Don't count out the church organ just yet

Whether electric, digital or pipe, experts who play, study and make organs say the majestic instrument is making a comeback.

By Jeff Brumley

There are times, Shaun King says, when worship music should be energetic, light or joyful. That’s when instruments like pianos, drums and guitars do the trick.

But then there are times when the sound needs to be “bigger and in your face,” said the senior pastor of College Park Baptist Church in Orlando. And that’s when you need an organ.

organ2sm“When there needs to be a bigness that envelops everyone in the room, the organ can do that,” said King. King’s church has had an organ all of its 85 years, and today blends it into an integrated worship style that ranges from praise and worship to orchestral.

Experts who play, study and make organs say King’s attitude is becoming increasingly common in churches across the denominational spectrum. The organ – whether in electric, digital or pipe form — is enjoying a comeback after suffering declines in the 1990s and early 2000s, despite price tags that range from the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

“There are a lot of naysayers who say the organ is dead, but that’s simply not true,” said Frederick Swann, an internationally acclaimed organ master who performed on Crystal Cathedral broadcasts for 16 years. 

Swann, who also consults, leads organ workshops and gives recitals around the globe, said interest in the organ waned as modern worship forms surged in the late 1980s. As a result, university organ programs suffered from lack of interest and organists became generally harder to find.

“But they are now burgeoning with students again,” Swann said of the college programs. And organ recitals held by churches are increasingly packed coast to coast, he said.

“This is good news for those of us who build pipe organs,” said Charles Hendrickson, founder and president of the Hendrickson Organ Co. in St. Peter, Minn.

“It is true that pipe organs have been in decline for some years as churches sought other musical styles,” Hendrickson wrote in an e-mail to ABPnews, “but a return to the traditional and classical pipe organ is encouraging after the earlier decreases.”

The upward swing was being noticed as early as 2003 when reported 100 to 200 new instruments were being built in the United States and Canada annually. Industry sales were around $70 million a year, according to the article

With the exception of a dip during the recent recession, Hendrickson said, the outlook has continued to improve.

organ3smSwann attributes the turn-around to what he sees as spiritual yearning for inspirational music. “A lot of people feel the organ has a soul, either through its beautiful quietness or enormous volume,” he said. “It’s a very thrilling sound.”

More people apparently are feeling that way outside the church as well, said Brent Beasley, senior pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Beasley’s church hosts the largest pipe organ in Texas and the largest of its specific design in the world, said Swann, who consulted on its installation and played its inaugural recital in 1996.

Beasley said Broadway’s organ recitals are packed by listeners mostly from outside the congregation, which tells him there’s a growing appreciation for the instrument in the general population.

And it also frames the liturgical form of worship used at Broadway. “The organ really is a major character in the life of our church,” he said. “It plays a big role and it’s a part of our identity.”

Within the church, Beasley said, he’s hearing from younger Christians who are complimentary of the organ. His sense is that stems from an urge among some young Christians to explore their faith’s roots. “We’re seeing a generation who grew up with contemporary worship, and a lot of them are looking for something else.”

What 20-year-old David Mikesell said is that he’s looking for is a balance. He grew up worshiping at College Park Baptist in Orlando and has come to love the organ in worship. But he also likes the energetic praise-and-worship style at the student services he attends at Florida State University.

That makes him grateful for the way his church integrates both styles, he said.

“There’s an attitude that the organ can be stuffy,” Mikesell said after a recent Sunday morning service at College Park. “But I think Christian music has a long and rich history, and the organ is indispensable.”