Congregational Singing And Organs

On March 19, 1976, the members of the South Holland congregation had a ceremony of dedication for their new organ. In addition to the playing of many numbers on the organ, the choral society of the church sang, the choir of the Protestant Reformed Christian School sang, and I gave a brief address. At the request of some, including the program committee of the council, I publish this speech in the Standard Bearer. The chapter read was II Chronicles 5.

Music in the form of congregational singing has a very important place in the worship of the Church. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures teach that congregational singing is, and must be, an element of the service of worship of the Church. Our singing is a form of prayer, and, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, prayer is the chief part of thankfulness that God requires of us. 

The Reformation, and Calvin in particular, purified the worship service in this regard and restored the praise of God in congregational singing to its rightful place. Calvin treats of singing in the Institutes (III, XX, 32): “And certainly if singing (in church—DE) is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardor in prayer.” 

Calvin busied himself to provide a good songbook for the Reformed Church—a Psalter, by the way. In the preface to the metrical Psalter used in Geneva, Calvin wrote that music is “the first gift of God, or one of the first, for man’s recreation. In worship, in particular, it has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal” (quoted from Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition by James Hastings Nichols). 

Calvin put an end to choirs and soloists in the services of worship, which had by his time replaced-congregational singing, and called for singing by the whole congregation as part of their worship of the Lord. We may bless God that we are the beneficiaries of this insight of the Reformation, too. It is the congregation’s duty and privilege, as well as its desire, to “make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking Jehovah,” as we read in II Chronicles 5:13

It is the function of an organ in the Church to assist the congregation in carrying out this calling; the organ is to help congregational singing. 

Just because it has this function, the organ becomes important—whatever aids in the congregation’s praise of God is important. 

But it is the congregation that dedicates the organ to God, and it does so by its heartfelt singing of God’s praises. In its use of the organ to praise the Lord God for His goodness, the congregation consecrates the instrument to God. If we do not sing; if we do not sing from the heart; if we do not sing songs that ascribe all of salvation to the Lord and songs that glory in the Lord and His cross; well, then we misuse the instrument, beautiful though its sound may be, and press it into the service of sin. 

Let us resolve tonight to glorify our Maker and Redeemer in songs of thanksgiving and praise; let us resolve to sing from the heart; let us resolve to sing God-centered, God glorifying songs—which the psalms are. 

We do well, in this connection, to recall Calvin’s warning, when he was speaking of singing in church: “We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.” 

This we will do, if the gospel of sovereign grace continues to be preached here. Ultimately, the organ is consecrated to God—and made beautiful!—by the Word preached. 

I emphasize that the organ is our servant, that it is servant to congregational singing. We do not serve the organ, but it serves us. It must never “take over” in the worship service, whether by volume, or tempo, or “frills.” The organists must be guided by this principle: the organ accompaniment is the handmaid of congregational singing. So fearful were Calvin and Dutch Reformed Churches of the organ’s becoming the center of attraction in the services that they opposed the use of an organ in the worship services. It was not until 1637 that the Dutch Reformed Churches began using the organ in the service. 

But the organ can be used rightly: aiding congregational singing and, thus, our worship of God. Then what we read of the worship of God in Solomon’s temple characterizes our worship: “. . .as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord . . . for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God” (II Chron. 5:13, 14).

To this use of the praise of God by a singing congregation, do we tonight dedicate the organ that God has given us.