“What’s that you’re playing?” It’s a common question asked of many of my church’s music volunteers who have recently learned to play the Harmonium. The Harmonium is a keyboard instrument in the aerophone family which uses air traveling past different sized (tuned) metal reeds to create sounds; think pump organ or accordion. It became popular in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries because it was cheaper than a pipe organ and was easier to transport for missionaries heading east. In fact, many Harmoniums today are made in a case with a lid and handle—just take the top off your suitcase and there sits an organ!
Over the past century the Harmonium has seemed to find its home in India, even after a period of nationalistic resistance to Western culture. It has become a frequently used instrument in many Indian ensembles. So, why have over 15 people at my midsized church in the Midwest learned this instrument? There are many reasons, some weighted differently than others depending on the type of instrument you might choose to incorporate into your church. For the sake of illustration, I’ll continue to use the harmonium as an example.
- INCLUDING MORE PEOPLE: The Harmonium fills a lot of the empty space similar to the function of a keyboard or synthesizer but with a rather unique acoustic texture. It only uses one hand (since one hand is used to pump air into the instrument) and you could successfully play it by just droning the tonic the entire song and maybe throwing in some partial chords here and there. All that to say, it’s an easy instrument to start on with a lot of possibilities. There are people learning to play it that aren’t ready to lead any sort of rhythm from a piano, some who are competent in piano that we want to include on a week that someone else is already playing piano and then others who play it because it’s just a really fun instrument to play. Therefore, the Harmonium’s unique sound has been added to our “norm” as well as the many volunteers (youth to senior adults) who can now play it.
- EMBRACING THE KINGDOM: Diversity in music can be a beautiful thing; however, if after reading this you throw away all your instruments and resort to just Tuvan throat singing on Sunday morning, you may have misunderstood me. The Kingdom of God includes more than our “normal” but that doesn’t mean you have to carry a weight of owning every culture that exists. Instead, small strides, like including a “different” instrument than your congregation is accustomed to in your worship time, help congregations lean into contexts outside of their own. It reminds them that they are part of something greater, something bigger than themselves.
- CREATING A MUSIC CULTURE: When you take a popular song from Hillsong or Elevation Worship or you open your hymnbook to some good oldie and you use a Harmonium, people react (and I don’t mean react by burning the instrument because the song no longer sounded like the radio version). When you do songs with different instruments, you begin to form your very own music culture and people feel belonging and value when they get to be a part of something unique. No one else does music like your church—literally no one—when you’ve made it distinct by the instruments you include. But the uniqueness of your music is not a ploy to grow your church, instead it is a ripening—a blossom of a church discovering their distinguishable identity within the context they have been called to.
When it comes to music we use in worship, contemporary culture oftentimes prescribes the songs we should use, the type of people we should use, and the style we should use. Expanding the types of instruments we use can be a means of freeing us. Worship is not prescribed by contemporary culture, but our culture should be prescribed by our worship. As worship leaders we are called to tell the story of God and facilitate a response to that story, involving as many people as we can from our local churches while leaning into the beautiful diversity of the global Church. When we include different instruments, we’re teaching our congregations that worship is more than a musical style and that it is a place for belonging—belonging to the story of God. Age, race, gender, and cultural—it all has value, so value it on your platform! Diversifying your instrumentation is a great place to start.