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 which 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 the son 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.”

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 and that, for me, was a pretty exciting Sunday.

Then I went away to college and my world exploded. I learned that Christ’s church had existed before 1961 when the group that founded our church began holding prayer meetings in the old auto body shop. I learned that the 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, attempting to learn respect for the wide world of worshipers. I now know that this journey will never be complete, and I also have come to realize that this journey strangely still includes that little group of believers that nurtured my childhood faith and also my narrow-mindedness.

Thirty years have gone by since I bought my first guitar. I am 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 now. Not anymore. This is to be expected, since 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. Unless theologically prohibited (as my home church thought about guitars), worship leaders work with the instruments that the worshipers play. And they sing songs in a style appropriate to the people in the pew-you don’t typically hear sitars in Iowa worship services, but someday soon you may be hearing more Spanish guitars in my church. The culture is changing in many ways, and these changes have impacted 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 mics, and stands, and instruments, and sheet music, and cues.

The organist was sitting quietly, waiting. She is a woman who has served worship 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.” What? 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 runthrough 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 change. 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 finally done, we will still have each other, and we will still have the Lord. And he will have us. And 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.



Filed under "Quiet Demons & Screaming Peter Pan" a new book

8 responses to “Soundtrack

  1. Dave Daumer

    Revelations 14:2b-3 says, “The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.”
    The transition between one generation and another, and one style of music–or multiple styles of music, must always keep in mind that people are more important than music, and ministry/outreach more imporant than packaging.
    No sooner should we think of “replacing”/”removing” a person from the church who reflects a different style of clothing/thinking/worshipping, etc., than an instrument/style of music that may not appeal to all, but to some.
    It is sad that we can’t all–to quote Rodney King, “just get along”, in church of all places–surrendering some of our wishes/preferences to accomodate others, while not being asked to completely give up those things that are meaningful to us, either.
    What would a person in the Revelations context in Heaven do if they didn’t like “the new song”…? Leave? I am certain that there will not only be new songs sung in Heaven in new styles of expression, but also older classics.
    To offer an “Amen” to the closing paragraph of Jeff’s story: may we rest in peace NOW in our churches, enjoying/appreciating all types of music–and people, as a foretaste of the things to come.

  2. George A. Scranton

    Amen, Jeff.
    Thoughtful and well done, as usual.

  3. Joonna Trapp

    Having grown up in a church that believes all instrumental music in worship to God is sinful, it’s not that difficult for me to understand the huge currency that music–one of the truly emotional parts of all Christian worship, world over–has and will continue to have. Thank God for the gift of music!

    This weekend I visited a Church of Christ in Des Moines with my parents who are still faithful members of a very conservative group in Texas. I almost wept as we sang–nearly 200 of us–the old accapella hymns of my past. Several of the songs were ones I used to lead at ice cream socials and singings when I was a teenager for my church though they would never say “I led them.” Women didn’t “lead” anything. Still, I led them nonetheless from my tan, worn folding chair in the circle with everyone else.

    Oddly, I became very annoyed with the congregation this Sunday morning when they tried ineptly to sing modern praise songs accapella. Someone, trying to please the younger members of the church had arranged the songs in four part harmony–songs that were meant to be sung with full band as Jeff describes in this chapter. It hit me then that I was the “goin’ out” generation, and much of modern worship was in control of the “comin’ in” people. And that was the way it was supposed to be.

    I met a Taiwanese Christian at Calvin a couple of summers ago. When asked how the church in Taiwan was beginning to leave its anglo missionary roots and become a true church in the culture of the country, he replied that they were in controversy at that present time. Younger members brought a traditional gong into the service to play at the beginning and closing. Members trained and converted by the missionaries resisted. Ah, what creatures we mortals be!

    But there’s a reason that Martin Luther was highly suspect of music in the church even while he embraced it. It is so tied to who we are as Christians–it is one of the languages in which we talk to God. And it matters. It matters greatly because it resists logic and communicates on a level we rarely reach any other way.

    This is a beautiful chapter which raises questions and offers no solutions. And it is right that it does so. This chapter has been a blessing to me today.

  4. Jeff,

    So well-written and so very much right where many congregations are these days. Right there in the midst of the “us” and “them” of our musicians, of our traditional vs. contemporary service attendees, of those who serve and those who don’t, of those who give and those who don’t.

    “On the other side of all these changes, when our grieving is finally done, we will still have each other, and we will still have the Lord. And he will have us. And 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.”

    I’ve always loved John 17. Here, Jesus prays just before Judas betrays Him. Below are portions from vv. 6-23:

    “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world…I ask concerning them…Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth…And I do not ask concerning these only, but concerning those also who believe into Me through their word…That they all may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us…And the glory which You have given Me I have given to them…that they may be perfected into one, that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.”

    This prayer is revealing and profound, even with my editing due to space. The oneness of the believers was uppermost on His heart just before His arrest. Actually, He says “that they all may be one” THREE TIMES, thereby accenting its importance.

    Over the years the splintered church has tried to “get together” with ecumenism, and by advocating unity. The problem is, “unity” and “oneness” are not synonymous, IMHO. An illustration is best.

    Unity is like joining different components which have some similarities. The methods of joining are many — some more effective than others, depending, in large part, on the skill, motive and agenda of the builders. The Achilles’ heel of unity in the church is twofold, as I see it.

    First, who is doing the unifying? Man or God? The answer to that only comes when the unification brings forth some kind of fruit.

    Second, one of the inherent realities of constructing a building is that when dissimilar components are joined, the resulting joints are especially vulnerable, because that is where the stress is at its greatest. It doesn’t matter if it is entire denominations, local congregations, individual Christians, or styles of music and worship. The greatest vulnerability is at the joints. (Ever damaged your knee, and you’ll understand this all too painfully.)

    Yes, Paul talks about the building up of the Body of Christ, but I can’t believe something as fallible as the human effort of unity is what he means, since oneness only comes from God.

    As forgiven sinners, most of us still have not learned to let go of very much “for the sake of the oneness in the unity bond of peace.” Not our opinions, our cultures (this includes worship style and music preferences), or our personal agendas. In ourselves we are incapable of oneness of thought, word or action with other human beings.

    Only in, through, and by the Spirit’s little-by-little-day-by-day transformation for a lifetime and the outpouring of the Spirit in power are we capable of achieving oneness locally, let alone globally.

    Look at the disciples. Before the crucifixion and resurrection, they were arguing over who would have pre-eminence in the Kingdom. But then they received the Holy Pneuma, became enlightened, enlivened (not to mention regenerated), enjoyed further instruction and comfort from the Lord for forty days, and watched His ascension. Following THIS, the disciples “continued steadfastly with one accord in prayer” with the sisters and Jesus’ relatives. It was then the Spirit came upon them, and mighty works of God ensued. Then afterwards they continued in one accord. THAT is what we all want a taste of. A foretaste of eternity.

    Here then, is the illustration of that oneness, that one accord. It is like combining tea and water. Once intermingled, they cannot be separated. The essence of the tea is infused into the water and they are no longer distinct from one another. It is impossible to detect where the tea stops and the water starts or vice versa. No joints, no stress points.

    We have no human construct for the Lord’s You-in-Me-and-I-in-You-and-they-in-Us. Without Paul’s illustration of The Body with Christ as her head, we couldn’t understand the church. Without John’s illustration of the Bride, wouldn’t “get” New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. And without the illustration of the “teaification” of water, we wouldn’t understand just how closely the Father, Son and Spirit desire to mingle with us. One Body, One Spirit, One God and Father who is over all and through all and in all of us.

    If we are “diligent to keep the oneness of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace,” who is Christ Himself, realized by us through the Spirit, from the Father, then even when it seems impossible for the church to agree on anything, we still have this promise:

    “[He] is able to do superabundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power which operates in us,.” And so on that day, we can say with gladness, “To Him be the glory _in the church_ and in Christ Jesus unto all the generations forever and ever. Amen.”

    Thanks, Jeff! — Deb

  5. Jeff Barker

    Thanks for these wonderful posts on this topic! Here’s a follow-up question regarding the original chapter. Does anyone read my chapter as advocating getting rid of organs from worship? At least one person has said to me off-blog that this is what they read in the chapter. What do you think? My reason for asking is that I DON”T want to advocate against any particular instrument, but my goal is to raise some of the dynamics that exist when changes occur (which they must from time to time).


  6. Amy Scheer


    I’m with Dave Daumer, and here are two reasons why: one, Bev is a wonderful person and musician, and two, the organ can do just fine alongside contemporary worship music. The church can’t glibly wait for heaven’s perfect harmony while Bev is sliding off the bench wondering about her “place.” Tell her that her place is right there on that bench, right now. People first, as Daumer said.

    Amy Scheer

  7. Jeff Barker

    Graciously, firmly, clearly and succinctly put. Thanks, Amy. I tried to write the chapter in a way that would make room for all to come back into this conversation, but sometimes there comes a place to put one’s foot down.

    Last night, I returned from the Navaho reservation where I heard the clearest articulation for diversity in worship that I’ve heard. Beautiful. I’ve got to find the space and time to write about that experience soon.


  8. Jeff Barker

    P.S. I was surprised and delighted a couple of weeks ago (my most recent Sunday at my church) to arrive and see Bev once again at the bench!

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