Today is going to be one of those posts that might make some uncomfortable. I will interested in your feedback for sure and I expect that many will disagree with me. I am just going to call it like I see it.
I want to talk about the future of the piano in church. To do that, I want to talk about current trends that I see and also give some general observations from a lot of years in church music.
To provide a bit of foundation, remember that the church has been around for 2000 years but for 95% of that time, the piano was either not invented or not welcome. In fact, well into the last century, the piano was considered an instrument for the bars and the organ was God’s preferred instrument for a church.
I say that because I want to emphasize that God does not need pianos nor do churches need pianists. A piano is just an instrument like any other instrument, complete with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Churches that have pianos are not superior to churches that don’t.
From that perspective, I will say this: the future of the piano in church is pretty uncertain if not bleak.
Why do I say that? Here are four reasons and I doubt any of them will surprise you.
The movement toward band-driven worship.
While 50 years ago, churches usually were organ/piano driven with as much of an orchestra as they could scrape together, today’s typical church depends on drums, guitars and lead vocals. I am not going to comment much on that except to say it is not what I prefer. (I will readily admit that is a preference.)
In a band-driven church music program, the piano is marginalized or eliminated completely. In many cases, it is kicked to the curb as the organ was a few decades ago and sometimes, it is replaced with a keyboard either playing simple rhythm or string reductions. I have been to numerous churches like that, and it is rare that I ever hear the keyboard/piano. It is mixed down if not eliminated completely out of the mix.
Traditionalist influence is waning
It is true that there are still probably tens of thousands of churches around where the music is still piano/organ oriented. However, to be very blunt, the vast majority of those churches are dying, losing their people steadily to churches that are considered more exciting, Biblical, hip, or whatever. The demographic in those more traditional churches is elderly and while they have managed to hold onto their traditions, the next generation needed to keep the church running has left the building.
Now, many of you might say you know of this or that church that is thriving and growing and still has orchestral-driven rather than band-driven music. You are right. There are a few. However, the truth is they are rare anomalies. In my metropolis (Atlanta), I can name them on one hand. In a typical less populated area, you would be very fortunate to find one.
In an environment where most churches are hurting financially, acoustic pianos are enormously expensive and they are very expensive to maintain. On top of that, they have sometimes astronomical hidden costs. For example, while a church building might only get used a few hours a week, it is impossible to keep a piano in decent shape unless the room is always conditioned (humidity and temperature). Think about how much a large church would spend in a year just conditioning that piano. It is no wonder that many churches have decided to use keyboards rather than pianos.
Even ten years ago, getting a great sound out of a keyboard was practically impossible. That is not the case anymore. Churches are starting to figure out they can send a MIDI feed out of a cheap keyboard into a workstation using cutting edge samples (piano or any other instrument) and then into the sound system. All of a sudden, there are lots of options on the table.
By the way, the secular world is not exempt from the technology advances either. Piano dealers are really sweating these days. The piano brands I grew up with such as Baldwin have got out of business left and right. Even premium brands like Steinway that may have seemed untouchable a decade ago are struggling.
We don’t have to like it but the writing is on the wall. There are forces working against the piano in church and I think we will continue to see its decline. On top of what I have written here, I think there are other challenges too that I am going to discuss soon in another post.
What do you think? Do you agree that the piano has probably already seen its peak in a church setting?