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Reformed Worship Article – Drumming to the Heartbeat of God

June 1, 2015

By Eric Nykamp


The sixty people gathered for worship had been drumming together for nearly forty minutes, occasionally enlivening the rhythm with songs, shouts, or movements cued by the worship facilitator. At times people offered their own prayers to God over the sound of the drumming, or spontaneously danced, or sang a song that percolated out of their hearts. As the facilitator moved to the center of the circle, signaling to bring the drumming down, the room became quieter until eventually the drumming faded to nothing. The circle of drummers basked in the silence, aware of their connection to each other and to God. It was a holy moment.

While some Christians who traditionally worship to the sound of an organ, piano, or guitar may at first find the pulsing patter of dozens of hand drums “foreign” or “exotic,” others find these same sounds culturally affirming and deeply worshipful. But Robin Harris argues that “all people should have the opportunity to worship God in their own heart languages and music” (Worship Leader, Nov/Dec 2009). That’s true for Christians in Western as well as non-Western contexts. We too may have an undiscovered or long-neglected “heart language” that could be rekindled through drumming as a way to creatively connect to our Creator.

Worshiping with a drum set is no longer seen as out of place in worship traditions influenced by urban gospel or contemporary Christian rock music. However, traditional hand drums such as the djembe, which carry stronger ethnic associations, are only recently appearing in Western Christian worship, though these instruments have been used in non-Western Christian contexts for a long time. I have been worshiping with traditional hand drums in my church for many years. Drum circle worship, I’ve discovered, makes sense in the context of worship in general and of Reformed worship in particular.dcs3

Drumming is rooted in our earliest biblical worship traditions. The frame drum (Hebrew tof) mentioned seventeen times in Scripture is commonly mistranslated as “tambourine” or “timbrel.” The jingly instrument we know as a tambourine today did not come into existence until the Roman period, according to archaeologists and biblical scholars. The instrument referred to in the Old Testament is a large frame drum, about twelve to twenty-two inches across its face. It was most often played by women in both secular and religious contexts (see sidebar). Hebrew women, such as Miriam (see Ex. 15:20-21) appropriated this same drum in the worship of Yahweh, continuing to do so at least until the period of Babylonian captivity, and possibly beyond. The sound of drumming, in combination with the blowing of hollow rams’ horns (shofar), cymbals, and dancing were among the earliest ways our spiritual ancestors worshiped God. So the sound of drumming reminds us of our roots as Christians.

Drumming connects us with Christians around the world. Hearing the sounds of instruments from around the globe, playing them with our hands, and seeing the carving and craftsmanship all are ways in which we identify with, and are reminded of, being part of the worldwide body of Christ. Using these instruments in worship reminds us that we do not worship a God associated with one ethnic group or tradition but the One who loves people of every tribe and nation. Drums symbolically “stand in the place” of our brothers and sisters from other lands, reminding us that we are all united by faith in our one shared-in-common God.

Drumming is an accessible way for congregations to participate more fully in worship. In many Western worship traditions, congregational participation is limited to verbal expression, which often relies on the ability to read. That makes worshiping difficult for small children (who are pre-literate), those unfamiliar with the language of the host congregation (immigrants, non-native language speakers, or those who are illiterate), and those who have visual impairments (the elderly or those who have visual difficulties). It not only restricts participation in worship, generally speaking, to the healthy and the well-educated, but it limits the range of human expressions in worship, which is affirmed and encouraged in Western worship.

Congregational drumming also invites intergenerational participation in worship in a way that is particularly helpful for people who worship best through musical and/or kinesthetic styles. Drumming requires minimal training, and while experience allows a greater range of sounds and rhythms to be played, most people can play a drum in a way that sounds good without any previous experience, allowing both children and the elderly to worship with expression and joy.

Drumming affirms our “bodyliness.” The hallmark of the Reformation was the idea that Christians should be able to read the Bible for themselves and pray to God on their own behalf. This democratization of faith and religious tradition resulted in a return to studying Scripture. To this day, many Christians spend a great deal of time reading to deepen their understanding of the Bible. This heavy emphasis on words may have the unfortunate effect of implying the Gnostic idea that our intellect (maybe even just our left brains!) is what God really loves.

Yet if we believe that God calls Christians to transform culture and our world as a sign of our gratitude to God for redeeming us, by necessity we must do so with our bodies and with action. The sound waves of the drum pulsating against our skin invite us to respond with our bodies by moving our feet, bobbing our heads, swaying our limbs, and spinning our bodies. The word “hallelujah” itself (Hebrew hallel) describes the spinning dance of praise, affirming these God-inspired bodily responses to sound. This is not a response of the intellect; rather, it is a response of the body to truth encapsulated in sound! In some cultures, if you can’t dance in response to what you believe, it is a sign that the belief has not yet penetrated the heart. Worshipers in the Reformed tradition need to relearn not only how to walk and talk with God but also how to drum and dance with God!

Drum Circle Video

See a slideshow of a drum circle in action duringa worship service here.

Read more here;

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