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Drumming in Intergenerational Worship

This article explores drumming as it relates to multicultural worship, special needs members, gender equality, and socio-economic equality.

This article was written by Asher Mains, a student at Calvin College.

Michael Hawn notes in his book One Bread, One Body that just as one culture can be dominated by another culture, one generation can dominate worship over other generations. It is important that both children and elderly are included in the worship experience for the edification of the church and to the glory of God. In many mainline protestant churches, there is little for children to do in the "big service" beyond possibly being an acolyte or a children's choir or occasional plays. In my experience children are willing and able to participate in worship.

At my home church in Grenada, I had started the drumming in my church, 'reforming' it from its usual position outside the church. Colonialism was very successful in Grenada and drumming is something that is still being reformed from being from "deep dark Africa". After drumming in church with two to three other peers (all teenagers), I left to go to school in the states. Upon visiting my church two years later, I was please to find that the tradition of playing drums in church has been continued by two young teenagers, ages 13 and 14, as well as a very able six year old. They played traditional drums along with the choruses and were very glad to be a part of the service. They also felt a new sense of responsibility of being at church because they had a role to play. It is important to remember in this context that while these are Grenadian young people drumming to choruses in Grenada, their own tradition in drumming was not deep-seated yet were able to pick it up relatively quickly.

In the United States setting, I think there is a place for this type of exercise to take place, letting a young person or more play percussion for perhaps one or two songs during the service. This may take coordination and practice but I think it is possible and it would instill in the child's mind at a young age that there is something for them to do at church. Having a drum ensemble is another way of participation using young people. When several people do fairly simple rhythms it meshes to sound very complex - if this drum playing undertones the reading of scripture or recitation of a creed or accents the giving of offering, it can provide a refreshing soundscape to an aspect of the service that may have lost its intensity due to repetition.

I've started by speaking of young persons in intergenerational worship because I think that the most to gain is in them as well as being the easiest to learn. There is a place for the elderly as well. Many elderly people are energized by the sound of drumming. In the United States it is a sound that isn't often heard and yet many times it is a welcome sound. I recall an elderly woman commenting on a drum performance, "I like the noise". Something as simple as shaking a shaker or tapping a bell can bring new energy into the participant's and congregation's worship. I have seen an old man with arthritis that can't help but start to dance as if there's nothing wrong with him once the drums start to play. Imagine the scene of children, teenagers and adults participating in worship together on a level where everyone feels represented.

Drumming in Multicultural Worship

Hawn states cultural inclusion as, "[it] embodies the diversity of God's creation as reflected in the humanity around us." Drumming and percussion in worship has such global implications it would be a shame not to use it to its fullest in terms of multicultural worship. From the syncopated sounds of Latin rhythms to the driving rhythms of African drumming, even to the simple beat of Celtic music and the complicated Indian drums, we live in a world that knows rhythm. Rhythms can transcend language barriers and communicate in ways that words cannot. It would be to our advantage as worshippers to harness this resource that we see in secular world culture and adapt it and bring it into the church, not only to attract a diverse congregation but to communicate to the congregation the universality of the church and the diversity of humanity. By singing world songs where percussion can be included you are sending non-verbal messages to the congregation saying that, "We are interested in you and where you are from and we want to participate with you in this."

Even if you don't have an ethnically diverse congregation and you're trying to get out of Culturally Uniform worship, there is a place for this type of convention. Because rhythm is so transcendent of ethnicity and culture, because it has such a deep connection to ourselves - in the rhythm of our breath and of our heart beat and our walk and our talk - rhythms are not property of one ethnic group and not another. A predominately Anglo congregation does not need to feel sheepish about using rhythm instruments because 'we are not African' but should be able to embrace it for what it is and use it to its fullest potential.

Drumming in Relation to Special Needs Members

This is one of the most exciting avenues for this convention in worship. Hawn did not address special needs to much extent in One Bread, One Body; and there is another cultural element for which he did not account: deaf culture. It really is an entirely different culture and not just a medical condition as some may think. At my home in Grenada I am friends with a man who teaches at a school for the deaf and who also directs their drumming and dancing program. Rhythms aren't just heard, they are felt. It is an amazing thing to see an ensemble of 8 deaf people drumming perfectly in-sync with each other. In turn, deaf dancers who can feel the rhythms through the floor and in the air dance while referencing the drummer's hands. Deaf people in mainline protestant churches can contribute to the service in more ways than signing a special; I see this as a refreshing outlet for people in this position. The application can go on for other special needs, the drum is easy for a blind person to learn because while it can make very different sounds depending on how you hit it, the instrument is all in one place and doesn't require visual reference. I've heard of people with autism playing percussion - what a wonderful thing if we could focus all these different situations into a place where they can participate in worship without feeling marginalized.

Gender Equality and Socio-Economic Issues in Worship

Again to re-iterate, drumming and other percussion is a very simple instrument with a lot of potential. One of the great things that can be tapped into in looking at this aspect of worship is that when your eyes are closed, you can't tell if the person playing is rich or poor, male or female or what ethnicity they are. This seems to echo the principle of Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ."

A beautiful thing about using this type of worship is that it can be done in a form of outreach. I did a drumming workshop for a church on the edge of the city and the suburbs. It was a predominantly white CRC church but for this community drumming event, many people came from the immediate area and the church was able to be a blessing to many in the area that were ethnically and culturally different than they were. Rhythm is something so simple that you don't need music appreciation classes in order to enjoy it. Practically anyone representing any group, young, old, differently abled, male, female, different ethnicities, can either participate in this avenue or be blessed by it in some way.

Integrating Drumming and Worship

Now that we have seen who is able to participate in or be blessed by a worship medium such as this, I want to look at how drumming can be used in a worship setting. While any number of any kinds of people may be involved, it would take a strong leader to prevent the sound from becoming a cacophony. Hawn describes the role of an Enlivener and I'd like to supplement his description by adding percussion instruments. In teaching a new song, Hawn discouraged the use of the organ because it is too complex and overpowering to be used in teaching a new song. A simple rhythm can be used along with a voice to teach a new song without over-complicating things. Another role for this position to play is if there are small percussion instruments distributed among the congregation, the enlivener can keep things in check with a steady beat. The easiest songs to do with drums and percussion are cyclical structured songs that are memorized songs that are easy to sing to while playing an instrument or clapping hands or moving your body. Sequential structure songs can be done with percussion but I would suggest limiting the involvement to the designated instrumentalists. Partly because many times in sequential songs you have to refer constantly to the words and music and are not as free to move or play an instrument. The range of feeling that can be attained through cyclical structure songs with drumming is great. From a bass driven "Kyrie Eleison" to an energetic, involved "Siyahamba" the role of instrumentation can be discerned and interpreted to fit the context.

One of my passions with drumming and worship is the way it can be used with scripture. Playing along with the reading of scripture gives new meaning to some text and for many people simply provides a fresh way of hearing something they've heard before. Interpreting the reading with the drum takes a little more skill and practice but can be very effective if done right. Some basic rules can be followed like if the reading is happy the rhythm can be light and quick or if commanding, driving with a lot of bass. If the reading contains more than one voice, the drum can imitate two different people with the tones or if the reading is sad the drum can follow with a doleful bass. Accents can be used to accentuate a point as well as silences. For me, one of the most moving things for me personally interpreting scripture into drumming is a sudden silence at the end of Genesis 3:6 after playing an almost dubious rhythm. "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." When the rhythm stops abruptly at the end of the verse it feels like a gasp - like at that point it was all over. The next verse read in silence further accents the point, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." This is just one example of how drumming and scripture can be used.

Some Concerns of Drumming in Worship

To clarify, I am not saying that these conventions of worship should be used all the time in every worship service. Some of these things would be nice especially on World Communion Sunday or other universal church awareness days. Some churches may enjoy the use of drums in one way or another and want it every week while others don't. Here are some concerns that I would like to point out in terms of drums in worship. One of the questions Hawn asks when talking about cross-cultural worship is: "Do aspects of worship exclude some or fail to promote a transformation of those gathered into the body of Christ?" This is an important question in terms of introducing a new convention such as this. Will people be offended by this? Do we need to talk about this more as a congregation before trying it out? Can some of these things be used in a youth service or contemporary service more easily than a traditional service? Are we excluding anyone or making worship distracting by this? These questions will have different answers depending on the context but I think they need attention. Hawn points out, "A culturally conscious congregation finds a place for all at the table and values the perspective of each person." We have to be careful that we don't alienate the congregation in our attempt to be inclusive. A thought in terms of introducing drumming as a group worship option is having it start as a youth group activity or even an activity for outreach into the community. As outreach it could be advertised that once a week at the church will be jamming where whoever can come and play on some drums and in the process welcome people to the Sunday morning service and be a blessing to them. As a youth group activity it can be fun and educational as well as a worshipful experience. Many popular contemporary songs sung in youth group settings can be done with drumming, and the informative part can range from missions, to global worship. After there has been some establishment within the church with this new medium for worship it can be discussed as a congregation or as a worship planning committee whether it would be appropriate to use during the liturgy.

Quoting Hawn, "Society in the United States is not culturally monolithic, and ... the church must search for more ways to promote growth other than through cultural uniformity." I think he is really onto something and we should be searching for ways we can worship that enhances our cultural consciousness and awareness of the universal church. What I have suggested is I believe just one way that worship can be done to reflect the diversity of humanity and the body of Christ. Echoing Hawn, I hope that if this is taken to heart it can promote the notion of "one body" sharing "one bread"