Drums in Worship–Appropriate or Not?

Written by: Robert Cotrill

Drums. Do they have a place in the worship services of the church? Or not? There is certainly a difference of opinion as to whether they are an appropriate accompaniment to congregational singing or music ministry in our services.

Some welcome them enthusiastically. For others they are an unnecessary distraction at best, something to be endured. Still others are appalled at what they see as a worldly intrusion, and reject their use altogether. Herewith, then, some observations. One person’s perspective on the subject.

I know I will leave myself open to howls of protest from some but, for me, drums do not belong in the church. I see them as a sad encroachment of the godless world that is not only unnecessary, but at times even detrimental to godly worship. I’m not speaking of those congregations large enough to have an orchestra, in which percussion instruments provide occasional accents, carefully kept in balance with the other instruments. Rather, this evaluation concerns an almost incessant and intrusive percussion, the almost ubiquitous rhythm section of popular contemporary music, sacred and secular.

Yes, drums appeal to some, and they provide an opportunity for another kind of talent to be put to use. They are also said to promote excitement in singing, but the feeling about the latter is far from unanimous. On balance, there are several factors which at least commend discretion in the matter.

What is the purpose of more strongly accenting certain beats (sometimes monotonously) in the hymns and choruses we sing? Is it necessary? Can’t we keep together without it? Does it add to their beauty? Not for some–not for me. Personally, it rather reminds me of some demented plumber banging endlessly on the drainpipes!

Musically, most times, a focus on the rhythm seems uncalled for. A continuous beat that so often bears little relation to the words does not enhance their message. And its presence tends to give songs a certain sameness and uniformity of style–like putting ketchup on all our food–that hinders an appreciation for the nuances of feeling represented in our sacred music.

They can even seem almost to overpower the voices, particularly in smaller auditoriums. There is a danger of abuse, and this writer has experienced it a number of times. Without great care, the beat can overwhelm the singers. I have been in services where the volume of the drums and amplified guitars was so deafening I could not hear those singing next to me.

This smacks of a return to the Dark Ages, when the joy of fellowship in song was taken from the congregation and replaced with a performance by the “professionals” up front. Lost is the wonderful experience of the harmonious singing of God’s praises, in which we are able to appreciate the contribution of all.

Further–and this is a critical point, it could be argued that a constant drumming–or drumming that seems to compete with the singing–tends to turn a spiritual ministry (through the message of the words) into a more sensual experience (through the rhythm of the music).

“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isa. 1:18). The foundation of spiritual growth is still a thoughtful study of, and meditation on, the Word of God. And music, used properly, is to provide a setting and a frame for the effective communication of that Word, to aid us in “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16).

Are we losing a sense of the distinction between fleshly excitement and spiritual joy? Let the exhilaration of our congregational singing arise primarily from an appreciation of the truth–and of God Himself (Ps. 28:7), and not simply a physiological and psychological response to a beat. The latter may, in fact, distract worshipers from a true worship.

Listen here to a popular choral rendition of the beautiful old hymn Rock of Ages. The text of the hymn is a prayer. But how “prayerful” does this sound to you? And did you notice? We get a repetitious singing of the first couple of lines of the hymn, but we never get to “Be of sin the double cure– / Save me from its guilt and power.”  So, we never get proper teaching as to the reason we need to hide in Christ, by faith. The same truncated treatment is given to a smattering of The Solid Rock.

More than a century ago, Charles Haddon Spurgeon criticized some of the church music of his day with words that still ring true:

Is it not a sin to be tickling men’s ears with sounds when we profess to be adoring the Lord?…Do not men mistake physical effects for spiritual impulses? Do they not often offer to God strains more calculated for human amusement than for divine acceptance?” (from Psalms, by Charles Spurgeon).

Percussion instruments have a long history, and are mentioned in the Word of God (though it is interesting, if not significant, that drums never are). They have been used to mark time, to send a signal, and, in the case of symphonic bands and orchestras, to add accent and emphasis at certain points in a musical work.

Historically, and for many years, drum kits (traps) have been used predominantly in dance bands, and secular rock bands. There they provide a driving beat which stirs a rhythmic response and adds excitement for dancing. That association is difficult to shake off, since it continues to be prominent in the popular music of the day.

Also, drums traditionally have been a vehicle for solo virtuosity and showmanship. I can admire the incredible drum work of Buddy Rich, arguably the greatest drummer of them all. But I wouldn’t want this sort of thing in church. (Just for fun, give a listen, here to a four-and-a-half-minute solo, for most of which Mr. Rich’s sticks are simply a blur. Amazing!) As noted previously, due to their intrusiveness and tendency to dominate, drum sets do tend to draw attention to the individual. In the services of the church, and in congregational singing, this is surely contrary to our purpose, where “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).

Because of this strong association in the minds of some with worldly music and worldly pleasures, there are those who see their inclusion in worship as a step backward. We should not be trying to see how much like the world we can be; we should be demonstrating as clear a distinction from it as possible. For certain individuals, the instruments may even recall their past experiences in the world–a life they are trying to leave behind.

It may be significant that there is not a single reference in the epistles to Christians using instrumental music of any kind. In spite of the fact that various instruments were used in Old Testament temple worship, and in spite of the fact that some are seen again in John’s prophetic vision of God’s throne, in Revelation, the apostolic church apparently avoided the use of instruments–percussion or otherwise.

The likely reason is their close association with worldly entertainment and heathen worship in the first century. I’m not suggesting we do away with all instrumentation in the services of the church–though this can be a refreshing change. However, such associations must be a concern for us as well (cf. I Jn. 2:15-17).

The music of the world intrudes on our lives at every turn, on radio and television, in restaurants and doctor’s offices, in malls and elevators, and even as we walk down the street. Should there not be some haven free from it? Perhaps there ought to be, in the house of God, a music that is distinctly His, and not simply a copy of what the world is doing.

The great hymns of the church, and the more doctrinally solid choruses, fit that criterion. They represent triumphs of faith and devotion over many centuries. In the words of essayist Robert Bridges:

If we consider and ask ourselves what sort of music we should wish to hear on entering a church, we should surely, in describing our ideal, say first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere; that it should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose” (from the Preface to The Hymn Book, 1938).

That our sacred music is “different” is something to celebrate, not complain about. That it is rooted in tradition is a characteristic in itself inseparable from its message. Christianity is anchored to the past. To the cross, first of all, but also to the Reformation and to great times of revival that followed. This fact should at least encourage balance between the old and the new. We ought to rejoice in our spiritual heritage and not be too quick to cast it aside.

Let us “ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jer. 6:16). Before we rush to “keep up with the times,” it is worth considering whether the “times” reflect better the spirit of Christ or of the world. Sometimes music that is called “Christian” is superficial, and even downright unbiblical. We are to be in the world, but not of the world (cf. II Cor. 6:15-17).

The other side of the coin of separation from the world is the unity of believers. Paul’s desire for the Corinthians was, “that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Cor. 1:10). At times, the debate over this issue divides along generational lines. Because of this, the presence of drums tends to attract or repel different segments of the congregation, fostering disunity and distrust. When young people and the older generation should be coming together and learning from each other, it seems counterproductive to create unnecessary division.

Some congregations are prepared to “endure” the drums as a kind of compromise, in hopes of keeping teen-agers in the church. But at what cost? It is demonstrable that, for at least some young people, music with a dominating rhythm is a passion–one would almost say an addiction– that has robbed them of a fuller appreciation of other kinds of music.

We may do these individuals a disservice by accommodating them without careful thought. Further, in my experience, this attempt to keep people interested in church by copying what they enjoy in the world often has had very limited and short-term success.

It is important for leaders in the church to weigh all the factors carefully rather than simply succumbing to pressure from either side in an attempt to keep the peace (cf. Rom. 15:1-2). More is at stake than just a difference in taste. What principles of God’s Word are relevant? What is the value of this addition? Is it appropriate to the situation? Does it help us to meet the needs of all the congregation? A consideration of such questions will encourage balance and temperance in the resolution of the issue.

Bottom line: We are each different as to the music in our lives, and with respect to how it affects us. But communication problems arise if the music accompanying a Christian message is associated in the mind of the hearer with a corrupt and sinful lifestyle (I Cor. 14:8; 15:33). We must not, with our music, encourage or glorify that attachment to the world that God hates (II Cor. 6:17; I Jn. 2:15-17).

Neither drums nor any instrument should intrude a platform “performance” into the fellowship of singing. Better to have no instruments at all than do that! And whatever is used, the volume should never be deafening, or even dominating. It must never prevent worshipers from hearing and blending with voices around them.

Drums Again

From time to time I get comments on the article Drums in Worship. Most often, the messages are supportive, and the reader sees what I’m driving at. But once in awhile I’m strongly criticized, and the writer’s irritation with me crackles through the words. Here’s an example of that from a young woman, and my response.

COMMENT: I decided to stop reading about half way through. I am married to a drummer, and an excellent one at that. He works hard to bring excellence to the gift God has given him. Your “distraction” is his act of worship. I am sure my opinion is biased, but it appears yours is too.

I think it is sad when churches–by churches I mean people…try to box people in to a gift or a talent that fits ‘your’ idea of worship. Worship isn’t your idea, nor should it be. It’s God’s design/idea for Him, not you. [At this point the reader links me to a dictionary definition of the word worship.]

It’s [i.e. worshiping is] not for you. Sure it benefits you or not, but it’s their worship to their King. How dare anyone come in, regarding any gift, and say, “I am sorry, your gift is not fit for your King.” Thank God that he sees the heart of every man and weighs true intent.

MY RESPONSE: Well! I’m sorry if my article simply made you angry, and didn’t help you to consider another point of view. My first clue to that is that you say you only read half the article. Maybe there’s some food for thought there that you missed.

Having written the piece some years ago, I thought I’d better have another look, and did so. In it, I point out, up front, that there are widely varying opinions on the use of drums in worship. Granted that, I simply wanted to give my own perspective on the subject, and some of the reasons for my position, as a pastor and church musician.

Far be it from me to come between you and your husband, but the fact that he is an excellent drummer, who works hard at it, is not necessarily an argument in their favour. However, your statement that his drumming is itself an act of worship does give us something to chew on. Are you suggesting that whatever individuals claim to be an act of worship, in their hearts, is suitable to be done in the house of God?

It seems so, because you say, “I think it is sad when churches…try to box people in to a gift or a talent that fits ‘your’ [their?] idea of worship.” In response, first of all, I (personally) am not a church. Second, my personal convictions on any subject do not put you in a box, any more than yours put me in a box. We are simply sharing points of view, trying to help each other find our way.

However, let’s consider what happens in a local church. Are you saying that the leadership does not have a responsibility to reject anything they deem unworthy of having a place in the worship services? Of course they do. God has given them a position of authority (I Tim. 5:17; I Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:7), and they are charged with the protection of the flock (Acts 20:28-30; Heb. 13:17). A desire for excellence is appropriate, but it’s only part of what’s needed, as is what’s going on in the individual’s heart.

To have corporate (congregational) worship, there must be some kind of consensus–and some evidence–that what is done leads the group in worship, not just an individual performer. And we must be careful in that to distinguish emotional excitation from spiritual exaltation. There are times when people mistake excitement for blessing, and sensual pleasure for worship. In the words of hymn writer John Greenleaf Whittier:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

To take what may (or may not!) be an extreme example, if a woman says she wants to offer, as worship to God, her gyrating dance, performed in a significant state of undress, must the leaders agree to allow it in a worship service? No, God forbid. It would likely awaken in many men thoughts of a different kind (cf. I Thess. 4:3-7). There must be limits. “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (I Cor. 14:40, NIV). “All things should be done with regard to decency and propriety, and in an orderly fashion” (Amplified Bible).

Which gets us to the consideration of how we decide what is worshipful and what is not. You say that worship isn’t my idea but God’s. Quite true. But then you offer a definition of the word from a secular dictionary. These sometimes can be helpful, but sometimes not. It’s more important, since worship is God’s idea, that we concentrate on what He has to say about it in His Word. Some form of words such as worship, glorify, and praise are used over 500 times in the Bible, so there’s lots of material to draw from.

One of the things we see there is that human practices, traditions, and cultural influences can be wrong–even those held by many people, for a long time. The Samaritan woman said to the Lord Jesus, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain [i.e. this is our tradition], and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (Jn. 4:20). She’s really asking for the Lord’s input on whose tradition is right.

But Christ answers bluntly, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (vs. 22). (Weymouth has, “You worship One of whom you know nothing.”) In other words, the Lord says to her, your tradition is wrong, and you are ignorant of the truth. God has revealed Himself and what He requires through the Jews (cf. Rom. 3:1-2).

The reality is that, sometimes, “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15). When the people of Israel were being prepared to enter the land of Canaan that God had promised to them, He warned them not to incorporate heathen practices into their worship.

“Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut. 12:30-31).

Am I saying that drumming fits into this category? Not necessarily. But it’s a fact that rhythmic and prominent drum beats are commonly associated, in various cultures, including my own, with sensual and carnal practices–sometimes even with the occult. To ignore that association is incautious. It may simply say to those who are saved out of that corrupt lifestyle, “Hey! You can have all that and Jesus too!” keeping them from making a clean break with the old life.

I hear from many people, in various parts of the world, who see drums as a hindrance, rather than a help to their worship of Almighty God. And if we insist that it couldn’t possibly be the Spirit of God who is prompting those convictions, we’d better have very solid and biblical reasons for saying so.

Thank you for your response. I encourage you to keep on seeking God’s best, and I will do likewise.