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Drumming in Worship: Experiencing God's heartbeat

What is it about percussion that appeals to worshipers in so many cultures? How does drumming together help Christians build community?

John Meulendyk, pastoral lay assistant at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, could plainly see the problems facing Ferndale, Michigan. Like many inner-ring suburbs of Detroit, Ferndale is losing people, jobs, and income. Meulendyk gathered five women at his church to pray and discern how to address these changes.

"We wanted to do a worship renewal project that would be ecumenical, something to unite the congregations in our community. We sat in prayer. We thought about this question: If we put aside all the theology, what unites us?

"It's our heart beat. We all have that in common. And 90 percent of cultures have a drum beat," says Meulendyk, who has degrees in divinity, pastoral ministry, osteopathic medicine, public health administration, and dental surgery.

So Zion invited local congregations to join them for a worship drumming project. Its results continue to resound in worship services and new relationships.

The hospitable sound of joy

Many cultures use percussion in worship. Thirty years ago, when Meulendyk was a missionary dentist in Guatemala, he noticed that using hand drums and marimbas helped missionaries spread the gospel and connect with Quiché Indians.

"African-Americans are the strongest influx of new people into Ferndale. The churches of Ferndale want to witness Christ's love to all people during this transition, so we wanted to introduce African elements into the historical order of our liturgy," Meulendyk says.

Zion's free Sunday afternoon classes in African drumming and dancing drew people from seven congregations plus several people who did not attend church. Parents brought their children. Grandparents came with grandkids.

Every other week, students learned from professionals Mark Stone, an ethnomusicologist and college percussion instructor, and Kofi Ameyaw, a professional xylophonist and hand drummer from Ghana who has toured the world with the Pan African Orchestra. On alternate weeks, Zion members-children's choir director Ceil Mac-Smith and bell choir director Megan Higle-helped reinforce the lessons.

Young and old, black and white, richer and poorer, Baptist and Episcopal, people fell under the spell of recreating rhythms from a Catholic liturgy in Ghana. Not that it was easy to learn the multi-layered patterns of metal gankoqui bells, gourd rattles, djun djuns (double-sided drums), and djembes (single-headed, goblet-shaped drums). "The big struggle is to hold on to your rhythm when everyone else is doing a different one," Meulendyk said.

The ten-week fall session culminated in an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service that used 30 drummers and packed Zion's sanctuary.

"I'm a person who finds comfort in the traditional liturgy and words. But when you add children, African-American tunes, African tunes, rhythm, and percussion, it moves you deep down. The sound just washes over you and inside," Ceil Mac-Smith said.

One pastor told Meulendyk that the Thanksgiving Eve service was healing, because it "drummed out" racial, economic, denominational, and other differences.

Discovering new gifts

At one of Zion's ten-week spring dance classes, Megan Higle said, "People are seeing new gifts in each other, like, 'Hey! He's got rhythm!' And they think, 'Hmm. I wonder what gifts I have.' My mom said, 'I'm the whitest woman there is. I never thought I had rhythm. But now that we've learned drumming, I think it would be fun to learn how to dance, too.' "

Mac-Smith's teenage sons, Greg, 15, and Gordon, 17, helped set the drum beat for the dancers. "Our church owned a djembe before, so I've played it in church. This class has taught me how to do it authentically. It's a nice feeling to have all these people drumming together," Gordon Smith said. He plays cello in his high school orchestra and plays trombone and percussion in band.

People from ages 7 to 72 were practicing their moves-with obvious differences in rhythm, energy, flexibility, center of gravity, and skill.

"Dancing and drumming are kind of the same, because with both things you have to listen to the beat," explained incredibly energetic Andrew Lawrence, 9.

One middle-aged woman cheerfully admitted, "I dance bovinely."

Higle reminded dancers that they didn't have to be perfect. Her goal was to take things slowly, so people would develop relationships and get comfortable with their bodies. "Remember, we dance to engage the congregation in prayer. We're here to have fun and praise God with our whole bodies in worship. If it's too much work or too stressful, then maybe this isn't your gift," she said.

The spring drumming and dancing classes led to an ecumenical Festival of the Spirit revival in a local park. People enjoyed face painting; contests; jazz, blues, gospel, and praise music; a picnic; and a worship service, including a baptism.

"We built such a sense of community learning to drum and dance. Kofi Ameyaw and his wife were overjoyed to learn they could have their daughter baptized outdoors, with African drumming and dancing, as it's done in Ghana. The baptism in the park was also a good way to reach out to people who are unchurched," Mac-Smith says.

One body, each part important

She still sees people who she drummed with or met at the ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service and interfaith festival.

Mac-Smith, who also teaches music in public and private schools, refers to composers and children's music educators Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly to explain how drumming helps people worship differently. "Both talked about how primitive or folk music is a key to unleashing your musicality. It frees you to get past rules and roles and really participate," she said.

Drumming in worship has also given her new insight into cooperating as members of one body. "To be a solo drummer is more flashy, but if you don't have the other parts, the whole thing will not be as good. When you're drumming, you may have a little bitty part, but you have to pay attention, because it matters that you get your part right," she explains.

Greg Scheer offers two ways that drumming helps Christian break down barriers. He joined Pitt African Drumming Ensemble while earning his master's in composition and started applying what he'd learned to worship.

"Inherent in much of the music of Africa are the cultural values of community, a cyclic understanding of time, and a connectedness to the earth. When a Western congregation uses African drumming and worship music, I think it helps us take on those values-even if only momentarily. The more we do that, the more we're able to love God and others beyond the confines of our own culture.

"Also, the line between musician/leader and congregation is blurred in African culture. In songs accompanied by hand drum, we all play a significant role in music making and worship, regardless of which side of the drum we're on," Scheer says.

Many ways to fit into worship

Meulendyk says that spontaneity is a value in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so it was easy to identify about 20 ways to fit drumming into or between liturgical elements. For example, drumming can accompany hymns and Bible readings. It can also be used in a song added between the congregational prayer and communion or between the final prayer and blessing.

Five Zion members who attended "Heartbeat of the Drum" continue to play during worship. Before a recent baptism, the pastor asked people to bring in jars, bottles, and vessels from garage sales. "He talked about how some of us feel old, broken, beat up-like bargain bin goods; yet, God sees our worth," Mac-Smith says.

Everyone who wanted to was invited to bring some water in their vessel and pour it into a huge saucer used for a baptismal font. The drummers drummed while each group walked up to pour in their water. So many people came forward that the font overflowed.

Ben Allaway, music director and composer in residence at First Christian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, learned about drumming's worship potential while working on a commissioned choir piece in East Africa. "In Kenya and Tanzania, nearly everyone was in a choir. They all used percussion. People make shakers of bottle caps on coat hangers. Seeing how making music together strengthens a community, hearing it every night.changed my life," Allaway says.

At First Christian Church, little kids hand around baskets of instruments, including homemade noisemakers, such as dry beans in a Hershey's Cocoa can. "There's an elderly man who loves the tambourine. He has no rhythm at all.but, oh well," Allaway says.

Percussion can help people pay closer attention during scripture readings. That's why conga drums punctuated this reading of Isaiah 60 during a worship service at the 2004 Calvin Symposium on Worship.  

Allaway likes using body percussion to improvise with scripture. For the Ezekiel 37 passage on how the Lord will restore the valley of the dry bones, he asked people to do an earthquake with their feet. They hissed-sssssss-for the words "hot" and "dry." They said "cluck cluck" for rain. And they used car keys or shakers when Allaway, the scripture reader, said "bones."

Greg Scheer uses hand percussion fairly often in college chapel services and worship at Trinity Reformed Church. He says it's easy to ask a congregation to sing a capella and then "add a little rhythmic vitality and distinctive flavor" such as a djembe with African songs, finger cymbals on Asian songs, or a doumbek on Middle Eastern songs.

Of course, learning from, appreciating, and using other cultures' percussion patterns in worship isn't a quick-fix solution to make your congregation reflect the Revelation vision of every nation, tribe, people, and language.

Meulendyk says that introducing drumming and dancing is part of a long-term plan to include liturgical elements that Zion members feel comfortable with and that visitors can connect with.

"African-American people visit occasionally. We wonder if we're still too white for them to feel at home. But maybe in three to five years, if a visitor says, 'I really connected with those drumming songs,' then people in our congregation will say, 'Oh, yeah, we've been doing that forever,' " he says.

Learn More

Hear how St. Francis Episcopal Church in College Station, Texas, uses hand drums in worship services. The Hispanic congregation at Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in Springfield, Massachusetts, uses bongos, tambourines, and other Latino instruments in worship. Attend a workshop on hand drumming in worship, to be held April 29-30, 2005, in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Iona Community is sponsoring a week-long drum and percussion program, June 4-10, 2005, in Scotland.

This informative online guide to world percussion explains that the frame drum (a handheld drum with a thin skin stretched over a shallow frame) is used in Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, Celtic, Native American, and South American traditional music. Mennonite Central Committee sells relatively inexpensive frame drums, similar to the timbrel described in Psalm 68 (KJV).

The CD Eagles Dancing for the Lord is Christ-centered music with pow-wow style drumming.

Enter the Worship Circle writes worship music that's easy to learn. Much of it, such as "Those Who Trust in the Lord," is designed to be sung accompanied by hand percussion, whether drums, cookie sheets, gourds, or whatever.

The CD Jump for George, by Imaginary Homeland, shows similarities between Appalachian string bass music and West African drums. It may spark your ideas on how to use hand drumming with hymns that grow out of the American folk or bluegrass cultures.

Consider joining a drumming circle. Many offer excellent ways to build friendships with people who are not (yet) Christians. The Psalm Drummers can connect you with networks of Christian percussionists in the U.K., U.S., Caribbean, Europe, and Australia. Students at Calvin College who are interested in learning more about Sankofa, a drumming group that participates in chapel services and also professional events, may contact Asher Mains.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Music Series, published by GIA, includes this traditional Zambian worship song, arranged with percussion, by Ben Allaway. Allaway suggests that to sing or play in solidarity with the people who composed a certain body of music or kind of instrument, it makes sense to learn more about them. Learning about apartheid while watching the movies "A Dry White Season" or "Sarafina" will help you understand music from South Africa.

Sources for drums and hand percussion include Rhythmtrade (U.K.); Mother Rhythm, Elderly Instruments, Like Water Drum Works (U.S.); Irie Tones Music (based in U.S., sells internationally); Alpha Rhythm Roots (Canada); and Ten Thousand Villages stores (U.S. and Canada). Many music teachers recommend synthetic drums made by the manufacturer Remo. Steve Hilstein, who plays drums at New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, CA, offers worship drumming workshops.

Read an interview with Paul Neeley, a missionary who explains how Christians in Ghana use "talking drums" to call people to worship.

Start a Discussion

  • In what ways would it stretch your congregation's comfort zone to use hand percussion or body percussion in worship? What are the pros and cons of trying it?
  • Where in the Bible do you find references to using tambourines, timbrels, cymbals, bells, or drums in worship? Give up? The Psalm Drummers can help.
  • How necessary or important is it to "worship God with your whole body"? Do people in your church feel free to move, free to be still?
  • Who might you ask to get more insight on how and why certain cultures use percussion in Christian worship? What investment of time and money would this learning require?
  • What do you think of Zion Evangelical Lutheran's strategy of adding African-American drumming and dancing elements to their liturgy, even though their congregation is not yet very racially diverse? Which subcultures in your community are not well represented in your church?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help your congregation explore cultures, build relationships, and lead worship through percussion?

    • Have you started a drumming circle or offered drumming classes as a way to reach out to unchurched youth or adults?
    • Did you let church school or youth group kids choose an ethnic musical instrument to study and then use that instrument in a worship service?
    • Have you connected with immigrant or refugee groups in your community who might teach you how they use percussion or dance in worship? Ben Allaway did this by organizing a Lost Boys of Sudan concert.
    • Have you sought out people in your own congregation-immigrants, second-generation citizens, missionaries, international students-to discover what instruments they use in worship? What were the easiest ways for them to share how these musical traditions influence their worship experience.speaking at an adult education class, participating in a service, writing for the church newsletter, meeting with the worship or music committee?