What Would You Say To The Organist?

I’m on leave this week, hence a few more opportunities to blog than usual. So yesterday I visited another church, out of the area. (I’m not giving any clues about its identity.) The welcome was warm, friendly and appropriate. The minister was a thoughtful, clear and challenging preacher. But one thing I witnessed led to extra exercise for one of my eyebrows, and it’s this.

The organist. No, this is nothing to do with the old ministers’ joke, what is the difference between an organist and a terrorist? The answer is, you can negotiate with a terrorist. By no means all church musicians are like that, and at Knaphill I am blessed with a godly organist and worship group leader.

The organist yesterday was competent. The music was played competently at a decent, consistent tempo. What could possibly make me wonder?
It was the choice of music before the service. My eyebrow started to get in training for next year’s Olympics when I realised the organist was playing John Lennon‘s ‘Imagine‘. That’s right, the one with the line, ‘Imagine no religion.’ Now I’ve blocked that from funeral services I take, something I don’t often do, but I even barred it when I once took the funeral of a woman who had danced with the Beatles at the Cavern in her youth. (We had ‘Twist and Shout’ instead as we left the chapel.)
Then having settled down again to talk with the people next to me in the pew, my eyebrow sprang into action again. George Benson, but sadly not from his jazz guitar phase. No: ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’  And that contains the line, ‘Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’

I find it hard to think that the musician would not have known the lyrics. One time a dodgy choice maybe, but two before the same service? Perhaps the thought was, the music is nice but as I’m just playing this instrumentally and we’re not singing the contentious words, it’s OK. However, this service had a number of visitors present, and it could have been predicted there would have been on this occasion for certain reasons. I wonder how they reacted. With a smirk, maybe?

I wouldn’t want any of this to outweigh all the good things from that service, and there were many. The sermon ended with a moving video, and I happen to know there are many good and kind-hearted people in that congregation. The minister is not just a good preacher, but a good person.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pastor had a quiet word with the organist afterwards. I think I would seek a diplomatic conversation if this happened in a church.

But maybe I don’t know all the facts, and perhaps I would be wrong in talking to the organist. What would you do?

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on May 30, 2011, in ministry, Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Great post. I have a similar problem with “I did it my way” at a Christian funeral.

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  2. You raise some interesting questions here about the organist and what he or she was playing before the service.
    As an organist I try to be careful about what I play before the service and will often play gospel music or hymns/songs that are not being used in the service.
    I do occasionally play classical music but where you speak about lyrics of the songs yesterday I would say that the lifestyles of some classical composers leave a lot to be desired and using the sort of logic you applied there would be a fair amount of classical stuff that would not be suitable.
    I do wonder too how many people would have known the lyrics of either of the songs or if they did whether they would think anything of them.

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    • Well, indeed, Ian, when it comes to some of the classical composers: Schubert and his syphillis comes to mind, yet he composed a beautiful Sanctus, to take but one example. And indeed I also believe that non-specifically Christian art can be used redemptively: hence my use from time to time of quotations from lyrics.

      However, in the case of the two songs yesterday, their lyrics enshrine fundamentally non-Christian, if not anti-Christian sentiments, and as such I would have thought they had no place in preparing people for Christian worship (assuming that is the purpose of the organist playing before the service).

      I don’t know how many people would have recognised the lyrics and made the association. The elderly people sitting with me in the pew didn’t. But I did, and I’m guessing that some others for whom immersion in the culture of popular music is natural, would have done also. In the case of ‘Imagine’, it is so famous, even to the point that one of the other atheist lines in it – ‘Above us only sky’ is used at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. The song scores highly in surveys of the most popular songs ever, and I would argue it is somewhat embedded in our culture.

      But to end on a positive note, thank God again for the minister of that church who preached a thoroughly Christ-centred sermon in a very Christ-centred service.

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  3. Rick Warren once said when he was starting the church he pastors this very distinguished man from his church came to him. He told Rick what an amazing musician his son was. He asked Rick if he could play at the church. Being young, Rick agreed. He said the young man showed up dressed in spikes with matching spiky hair and played a heavy metal song he had made.

    Rick Warren also said he had a friend whose church had a very well known singer.The singer had written a song for Easter and asked if he could sing it. His friend, the pastor, later told him that the singer stood up and sang lyrics somewhere along the line of “everybody dies… everybody dies lawyers, linemen, doctors, sailors, everybody dies.” While he was singing the pastor’s wife noticed all these older women getting up and slipping out. Finally she followed them to find them all in the bathroom crying about the husbands they had lost! Rick Warren’s point PREVIEW YOUR MUSIC…ALWAYS. 🙂

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    • I think Warren also more positively makes the point that if your worship is going to make sense to those you are hoping to incorporate into the life of your congregation, then you should take the trouble to find out the musical style of the most popular radio station in the area, and have worship music of a similar style. Of course that doesn’t deal with the question of lyrical content, but your stories from him do. I guess I shouldn’t have laughed when I read them, but I’m afraid I did. Mind you, if heavy metal was the dominant local musical style, what’s the problem?

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      • Very true… and I laughed when I wrote the stories as Warren laughed when he told them. I think music is a strong subject. Sadly, my mother’s pastor was given the boot because he tried to make changes to the music selections. It was not a good time at her church. A lot of healing had to take place after such a hurtful situation. As for the organist…I know! You could say to the organist, “Imagine there is a heaven and you are in God’s house and this is where we proclaim how to get there.” 🙂

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  4. A long time ago in a church far away from where I live now, a preacher gave the organist the list of hymns and songs for the service. The organist looked at the list and said “I don’t like that one”. The preacher replied, “I’m not asking you to like it, I’m just asking you to play it”. The organist left the church shortly afterwards.

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    • Ian,

      I can understand an issue of conscience, but not one of taste. There is a question of a servant heart here. By no means do I as the one responsible for leading worship always pick music that I like. I choose what I think is best for that act of worship with the particular congregation. It seems to me the story you tell exposed the lack of a servant heart in that particular organist.

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