop/rock concert that wasn't deafeningly loud?).

Church attendance is down for many reasons:

1) People don't need to go out somewhere for human interaction and entertainment like they used to. They can watch 24 hour TV or use the internet. It's no coincidence that church attendance and membership started to fall in the mid-1960s when television came into most homes.

2) People think they need to take a hyper-literal view of scripture and then have trouble reconciling traditional Christian theology and imagery with modern sensibilities (i.e., Why did God create us sinful and then torture and kill Jesus to save us? Born of a virgin? God killed people in a mass flood?)

3) The politicization of religion and its use in the culture wars.

4) For a variety of reasons people are commitment-phobic. Many already feel stressed and burnt out because of work and child duties and only have Sunday mornings to rest.

And there are other reasons...

It's important to remember that overall membership in churches that don't use organs has started to decline in recent years too.

I think many people find liturgical worship wordy and difficult to comprehend. We live in a post-Christian culture where phrases like: "Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom." are utterly baffling to those who walk into church nowadays, and many parishes have abandoned adult education.

In theory, I have no problem with the use of contemporary/pop music in worship services (along with Classical), but I come from an evangelical background where this is common and have to say that 99.9999% of modern Christian pop and praise music is pure crap. It is simply musically and theologically vapid and maudlin. No doubt there is a learning curve that deters many people from enjoying traditional music, and I often wonder how meaningful some of the hymns that use agricultural imagery are in an economy where >4% work on a farm, but the lyrics of contemporary music are written for the lowest common denominator.

Sorry, the above post is by Dan Sloan.

Over more than 70 years I've never heard Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor used in an Episcopal Church liturgy. T & F in F Major, and excerpts from Widor would be more on point.

Moreover, as I travel, I find that the most vibrant well-attended churches have excellent music in the Anglican tradition backed by outstanding organs.

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