The Organ, the Prelude, and Biblical Worship

I had hardly started wondering what resource I could recommend in my next post on this blog when, during the course of the day yesterday, I discovered not one but two items to share—both regarding issues related to Biblical worship.

The first resource is a short blog post by Kevin DeYoung.  In it, he quotes Harold Best, a member of the music faculty at Wheaton College, on the importance of the organ in the worship service.  Among other things, Best argues:

Without any doubt, the organ is the most naturally supportive instrument for singing that Western culture knows of.  Its very design and its intelligent use in hymn singing are meant to accomplish one purpose: to support singing by the intelligent use of registers chosen to fill in the cracks—to provide both an underpinning and a blossom to the work of the congregational voices.

Now you may find DeYoung’s post interesting enough on its own, but if you’ve got the time for some deeper reading, you may want to also take a look at the comments that readers shared regarding this quote at the bottom of the page.  The views expressed there by the various commenters are many and diverse.  Here are some excerpts:

…the Reformed were the ones who removed the organs from the churches in the first place…

I don’t think any instrument has a biblical basis. It is at best an ‘aid’ to singing.  Indeed where we begin to invest it with biblical significance we have fallen into legalism or Judaism.

The usefulness of the organ depends almost entirely on the skills of the organist, and there are not very many skilled organists out there anymore.

…the only absolutes for worship music are that it should be reverent, theologically sound, and respectful of the particular congregation for which it’s being played.

…music is generational.  Worship stretches across generations, but it is usually easier to worship in the music of your generation.

…the organ is a hard instrument to sing to because the notes do not have the bite that, say, a piano does…

…I say that as the grandson of one of the last living church organists…

We can’t say that the organ is the only instrument favored by God but we also cannot say that the organ is an instrument of the past doomed to irrelevance.

Do any of these arguments sound familiar?  I guess this is a fairly accurate sampler of how worship music is viewed in Christian circles—even conservative Christian circles—today.  Thank God for the level of unity we have within the URC regarding how we worship him in song.

The second resource (which ties together many of the elements of the above comments) comes from a conference on Biblical worship, entitled “With Joyful Reverence and Awe,” held at the Sioux Falls URC last fall.  In one of the recorded sessions, Rev. Spencer Aalsburg speaks on “When The Worship Begins on Sunday—How Does Biblical Worship Look in Practice?”  His refutations of the erroneous philosophies of traditionalism and aesthetic relativism have a lot to do with the ideas in the comments I quoted above.  But while he delved into an explanation of just about every area of a traditional Reformed worship service, Rev. Aalsburg’s comments on the purpose of the prelude before the service were especially convicting and encouraging:

The prelude is a time to sit and meditate on what’s about to take place in the worship of God, and we prepare for what is going to be the most important hour and a half of the week.  It’s going to involve some preparation.  It’s going to involve continued preparation.…When there’s something you love and want to set your heart on, as it were, you plan.…So, no, this isn’t a time of elevator music, but it’s a work of preparing, meditating on what’s going to happen.  It’s not an opportunity to talk to those around you; we’ll have plenty of time to do that after the service.  This is the time to prepare yourself to meet with the living God who made heaven and earth—this thrice-holy God who has revealed himself in his Word.

Throughout the rest of the session, Rev. Aalsburg offers a Reformed perspective on the other aspects of the worship service, including special music, choirs, soloists, and so on.  Not only is this a great introduction to Reformed worship for newcomers, it’s an important refresher for all of us!  I was challenged to view the music I play in services very differently—not as something just for the congregation to enjoy, but as something to help the congregation worship God.

If you appreciate this session, you may also be interested in the other four sessions of the worship conference, featuring OPC pastor and Mid-America professor Rev. Alan Strange.   The recordings are all available via the Sioux Falls URC website.

So thank you, Rev. Aalsburg and the people at Sioux Falls URC, for an excellent conference on Biblical worship!



3 Responses to “The Organ, the Prelude, and Biblical Worship”

  1. 1 Lois Wagenmaker March 4, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Psalm 150 lists several instruments to be used in our praise of God. The reason we use the organ in our churches is because most of us don’t have orchestras that utilize all these instruments & the organ is the closest instrument that is able to imitate these sounds.

    The reason we don’t have competent organists is that the trained ones go to the other denominations that have standards for good music & are willing to compensate to achieve their standards. Most of our churches settle for whomever say they can play the organ, many without formal training or proper screening from trained musicians in the congregation.

    • 2 Michael Kearney March 5, 2012 at 11:52 am

      That’s a really helpful explanation of why we typically use organ in worship. Personally, I’m hesitant to definitively say that the organ is “better” than any other instrument. In our church, I play piano for the evening services because it seems more suited for singing by a smaller group of people. Sincere worship, not legalism, is the goal.

      And you’re right, most (if not all) of the work we do in the URC as musicians is on a volunteer basis. The professional organists and church musicians tend to go to the bigger churches in other denominations that have more to offer–choirs, cantatas, concerts, special events, &c. So the small, conservative Reformed church is often left to shrug and repeat the adage “Beggars can’t be choosers”…but, like you’ve said, it’s a shame when we have to settle for something mediocre.

      Thanks for the comments!


  1. 1 The Significance of Service Music « URC Psalmody Trackback on July 14, 2012 at 7:07 am

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