Random Thoughts about The Pipe Organ

This post is a bunch of random thoughts I have had about the pipe organ. Disclaimer – please do not take this seriously. Although where there is smoke…

When chatting with a  friends about the praise and worship evening at our church or about church music, the topic of the Pipe Organ usually comes ups. Then the topic of other instruments in worship came up.    In fact the Pipe Organ comes up in conversation about once every couple of months among the “25-40-ish” crowd I hang with, sometimes in the negative, sometimes in the positive, but always about it’s future in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Organists are an endangered breed of people, soon there will not be enough skillfully trained accompanists play the instrument.

The Organ: My First Impression

Here is my first impression of the Pipe Organ  as a young man.  I walked into the Maranatha Canadian Reformed Church in Surrey for the first time when I was 19 or 20 years old.  I knew that my girlfriend’s Church was more traditional than the inter-denominational evangelical charismatic church I grew up in.  That church often had a full band complete with guitars, drums, piano, and trumpets to accompany the singing of Ruch Mullin’s Awesome God on most Sundays. And as far as I knew, all protestant churches had full bands to lead singing in worship… the organ?  That was for Roman Catholic Monasteries. As I walked up the side walk from the parking lot in what I thought was my Sunday best–my 90’s grunge Christian style DC Talk fanboy garb–was not going to cut it with all these black suits and below the knee length dresses staring at me–the music that grew louder as I walked closer to the entrance was both solemn and deafening.

“A Pipe Organ?” I thought to myself, “Is my girlfriend Roman Catholic?”

I smiled at her, clutched her hand, and we entered the doors of the old A-frame building.  The ushers were nice, they smiled and welcomed me in to the building. I was handed a piece of paper  and I crossed the threshold into the sanctuary…and there it was…the Pipe Organ.


I had never seen one before and there it was, blaring triumphantly in all its majestic shininess.  The organist must have had all the stops pulled out that day! Placed at the very front, up above the pulpit, sitting on a pedestal, given the highest position in the sanctuary, it reminded of the golden Buddha in the temple my Chinese neighbours used to go to.


Now before you get mad at that statement, remember this was just my first impression coming from the outside.  I have grown to appreciate the Pipe Organ when it is played well.

The Regulative Principle

I like the guitar and piano. I enjoy singing the latest Matt Redman or Casting Crowns song at the top of my lungs – it is not a pretty sound at all.   And I do it often – when I am alone. I used to write little worship songs and praise choruses that I would sing to God by myself as I clumsily pawed at my 6 string guitar.  It helped me to “feel” the presence of God. But how I feel about a song, or how I feel about an instrument does not really matter. And how I feel, or what I think, about the organ is really irrelevant.  The Canadian Reformed Churches, and Reformed Churches in general, have always held to the regulative principle of worship.  The Regulative Principle simply says that we are not to worship God in any way other than how he prescribed in his Word.  And you can read what we believe about that in the following links:

Belgic Confession Article 7

Belgic Confession Article 32

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 96

Instruments in Church History

 According to R. Scott Clark, historically, musical instruments are not noted in Christian worship until the 7th century.  That’s at least 600 years of worship services with no instruments and its not because they were not invented, they just were not used.  If we jump ahead almost a 1000 years we see that along with the 5 extra sacraments, stained glass windows, indulgences, and priestly vestments among other things, the Reformers included the pipe organ on the list of Roman Catholic  Corruptions.  While Martin Luther approved, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli vehemently opposed the use of the Pipe Organ in the worship service. According to Churchmusic.ca:

After the Reformation of the 16th Century, many protestant churches in Europe followed the tradition of the early Christian church and threw out all instrumental music. But as a new element in the worship services vigorous congregational singing of the Psalms was introduced, led by a lead singer while the organ kept silent.

Organs were owned by the government and were played regularly on weekdays, when the church was normally open. Before and after the worship services the organ was played as well, because the organist was employed by the city and not the church. However, he was urged to play Psalms instead of secular melodies.

The lead singers had a hard time keeping up with sometimes a few thousand people, singing with all their heart. Therefore, in the 17th Century the assistance of the organists was required in most churches, to lead the singing of the congregation.



They had lead singers before pipe organs?  I thought that was a new invention…?

tumblr_m8sq32E5Re1qzxlbnFast forward a couple hundred more years and most churches now have lead singers – again. And a lot of Churches (even Reformed ones) are using guitars and pianos and drums and have worship leaders with tattoos singing songs like Ten Thousand Reasons. I wonder what Calvin and Zwingli would think of worship leaders like Dustin Kensrue (pictured at left) from Mars Hill Church?  I mean he is probably the most “reformed” of the “worship leaders” out there. I enjoy his music it peppered with Calvinistic soteriology … Check out his song Grace Alone Here.

Wow. Sorry…I digress.  Random thoughts indeed. 🙂


I have seen a piano and a trumpet used in my church’s worship before, so we have used other instruments than just a Pipe Organ.   The two camps in the Canadian Reformed Churches seem to be “organ only” and ” we need to throw the baby out with bath water” … I mean, “other instruments.”  

Organ Only Arguments

Here are the arguments I often hear in favour only using the pipe organ:

1. Using other instruments will lead to people “performing,” and performing has no place in the worship service. I agree that performing has no place in the worship service, but is there not a danger in a highly skilled organist “performing” instead of accompanying?  Perhaps if we just cover the organist with a big curtain…

2. The organ is the most complete instrument. It has rich tones and many voices. I agree.  But it is also the most expensive instrument. And it requires a lot of training to play properly. I have no idea what the value of an organ is, but I assume that it costs at least as much as a 5 piece band. In the past the Pipe Organ was sometimes seen as a kind of status symbol, Churchmusic.ca notes: In some situations an impressive organ with an marvelous Baroque façade would not only be great for accompaniment, it also displayed the prosperity of the city.

3. If we start using other instruments, then we’ll be different from other churches in our federation, we’ll lose our unity and that is a slippery slope to pluriformity. Uh. Wait. What? How did you get to this argument?  There is a huge difference between unity and uniformity.  Unity is beautiful. It is good and biblical and builds up.  Uniformity can be dangerous.  Pluriformity has nothing to do with this topic…it has to do with doctrine and church government…

Get rid of the Organ and bring in other instrument arguments

1. The pipe organ is from another era, it is time to get with the times.  By that logic then we should get rid of the Psalms as well…they are pretty old.

2. No one can play the pipe organ anymore.  That’s not true.  They are just few and far between.

3. Using contemporary music and instruments we will appeal to outsiders.  We shouldn’t be changing to appeal to outsiders.  We should be changing, if we do, to glorify God.  We need to bring the gospel to outsiders not play guitars for them.

4. Psalm 150!  Psalm 150!  Psalm 150!  Ok.  OK.  I get it.  Although, you should realize that the pipe organ was not invented until well after the psalms were written.  I am sure the Israelites would have set up and taken down a Pipe Organ along side the tabernacle if it was invented…

I appreciate a well played organ and I understand why it is used in worship in our churches.  I know that the organ lovers and the guitar lovers are going to butt heads here. How about this? How about we record the organ music onto some MP3’s and play it over the speakers?  We could sell the organ to put a down payment on the nursery reno we desperately need here in Chilliwack.


At the end of the day, I do not go to church to be entertained.  I do not go to hear music.  I do not go to feel good.  I go to worship God with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and to hear the preaching of the Word.  If that involves singing “a Capella” or accompanied with an organ, piano, trumpet or a guitar, lute or tamborine – I do not really see the difference.

I would love to hear some thoughts on this that come from outside the circle of friends I have.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading my random thoughts.  I should clarify that while I did some research into this, this article is in no way complete or meant to persuade anyone of anything, it is meant to be light – I needed to amuse myself.

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  1. Peter Plug says:

    dear “One Christian Dad”, ……… ok I did “stalk you” and think you are called Ryan Smith, ……… once again a thought provoking article. I enjoy reading your musings, etc. Keep it up ! Peter Plug

    • Thanks for stalking me! I know that you are called peter plug. 🙂 If you read my “about me” up on the top of this page you will get a pretty good picture of who I am…and a picture of me covered in stickers…

  2. Great summary of some Christian responses to different instruments! Something close to my heart as I just love to sing and worship- whether to the guitar and drums or the pipe organ, it’s all a joyful noise unto The Lord!

    There’s a church in London which combines a worship band with the pipe organ! It’s amazing. They get the organ to join in on the last chorus with the band. The whole church vibrates. I love that – thinking outside the box a bit!

  3. tjeerddeboer says:

    Reblogged this on Boeren in Bergen and commented:
    Amusant en interessant. Over Psalm 150 en de rol van torgel in de gereformeerde kerkdienst.

  4. Heather says:

    One reason the pipe organ is good for leading congregational singing is because it can sustain notes (notes can be held). Most other instruments, like piano and guitar, the sound ‘decays’ much quicker (the notes fade away). For larger groups especially it is easier to sing with the consistent, sustained sound.