Are They Appropriate?

Drums in worship. Do they have a place...or not? There is certainly a difference of opinion in the Christian community as to whether drums are an appropriate accompaniment to congregational singing in the worship services of the church. Some welcome them enthusiastically. For others they are an unnecessary distraction. Still others are appalled at what they see as a worldly intrusion. Herewith, then, some observations. One person's perspective on the subject.

In their favour, the drums do seem to appeal to some, and they provide an opportunity for another kind of talent to be put to use. They are 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. Musically, at least at times, a focus on the rhythm seems uncalled for. A continuous beat (or back beat) that bears little relation to the words does not enhance their message. And its presence gives 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.

Because of the potential volume of which drums are capable, it is easy for them 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." 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 the music. The latter may, in fact, distract worshippers from a true worship. 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 Spurgeon).

Percussion instruments have a long history, and are mentioned in the Word of God (though for some reason drums never are). They have been used to mark time, to send a signal, and, in the case of symphonic bands and symphony orchestras, to add accent and emphasis at certain points in a musical work. Historically, and for many years, drum sets (traps) have been used predomi nantly in dance bands, and secular rock bands. There they provide a driving beat which stirs rhy thmic response and adds excitement for dancing.

Also, drums have traditionally been a vehicle for solo virtuosity and showmanship (from the time of Gene Kruppa and Buddy Rich in the 40's, and on). 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 experience 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 instru mental music of any kind. In spite of the fact that various instruments were used in Old Testament temple worship, 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. 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 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 young people interested in church by copying what they enjoy in the world has had very limited 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 segments the congregation? A consideration of such questions will encourage balance and temperance in the resolution of the issue.

Bottom line: Neither drums nor any instrument should intrude a platform "performance" into the followship of singing. Better to have no instruments than that! The volume need never be deafening. In fact, it should never prevent worshippers from hearing and blending with voices around them.