The Role of the Church Organist
The following are my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of Classic Organ Works. Actually, if you asked Henry about it, he probably never gave it much thought, he sells the control systems, who plays the organ and how doesn't really matter. From a business perspective I would agree with that. You want a pipe organ? OK. From a personal perspective, as somebody who has grown up in a Christian church and spent some time looking at worship and it's roll within the church, I have a few other things to say.
I think we would all agree that worship is vitally important in the life of a congregation. I refuse to try and name the most important thing, but worship is right up there.
Worship is a person's expression of the worthiness, honour, and glory of God, this may be expressed corporately or privately. Worship may also take on many different forms, music, drama, fine art, and prayer, are the ones thought of most often, but any activity that you do in which you see and acknowledge the majesty of God, is an act of worship. So, if you are a physicist and while examining the mathematics of the cosmos, you marvel at the power and complexity of creation, you are worshiping.
Note, nothing I just said has anything to do with style of music, songs chosen, volume of the sound system, or familiarity of the music to the congregations, it is all about the attitude and focused of the worshiper.
The church organist is a servant, the organ is their tool; their job is to help people enter into worship. This begins when the organist (or music leader) first starts picking the music for a service. This needs to be done prayerfully and in conjunction with the pastor. This doesn't mean you necessarily need to get the pastor's approval for the music selected, but the organist does need to talk to the pastor, to find out what scripture versus will be read, what is the topic of the sermon, and are there any other things happening that day which may be pertinent, such as baptisms, Sunday School doing presentation, or special a day in the church calendar. Not every song picked needs to completely align itself with everything else, but it is a little jarring, if the sermon is about forgiving your neighbours, and then you sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers'.
The second comment I made here was this music selection should be done prayerfully. The organist needs to spend time in prayer seeking God's guidance, and humbly submitting themselves to his authority. This brings up a rather sticky subject, that is, the growing number of church organists who are in fact not Christian. I am strongly theologically opposed to musicians who are not Christian, and therefore do not actually worship themselves, endeavouring to lead others into worship. Leadership is ultimately done by example, a leader says "Follow me." Somebody who does not worship can not say "Follow me into worship." I have come across examples where the only reason the organist went to church is because they liked playing the organ and the church paid them. The congregation would probably have been shocked to find out that their music leader didn't in fact believe God even existed. But then, given how some churches are going, maybe they wouldn't, but that's a completely different subject of conversation. If you can't find somebody who can play your organ and lives a Christian life, maybe you should try a different instrument(s).
Entering into a state of worship is a process, I know it sounds cliché, but your opening hymn needs to be something faster tempo, louder, and something most of the congregation can join you in singing. Your quieter, introspective songs need to come later. I will give an example from personal experience. A church we attended for a couple years had a worship leader who was really big on everybody entering 'the Holy of Holies' (using the analogy of the ancient temple) during worship, and in that respect I supported him, unfortunately every song he picked was a quiet worshipful song. Using the analogy of the temple, people don't start at the Holy of Holies, you have all the dusty roads outside the temple wall you first need to travel, just to get there. Once you actually got to the temple you had to pass through the Court of Gentiles, and Court of Women, to the Court of the Israelites. The Court of the Israelites was where the sacrifices were made. From there you would travel through the Priests Court, up a porch, and into the Sanctuary. At the end of the sanctuary you would find the Holy of Holies, you can't get to the Holy of Holies without first going through all these other courts. By the time the service started at this church we attended, the people on the worship team had already probably spent at least an hour praying, singing and generally worshiping. They had already gone through these outer courts. In comparison, when I got to church, I had just spent 45 minutes or more on public transit with a 4 year old; I was proverbially just arriving at the gate and kicking the dirt off my shoes. The worship team would start out with these worshipful songs, but I wasn't there yet. This particular church usually started with 3-4 songs that could easily last 20 min, I would try to get into the worship, but failed, I would inevitably end up sitting down and staring off into space. Nobody was leading me through the outer courts. That is the job of the organist/worship leader, to meet me where I am and show me the way.
Your opening hymn is also not the time to teach a new song. New songs are great, but don't give too many too fast. Give people a chance to learn a song, before introducing another new one. Also, be judicious about where you put the song. Learning a new song can be distracting, so you don't want it where it will interfere with other parts of the service. I've often thought the offertory was a good time for a brand new song. This tends to be a bit of a break in the service anyway.
There is a place within the service for instrumental only music, but like everything else it's purpose is to guild people to a closer relationship with God. Music can create an atmosphere conducive to reflection, similar to the old Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina. If somebody comments that they were impressed by the mastery of your playing, then you have probably failed in your purpose. However if somebody comments that they were thinking, and they should probably return the shovel they borrowed from their neighbour, and apologise for keeping it so long, then congratulations.
The church building does not serve the organ. The building serves the people who gather. As such, the structure of the building and the interior design needs to be done in such a way as to best serve the people in all the ways they use the building. This means that sometimes decisions will be made which are not in the best interest of the organ. The complaint I think I've heard the most is a church installing carpeting in the sanctuary. We all know that carpeting will decrease the resonance of the space, and some resonance can sound really good. However, when it comes to the spoken word, echoing makes it hard to understand what the speaker is saying, a good lecture hall is a fairly acoustically dead space. Carpeting will also help decrease the sound in other parts of the building. On a side thought, when the sanctuary is even 1/2 filled with people and their squishy bodies, does the carpet really make that much of a difference?
The church organist is a servant, the church is a place for people, and life is messy. We are called to do our best, not be perfect. As the worship leader, invite some of the high school students who are learning instruments to play will you on Sunday, they won't be perfect, but the long term good that is done in their lives will far outweigh some bad notes. The congregation may sing off key, but are they actually participating, or just standing there listening to you?
A couple interesting reads:
Is Evangelical Worship Headed for a Huge Crash? , Jamie Brown, Oct 21, 2016
Many of our modern worship “chants” or “simple songs” are creating a modern silence for us, a service that tools like lectio divina provided for us hundreds of years ago. A simple song can create an atmosphere of reflection, that can lead to an experience with God, in a way that rich theological phrasing cannot. We need both. And we need instrumental music. My goodness, our communities need beautiful instrumental music, without words telling them what to say to God (or what God is saying to them).