Planning for a Church Organ:  Blending the Best of Old and New       

By Rodney L. Barbour


If you are considering purchase of an organ for your congregation, you are among those who realize that the organ has been and continues to be an excellent choice for the accompaniment of worship. Today's organ (pipe, digital or pipe-combination) contains controls and features beyond your "grandparent's church organ" which move the instrument into a new realm of support of congregation, choir, orchestra, band or soloist. Consistent with the mission of Christian Sound & Song, to be a forum for helpful information, these guidelines are not suggested to be the only valid approach. But they do constitute one the author has known to be successful.


Getting Started

Before scheduling a "test-drive" with the organ sales agency, organize a meeting of the worship leadership team to discuss music ministry goals and ways an organ would be supportive of these goals.  Topics might include: 1) a review of the music ministry mission statement (or developing one), 2) needs (remodeled space, equipment, recruitment of personnel), 3) dreams (new ministry groups, increased participation in worship, additional worship styles), and 4) plans (specific steps to connect the gaps among the dreams, musicians, space and equipment).


The discussion centered on developing a vital mission statement will have benefits beyond the organ purchase. It will help you clarify your worship practices and provide a framework for all music groups, activities and resources for music ministry. It is also a perfect opportunity to revisit your overall church mission, and ensure that your musical mission is fully in compliance. Seldom is good and timely communication on these essential issues not worthwhile. Assessing your needs will determine allocation of resources for improved space, available funds for particular equipment and the hiring and training of persons to use the equipment. Be sure to dream beyond the current and obvious. What could be accomplished if there were no barriers, no pre-conceived limitations or expectations? What new and different worship practices or styles would bring added life and vitality into the worshiping community?  What plans need to be developed and implemented to bring those hopes into reality?


Questions to Stimulate Thought

Here are several questions and possible responses directly related to the organ which may assist your committee in developing dialogue which produces plans.


1) How is your current instrument being used? (to accompany traditional hymns, playing service music, accompanying the choir and soloists).  Be sure to think beyond the sound and "service" of your current instrument. Older pipe organs could have tonal schemes which are not in touch with modern worship practices. The technology of 20-30 year old electronic or analog organs is no comparison to today's dynamic digital sound. Yesterday's organs played preludes, offertories, postludes and accompanied choirs and did so in place of other instrumentalists. You may want to visit other worship centers to expand your vision beyond what you currently experience in worship or have imagined possible. Those who use computers in their lives and work are experienced in this. Every technology – musical and otherwise – is characterized by what might be called a “useful functional lifespan.”


2) How could a new instrument expand the music program? (accompany traditional, blended and contemporary worship; support the orchestra and the praise band; accompany the traditional as well as the contemporary; offer exciting musical sounds which all age groups will enjoy; support solo concerts and ensemble performances; support rehearsal and learning opportunities). Today's digital, pipe or combination organ is equally at home with whatever style of music is being performed. It supports the many types of congregational song found in today's hymnals or projected using slides and videos with both pipe and orchestral sounds.  With features such as MIDI control and bass and melody couplers, both volunteer and professional musicians will feel comfortable playing today's organ. Experienced organists and pianists will easily adapt to familiar playing techniques while keyboardists from the youth group and praise band will appreciate added control for quick sound changes. The congregation will immediately appreciate the new and authentic sounds which bring excitement to worship! When it comes to successful repertoire planning, variety – even in a traditional worship environment – seems to be a big factor. Today’s MIDI-enhanced digital or combination organs provide a significant new dimension of instrumental and accompaniment variety.


3)  What resources are important to our church in a new organ? (tonal resources including pipes, digital voices, MIDI Technology; physical resources such as room space, placement of pipes/speakers,  room characteristics, human resources)  Churches with existing pipe instruments can easily add digital consoles and digital sounds to maintain the pipe heritage while updating to today's musical standards. Digital voices and speaker systems offer great sound in even the most difficult spaces. New MIDI Technology offers realistic control of the nuances of Orchestral Musical Performance. These instruments are exciting to play and offer resources for musical growth and enjoyment for all who enjoy making music.


4)  What specific organ features are important to our church? (MIDI, alternate voices, memories, user-friendly features) In today's church music, the ability of the organ to be supportive of any musical group or style is essential. MIDI allows the organ to control both organ and orchestral sounds. The best MIDI system allows the musician to control musical expression and other musical issues in REAL-TIME performance.  Important features include: two MIDI Couplers per keyboard for realistic orchestrations; velocity (speed of attack) control  using "fixed numbers", velocity keyboards or expression pedal; the ability to set and adjust octave transposition, chorusing, reverberation, sustain, panning on individual MIDI couplers; and the ability to easily select, set and store MIDI performance parameters to a "piston" memory system for gratifying real-time performance. GM/GS Standard will offer selection of MIDI sounds, so orchestrations will have the correct instrumentation in a performance.  Additional Voices are found on most digital organs to address the various organ schools of performance. The most flexible system is to have an alternate voice (Principal or Diapason) on an individual stop basis rather than having to change a complete division. Multiple Memories allow a number of organists to perform using the same instrument – each using their own stop settings). It's most handy to have quick access to these memory levels from the keydesk rather than having to scroll to these in a drawer.  Memory Cards allow each organist to store their personal memory settings to a card that may be removed from the organ for safety, security and ease of performance. 


More Resources

Wonderful resources for planning an organ purchase are the websites of various organ companies. You can download information including company information and even specific model information and specifications of each instrument. This information may be helpful as you continue your dialogue and study before meeting with any particular company. In addition, your worship group may wish to speak with a consultant or organist who has a vision for the organ in current and future worship practice to interpret your group's dreams and questions.


Listening and Asking

Finally, it's time to schedule visits to several worship spaces to hear representations of the instruments you choose to hear. You should provide the person playing the demonstration with a "program" of sounds/hymns/worship songs your music group wants to hear – a result of the criteria developed in the planning meeting. Sound is what is now important. Do you like what you hear? Ask for details about the installation.  Are the pipes/speakers placed carefully with other musical resources (choir, piano, orchestra) and in the same room as the other performers (no chambers in adjacent rooms speaking through tiny openings)? Can the instrument be adjusted on a note-by-note basis for proper sound in the space? Don't be distracted by "sales talk." An issue such as lighted drawknobs or moving drawknobs is important to some, but it's really only an issue of preference. Some prefer the traditional movement because "that's the way it's supposed to be." Many companies including pipe builders have moved to a lighted system with advantages being silent operation, superior visual recognition and better long-term service-life. Purchase whichever style you desire! As to "numbers,” there are different technologies available (i.e., fixed sampling rates versus variable sampling rates.) Naturally, each company would like you to think their technology is best. Just because a company has the highest sampling rate, or the largest (whatever) number, does not mean this is the best sounding instrument or the best suited for your situation. Ultimately, your ears will be your best help in sorting through the various possibilities.


Budgetary Realities

Different churches will approach this issue in different ways. The committee charged with this project will probably begin with a general frame of financial reference. It cannot be said, though, that price is no object – even in a good-sized congregation. In some scenarios, it’s been fruitful to assemble a preliminary range of price points (approximate) and associated instrument models from several makers which are available at those points. As your group’s evaluation of quality, sound and flexibility progresses, you will likely develop a feel for why certain features and capabilities cost what they do.


Unless you are blessed with a particular “angel” who has given you carte blanche, you may be able to return to your congregation with a special appeal for necessary support. An organ is a resource that lasts, so don’t underestimate the potential help which might be forthcoming from a few able and motivated donors. Therefore, don’t let price alone dictate your initial considerations of features and quality.


Final Thoughts

Once the decision is made and the organ is installed, schedule training sessions for the musicians using the instrument.  Plan reasonable/ attainable goals for gradual integration of the new sounds into worship services. Schedule a worship concert featuring the new instrument. Plan short programs for special interest groups of the church, i.e. youth, children's department, seniors group for up-close and personal opportunities to hear and even play the new instrument. And finally, enjoy the sound! "… let the pealing organ blow, to the full-voiced choir below, in service high, and anthems clear, as may with sweetness, through mine ear, dissolve me into ecstasies, and bring all heaven before mine eyes!”  (John Milton)


Rodney L. Barbour, M.M., University of Cincinnati, is a nationally recognized organist and musician. He directs the adult choir at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Cincinnati. He is also a product specialist for Rodgers Instruments. He can be contacted at:


© 2004 Christian Sound & Song. All rights reserved. Churches are encouraged to reproduce for use in their ministries. For any other use, permission must be obtained from the publisher.