Christian Sound & Song,
Issue 9, p.10.

Drumming Up The Spirits

by Christine K. Stevens, MSW, M.A., MT-BC

"The community drum circle is a powerful, unifying spiritual experience. It appeals to many different people of all ages and walks of life. It is one of the most successful evening programs we’ve ever hosted." -Reverend Dr. Bonnie L. Benda, Cameron United Methodist Church, Denver, Colorado.

It’s the Saturday night before Halloween. The weather in Denver, Colorado is chilly and the smell of winter is in the air. Under the starry sky, in the parking lot of the Cameron United Methodist Church, the arriving members are warmed by the sound of rhythm emanating from the old brick church. It is as if the church itself were pulsing, enlivened by the rhythms of the people gathered there to make music. The sound echoes into the parking lot, calling those arriving into the evening program entitled "Drumming Up The Spirits."

Upon entering the basement, the newcomers are met by a large circle of sixty people of all ages and diverse backgrounds making music together. Some have brought their own drums, tambourines, rattles, and other percussion instruments. Others are using the multi-colored hand drums from Remo that I’ve provided. About a third of the group are children who are having a blast in an environment where banging on something is acceptable behavior.

My role is to facilitate this community drum circle, which is a kick-off to future church based drumming programs. Serving as a kind-of conductor, I draw upon my background in music therapy and my training in world percussion in leading the group. We join together in a journey of music making, with each composition drawing upon the one before, building in musicality. Over the course of the two-hour program (with a fifteen minute cookie break in the middle) I notice that people are smiling at each other more often. Laughter is increasing. Even the people sitting just outside the circle who were hesitant when they first arrived are now drumming full voice and having a great time. They have been converted. Surprisingly, the children do not seem bored. They demonstrate that child-like freedom of expression on the instruments, reminding all of us of the pure enjoyment of making sound. Towards the end of the program, I teach a simple chant which the group accompanies by playing the heartbeat rhythm; lub-dub, lub-dub. Playing softer now and using our voices, you can feel the connection between people that has been built here this evening.

The fact is that most of the people playing are not professional musicians, and yet, through drumming, they are immediately part of the song. Rhythm reaches all types of people and brings unity and an exciting energy into family, youth and evening programs. All of these qualities are what Bonnie and Bill were looking for when they invited me to their church. They wanted to offer a unique and fun experience for their congregation and continue to invite new people into their church.

Seven years ago when Bonnie Benda and her husband Bill Kirtin took over as pastors at the Cameron United Methodist church, there were thirty-five regulars and everyone was over the age of sixty. They explained, "we were faced with a problem not uncommon in churches across America. For the church to survive, we had to attract a younger membership." Their two-fold strategy was to change the music and offer more opportunities for "alternative spiritual expression." First they added an early morning service with modern music and a creative style to attract younger families and professionals in the area, while still maintaining a later, more traditional service for the regular members. Since Bonnie herself plays rattles and American Indian frame or shaman drums, she brought these instruments into her sermons and song services. Eventually, as the early service grew in numbers and word got out of their innovative approaches, they were able to combine the services and create a fascinating mixture of a conservative more traditional group with the younger church audience. Now they needed to continue to develop programs that grew the membership and supported the diverse needs of their congregation. The community drum circle was a natural solution, offering something fun, active, innovative and at the same time, accessible to all ages of church participants.

Drumming is happening in churches across America. It is being used in children’s programs, worship services, family events, and men’s and women’s groups. In an article entitled, "Emboldening Music with rhythm," in Issue #6 of Christian Sound & Song, Tim Ridgway addressed the powerful effect the drum has in making music an accessible experience for all people. The drum circle is an extension of that popularity. Arthur Hull, the father of the modern day drum circle and a self-proclaimed rhythmavangelist, states that "the community drum circle is a fun entry level learning experience that is accessible to anyone who wants to participate. Drum circle participants express themselves collectively by using a chorus of drums, percussion and vocals, creating a musical song together while having a great time." Churches are taking this paradigm of community drumming and reconnecting to it through their services today.

Even though our Western definition of church music has historically been associated with organs, hymns, hand-bells or praise music, drumming was actually one of the most ancient forms of praising God. Rhythm is deeply rooted in spiritual practice. After the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites celebrated their exodus from Roman oppression by drumming. "And Miriam the prophetess took a drum in her hand; and all the women went out after her with drums and with dances." Exodus 15:20. Layne Redmond in her book, When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm, addresses the role women played in drumming for ancient religious worships.

Rhythmical expression of celebration was a part of spiritual and cultural history. And today, we are reconnecting to the power of the drum as a congregational connection tool.

Today, the Cameron United Methodist Church still pulses with drumming born out of that Halloween program just over a year ago. It is woven into different programs, sermons, and services. The women’s spirituality group is drumming. They even invited the adolescent girls to join them on a monthly basis. According to Bonnie, as long as the pulse continues, we know that our church will continue to grow stronger and stronger, embodying the connection that rhythm creates between our congregation members.

Reverend Dr. Bonnie L. Benda and the Cameron United Methodist Church can be contacted at 303-777-7638, or at blbbrk@aol.com. Christine Stevens, MT-BC, is Director of Music Therapy and Wellness, Remo, Inc. She can be contacted at christine@ubdrumcircles.com