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 She believes the decline in church attendance is directly related to the dogged and long-outdated use of church pipe organs.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

Past Posts