We Lutherans love our organ music, and rightly so. Hearing fine organ playing can be awe-inspiring. Parishes that have fine organs and organists to fully utilize them receive the great rewards that the instrument has to offer. The organ offers a panoply of colors, expressivity, and sensitivity in hymn accompanying, and of course, the great organ music of the Lutheran überkantor – J. S. Bach. Bach has always been my favorite composer, long predating my years as a Lutheran, extending all the way back to my childhood. The more Bach I hear, the better.
But recently we have encountered some problems in our American Lutheran Churches. There are many, probably even a majority who do not have the kind of organ or organist that would inspire such awe. Many a seminarian, after living in the beauty of the liturgical life at St. Louis or Fort Wayne, and hearing great organists like Henry Gerike, Richard Resch, Kevin Hildebrand and Paul Grime, have left that sublime atmosphere for a more mundane parish existence, where the organist struggles to keep an even tempo and who may have unpredictable, even contrary views on how things should be done. Other parishes, fewer, but still enough to rightly deserve our attention, do not have an organist at all. They have been looking for one, but cannot seem to find one. And the ones they do find are mediocre at best. What to do?
The organ is a great instrument, and it is always wonderful to have a good organist. But if we do not have either, we as Lutherans, may need to rethink our values. What makes Lutheran worship efficacious? Is it the organ, or is it the things that are played on the organ? Is it the chorale preludes of Bach? Or is it the chorales themselves, which place words and melodies on the lips and in the minds and hearts of parishioners for their spiritual nurturing? No chorale prelude can do that.
Is it possible that, without an organ at our disposal, we may need to be resourceful in finding ways to guide the congregation’s song? Perhaps the use of a combination of instruments, or one or two good singers from the congregation can accomplish this goal. Will it be as grandiose, as majestic? Probably not, but will it fulfill the admonition of Colossians 3:16 to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us?” Absolutely!
We Lutherans may be growing fat from the luxuries we have been afforded in this great country where our churches are not persecuted. Our “fatness” manifests itself in that we think it a travesty when we do not to have an organ in our church buildings. So, we have elevated this instrument to "king of instrument” status, placing it on some high pedestal in our worship life. We think the organ to be absolutely essential to our worship – that we cannot possibly worship without it.
But, how important has this instrument been in the history of the Christian faith? St. Paul never even knew of one, let alone the ancient Jews who were given the Psalms and encouraged to sing them. The early church never had one. Yet they sang canticles and hymns just as do we. All through the Medieval period, I understand that organ playing was not in full grand use. The Renaissance composers focused on a pervasively vocal art. No great chorale preludes were being produced at that time. However much the organ was used then, it was not until the Baroque period that we get a truly instrumental art that elevated the organ, through Buxthehude and then Bach (and others, of course). If I am a little inaccurate in my timeline, I think you get my point. Christian worship (and I include the faithful ancient Jews in this, who were saved by Christ's atonement) is 8,000 plus years old. Yet, the organ has played a really significant role for only about the past 400 years, and that’s a charitable estimate.
CPH has come out with a product called The Concordia Organist (TCO). This product provides prerecorded hymn accompaniments on the organ for congregations who do not have a real live organist. You can have an organ playing in your parish even without a person to play it. I view this product as elevating the organ to a level it does not merit. What’s communicated is that, if we do not have an organ, we must use this, because we cannot possibly worship without an organ. It is a symptom of our luxuriant Lutheranism. Well, I have good news. You can live without it! And if you are in this position, it might be a healthy exercise for you to live without it. You have the opportunity to look for the benefits that living without an organ can give! You can start by singing the hymns unison a cappella. One or two singers or a small vocal ensemble can assist the congregation in doing so. As you go, you might add a flute, simple chords on a guitar or a combination of instruments, even a keyboard. You might also begin to sing in parts.
Rather than neglect whatever musical talent lies dormant in your congregations, use them. They are your parishioners too and they need catechesis and pastoral care. Teach them what worship means as they learn to guide the congregation in song. Do not neglect them by employing a “sanctified” manifestation of Karaoke in your parishes. CTO is not altogether different than the canned music that soloists in evangelical protestant churches use to sing contemporary songs so they can sound a little more like Nashville. Think about it:
“You too can sound like the Fort Wayne Chapel! Just buy TCO.”
Is there not just a tinge of theology of glory at work here? Perhaps living life under the cross means, for some, getting over personal aesthetic preferences and considering the notion that unison a cappella singing can serve just as efficaciously in rendering a great hymn or Divine Service setting. But even more, it serves to catechize your congregation just as well, if not better than fancy hymn accompaniments. You do not need to be beholden to some aesthetic ideal that you experienced at seminary or a worship conference, all the while forgetting that the true treasure is in our sung hymns themselves and building a faith community that sings that treasure with great authenticity. Our hymns are an immensely valuable, meaningful, and profound treasure, no matter whether we sing them with an organ or not.
You do not need TCO. Sing your hymns. They are the true treasure. Do it with or without an organ. Use your pianist, your guitarist, your high school flutist, whatever. And when you do not have them, sing a cappella! Putting the organ on a pedestal is nothing more than style over substance. The hymns are our substance and sustenance with or without an organ. They are our true treasure.
Could TCO be helpful to some congregations? Sure. Is it expedient? Sure. But living without an organist and TCO may afford our congregations many hidden benefits as they strive to cultivate their singing voices and utilize other musical resources that may be of great value to their worshiping communities.