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A Word to Organists

Category Articles
Date October 3, 2002

A WORD TO ORGANISTS

The main parts of a Christian public worship service are simply the Word of God and prayer – the Divine instruction and initiative, and the human response

by D.L. Van Halesma

Every pastor, organist, choir member, and worshiper has his views about church music. These views may be mere reactions to the music of a given worship service or they may reflect years of study and experience. I do not mean to challenge anyone’s ideas or convictions, but I would like to give a personal statement on the basis of my study and experience.

The main parts of a Christian public worship service are simply the Word of God and prayer – the Divine instruction and initiative, and the human response. Commonly, prayer is expressed in two forms, sung and spoken. The Word also is brought in two forms, sung and spoken; ordinarily it is spoken in the sermon, but many psalms and hymns "instruct" and "admonish" too. Implications for congregational song and choirs are immediate, but I will not comment on these now.

The Word of God and prayer – these are the essentials. Organists, we and others, must place ourselves under the discipline of this concept. Preludes, offertories, anthems, postludes – these and their like are not essential to worship. For that matter, we would agree that instrumental music itself is not essential, either. For a moment let us observe that instrumental music, when used in the public worship service, is for the immediate and proximate accompaniment of congregational singing. The music of the organ and of any other instrument has this high and single purpose.

From the foregoing I infer that in a real sense there is no room in Christian public worship for music by the organ which directly or indirectly is not accompaniment for congregational song. I believe firmly that fidelity to this principle would help organists understand their role, and would help them assist the Christian assembly in the words of instruction sung for the benefit of each other and in their prayers and praise sung to God.

What does this mean? Consider a specific service in which the organist follows the principle of being an accompanist for congregational song. The prelude will be a preparation for the first psalm or hymn, brief or extensive, played from a published composition or as an original prelude on the theme of the song. In many Reformed churches in the Netherlands the prelude comes to its climax with the congregation, without further announcement, actually singing the song whose melody the organist has been preparing for them during the last five minutes. This then is the "prelude" to worship – which begins with the greeting from God brought by the minister of Christ.

For each song of the congregation throughout the worship service, the organist plays the same servant role. His main concern in playing the prelude to the hymns is to prepare the worshipers for singing. His main concern during the songs is to undergird their singing – at the tempo and in the spirit that the meaning of the poetry, size of the congregation, and other factors indicate. Among our current problems are the organists who play too fast or too slow. Both of these may be symptoms of an organist who forgets his role as servant to the congregation.

The offertory should be considered as an extended prelude or postlude for the song associated with the collection of tithes and gifts. This means that the organist helps the people either to prepare for or recall the text sung in connection with their offerings to God. The postlude, again, reaffirms and elaborates the theme of the closing song (or one of the other songs used during the service), and helps God’s people return to their work and witness in the world with a song in their hearts.

I realize fully that there is a difference between an ideal and the actual situation. I know, too, that some may feel that the principles stated in this article are beyond the ability of many organists. They are not. The principles stated here have little to do with technique, organ lessons, or talent as such. They proceed rather from this point: the people of God want to sing the Word and to sing many of their prayers. This is according to the Scriptures, to the glory of God, in the Name of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit’s presence. Now this assembly of Christians is pleased to engage an instrumentalist (usually an organist) to help them fulfill this high and holy calling. They do not want a performer or a performance. They want a servant and a service. They want someone who loves Christ, who is selfless and talented, who will devote hours of hard work in weekly practice. Will you apply for this assignment?

D.L. VAN HALESMA

From Torch & Trumpet, July ’69

Dr. Van Halsema, was president of Reformed Bible Institute, Grand Rapids, and majored in music at Calvin College before studying theology and has served numerous congregations as organist and choir director.

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