Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
—Psalm 150:3-5, KJV
When I was in high school, it seemed as if everyone played the guitar. Except me. I was in plays, in the high school choir, and on the tennis team. I didn’t have time for a garage band. In fact, I heard sermons against rock and roll. Syncopated rhythms, they told us, would lead to “unwanted pregnancy.”
Our little church wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing a guitar on the platform. One boy in our youth group played guitar in a band. His fatal error was to go public. His band cut a single that had an original ballad on one side and a cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” on the flip side. Once I was delivering newspapers near his house, and I saw the pastor going in. I heard later that the pastor told him he could no longer be a member of the church if he continued to play in the band. After that, the whole family quit coming to church. Some people said, “See what rock and roll causes!”
Back then I was too young and too confused to mount a response. I was busy trying to decide if dancing and going to movies were really as evil as everyone at my church said. My world was pre-cyberspace small. I hadn’t yet heard of Larry Norman and “Why Does the Devil Get All the Good Music?” I hadn’t read C. S. Lewis or seen a picture of him sitting in a pub with a pint.
Our church had an electric organ always played by Florence Bentley and a piano always played by Mary Alice Cross. Those two instruments were used pretty much every Sunday morning. Sometimes Mr. Erickson would bring his trombone and play along with the singing, doing an occasional showy full-octave slide. That, for me, was a pretty exciting Sunday.
Then my world exploded. I went away to college and learned that Christ’s church had existed before 1961, which was when the group that founded our church began holding prayer meetings in the old auto body shop. I learned that King James was neither the first nor the last Bible translation. I heard speaking in tongues for the first time. I read Mere Christianity.
And I bought a guitar.
Within three years, I would pay my final visit to my home church. My parents moved to California, so I had no reason to return. We had all moved away physically, but I also just moved away as I attempted to learn from and respect the wide world of worshipers. I now know this journey will never be complete, and I have also come to realize that it still includes that little group of believers who nurtured my childhood faith and also my narrow-mindedness.
Thirty years have gone by since I bought my first guitar. I am a worship coordinator at a church that has lots of guitar stands scattered on the platform. There is room for acoustic, electric, and bass. There’s a drum set and a double-rack synthesizer. There’s a sixteen-year-old sax player at our church whose riffs would leave Mr. Erickson slack-jawed. There’s cello and violin. There’s a piano. There’s a choir. There are singers galore.
There’s a pipe organ.
For thousands of Sundays, the pipe organ in this Iowa church was the only instrument you would have heard. The organist was essentially the song leader. Not anymore. The local climate has changed. There is more diversity in our town than there has been since it was founded by Dutch immigrants in the 1870s. This diversity is reflected in the instruments we play and the songs we sing.
Worship leaders work with the instruments that the worshipers play. And they sing songs in a style appropriate to the people in the pew. So although you don’t typically hear sitars in Iowa worship services, someday soon you may be hearing more Spanish guitars in my church. The culture is changing in many ways, and these changes have had an impact on the use of the organ. Our church and many similar churches across the land are asking, What’s the role of the organ in worship? The very fact that this question is being asked suggests change in the wind. Change always means that something will be lost as something else is gained. And loss is always accompanied by grief.
One recent Sunday morning, I was the worship coordinator. Someone else was leading, but I was there in a supportive role. I got up at my usual pre-dawn time and walked the worship space, double-checking its readiness for the sacred activity of the day. Eventually, the team gathered and checked mikes and stands and instruments and sheet music and cues.
The organist was sitting quietly, waiting. She is a woman who has served by pressing those foot pedals for many decades of her life. She once told me that when she started attending this church, she wasn’t allowed to play because the organist slots were all taken. It took her a long time to earn a place on the bench. But she is still the church’s youngest organist today, and she’s in her late sixties.
She seemed especially still this morning, so I slid down the pew and broached the subject of her mood, “Good morning. How are you doing?” She and I have learned to trust each other, so she gave me a straight-up response. She said, “This is my last Sunday playing the organ.” Did I hear correctly? I said, “What do you mean?” She told me that she hadn’t told anyone yet, but, she said, she’d had one too many rehearsals in which her role was unclear.
I was having flashbacks to the tensions over music in my childhood church, only now we were playing the flip side. I also flashed back to a recent sermon tape I’d heard in which a mega-church pastor asked, “How many seekers listen to organ music in their cars?”
But this was no time for glibness. I was sitting next to a woman who represented a lifetime of service to the worshiping community and she had just said to me, “This is my last Sunday playing the organ.” This was a moment for listening.
I could see that the rehearsal run-through of the service was about to begin. “Will you meet me back on this pew immediately after church?” I whispered. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said yes.
After church we sat there together. I listened to her grieving heart. As she spoke, a middle-aged woman gently stepped up to the organ. “Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. But would you mind if I played the organ? I used to live here, and this is the organ I learned on. I’d love to play it again.” We nodded our heads, and she slid onto the bench. We sat silently and listened. She played beautifully. When she finished, I said, “Do you come back often?” She shook her head. “No, not anymore.” She slipped quickly away, wanting to catch up to those waiting for her. I didn’t even get her name.
I asked our organist not to quit while her emotions were running high, and she agreed that she wouldn’t. Two months later she tendered her resignation.
I once asked a friend who is a concert organist, “If you were looking for a new church, would you look for one with an organ?” She shocked me by saying no. She explained, “It’s a special congregation that can afford an organ and can support its use.”
The church is not about carpet or pews or pianos or organs or drums or guitars. These are all instruments for glorifying God. The church building itself is only a tool. One day, the tasks of all these tools will be changed. All of them will change. Our current building is aging and though it contains rich memories, it can no longer be renovated, and an architect is now at work designing a new building in which our church will meet for worship and ministry. There is a serious leak in the bellows of our organ. As with the building that surrounds it, we must ask “Can our organ be repaired?” And the even tougher question: “Should it be repaired?”
There are countless faith stories carried in the memory banks of believers. Many of these stories play back to the soundtrack of an organ. What should our churches do at this time of change? I don’t have an easy answer. I do know that it’s a time for respect, love and prayer—for rejoicing with those who rejoice and grieving with those who grieve.
On the other side of all these changes, when our grieving is done, we will still have each other, and we will still have the Lord. And he will have us.
I believe that there will come a day that my high school friend Tony will plug in his guitar, and my Iowa friend Bev will slide onto the organ bench, and we will sing a new song. And it will sound like heaven.