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Is organ music killing our churches?

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 She believes the decline in church attendance is directly related to the dogged and long-outdated use of church pipe organs.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?


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Fred Jones

NO Jesus is killing “your church”. And the fact that you would pose such a ridiculous question PROVES that beyond all doubt.

David Streever

Fred: Did you read the article? The author of our article is in favor of organ music and loves it, as they state, at the top of the piece.

William F. Hammond

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.


Sorry, the above post is by Dan Sloan.


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.

C. Wingate

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?).

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