In the Western Christian tradition, the organ continues to be the instrument most often associated with worship music. It supports singing well and has a wealth of worship music written for it.
But the organ wasn't always welcomed in Christian worship. Since earliest times Christians have struggled with the question of the appropriateness of instruments in worship. The tidy but, extreme solution of some groups has been to dispense with instruments altogether. During Reformation times, beautiful organs disappeared from many Christian churches.
With equal sincerity but perhaps no more validity, some Christians today would remove from the worship orchestra a range of instruments whose newness or negative associations they think disqualify them. In a fast-changing society, this is unfortunate. What really counts is the qualities of worship music leaders and musicians, and not any 'particular instrument.
These qualities should include: (1) sensitivity, (2) musicianship--particularly a sense of good orchestration, knowing how to weld instruments together into an effective ensemble, (3) humility the instrumentalists must be willing to respond to firm leadership on tuning, pitch, volume,,style, etc., and (4) a commitment to worship and congregational involvement, not merely to performance a quality that's essential in worship music of any idiom.
Besides strings and woodwinds, brass ensembles have long added energy and impact to worship music. But what about the new electronic instruments? I have discovered that in the hands of sensitive musicians and, particularly, arrangers, these new instruments contribute significantly to worship. At large conventions, equipped with fine sound reinforcement systems, I,have, used .orchestral combinations of brass, acoustic and electronic strings, acoustic and electronic pianos, and synthesizers. The music pleased and blessed large congregations from even the most conservative backgrounds.
The synthesizer's great advantage is its flexibility. In one convention worship service where instrumentation was other wise scarce, a synthesizer functioned as the chimes calling the congregation to worship, the harpsichord in an offertory, the organ in the hymns, the timpani in the choral anthem, and part of a string ensemble in an orchestral backing. I am not saying that the new instruments are essential to any local, church worship service, but their judicious use does send a valuable signal--namely, that the church is flexible, adaptable, and willing to embrace the best in today's culture and harness it for noble ends.
What about percussion?
What about the vexed question of the percussion section? Today, percussion looms large in arrangements for the con cert band and orchestra. Even in the high traditions of sacred music, the timpani and the cymbals play important parts.
Many a church member enjoys the complete orchestral sound of contemporary religious music that includes percussion, particularly in recordings where appropriate sound engineering gives proper weight to the vocal lines. But the same music offered live in worship may very well offend. The negative associations that seeing a set of drums often raises--which are intensified if the percussion overpowers the vocal lines--make it difficult for even the most dedicated Christian percussionist to gain acceptance and involvement in worship music. Careful orchestration, sensitive presentation, and the use of electronic percussion, which does away with the look of the regular drum set, can allay much of the offense.
Donald P. Hustad notes: "Admittedly, today's contemporary gospel music is stronger rhythmically than that of Charles H. Gabriel in the 1920s, which in turn was stronger than that of P. P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey in the 1870s. But at what point do we say, thus far we will go and no further? All music is rhythmic, and even Calvin's psalm tunes were called 'Geneva Jiggs.'"*
The important thing for worship music leaders, musicians, and congregations to remember is that no instrument, of itself, is holy or unholy. So an approach to instrumental music that values inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, worship rather than performance, and consensus rather than mere dogmatism, will in the end be the most rewarding for musicians and congregations.
*Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate! Church Music in the
Evangelical Tradition (Carol Stream, 111.: Hope Pub.
Co., 1981), p. 330. Hustad states that in his opinion
there are few forms of music that are incapable of any
valid religious expression. This is not to say that all
forms ought to be used in every congregation regard
less of context and individual preferences.
Hustad, one of today's well-informed, serious
musicians, also protests at the argument often made
in conservative Christian circles that particular kinds
of music contribute to drug addiction and illicit sex.
He quotes Richard D. Mountford, who. having
carefully examined the above notion, concludes,
''The music could have [this] effect only if the person
desired to let it affect him" (ibid.).