It was a church drummer’s worst nightmare. In the middle of a service, David Wagner was playing “Heaven Invade” with his worship band when his in-ear monitors stopped working.

Wagner posted a clip on Instagram of what happened. It includes the audio that should have been coming through in his monitors: a mix of the sound from the band, some added reverb, and of course, the click track—a repetitive tapping sound that keeps time, usually sounding for each beat. Halfway through the video, one of the vocalists—his wife—passes him a new pair of headphones.

The role of the worship drummer has changed a lot over the past 20 years. In addition to the evolving sound of worship music—moving away from rock and toward electronic dance music— drummers have adjusted to new production setups, becoming the person on stage who makes sure that musicians and tech are fully in sync.

Since the rise of contemporary worship bands during the late 1990s, many churches have adopted technologies that were once reserved for live concerts in stadiums and large auditoriums, where musicians needed in-ear monitors and click tracks due to crowd noise and echoes.

For veteran church drummers, these changes are pushing them to develop new skills and to adapt their approach to the music. Some say these shifts are making drumming more boring, lower stakes, and monotonous. Others are finding that new tools allow them to be creative, to explore using their instruments in different ways, and to experience new freedom as worshipers on stage—even if they are behind a Plexiglas cage.

Wagner, who has been a drummer for 12 years, moved to a church in Murray, Kentucky, that uses in-ear monitors (IEMs) about 3 years ago. At a smaller church before that, his tech setup had drums and guitars, but no click. The music was different too, more Chris Tomlin acoustic guitar sounds than the synth-heavy songs from Bethel or Elevation.

It took time to adjust to the relentless click track in his ears, but Wagner says it’s a tool that makes his job a lot easier.

“At first, it was kind of intimidating,” said Wagner. “But playing with a click actually felt easier.”

Most church musicians who use IEMs and click tracks aren’t just hearing a metronome; in many cases there are voice cues for the intro, verse, and chorus. Some churches also employ a music director that uses a microphone to speak directly to the musicians on stage to call out changes or to let everyone know if something is going wrong.

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At first, taking in all that input while playing an instrument or singing can be overwhelming. But the precise orchestration these tools afford is necessary to recreate the sounds of today’s popular worship songs.

Drew Allen went from drumming for an Assemblies of God church in Mississippi to playing for a large North Point affiliate church in Gainesville, Florida.

Accustomed to a musical worship style marked by flexibility and spontaneity, the exacting structure imposed by a click and pre-programmed tracks at his new church felt very different. But ultimately, the predictability and clarity made it easier to engage in the music without the pressure of timekeeping and remembering whether a chorus or bridge was coming next.

“I used to think, I have to learn this exact arrangement? It’s going to be so hard to worship like that. But I’ve actually found that it’s the opposite,” said Allen. “When you have the arrangement on lock, it’s actually really freeing.”

Musicologist Joshua Kalin Busman points out that, over the last decade, the sound of worship music—think of the big names like Hillsong, Bethel, and Elevation—has shifted to reflect the profile of electronic dance music (EDM) more than rock.

That shift seems to have led to less tempo variation, an emphasis on a unified musical “set,” and rhythmic repetitiveness and simplicity.

“We jokingly call a contemporary worship service the ‘andante hour,’” said Busman (andante is a musical term for a moderately slow speed). “Everything now seems to sit in this tempo sweet spot at around 76 beats per minute.”

In EDM, rhythmic stability and key continuity (keeping songs in the same musical key signature) help create seemingly endless sets of songs that audiences can move to and participate in. One song can be easily folded into another, and transitions can be seamless. Increasingly, this way of participating in music is shaping worship services.

“That kind of tempo and pitch matching has always been part of EDM,” Busman said. “There’s more of a holistic musical trajectory. In worship music, we’ve shifted from a focus on the song as a delivery system to the set, a 30- or 45-minute experience.”

Paradoxically, the influence of EDM—a genre that’s all about the beat—hasn’t meant that drummers have more to do. The click track actually allows a band to rely less on a drummer and more on synth effects and vocalists, because everyone on stage has the same beat in their ears. There’s no danger of someone losing track of the tempo.

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“For many worship tunes now, there is so much less groove in the arrangement of the song,” said Allen. “There are no drums from the top of the song, maybe a light cymbal swell into the second verse and a kick and floor tom. In a six-minute song, I might be playing a full beat for maybe 30 seconds of it.”

Hillsong’s “So Will I (100 Billion X)” is a good example of this. For most of the song, the lead vocalist and a riff in the electric guitar provide the sense of tempo. Drums punctuate the verses as the song slowly builds. But it’s a very slow escalation, and the drums don’t add a driving pulse until the bridge.

Church musicians who have been leading for a few decades know that there have always been slow songs and upbeat songs. Slow songs might have a few cymbal rolls and a full chorus, with very little for the drummer to do during the verses. But until recently, the high-energy songs have tended to pull from a rock sound that involved a lot more constant activity from the drummer.

Tim Whitaker, who spent his youth group years drumming in church and playing metal, recalled that mid-2000s music from groups like Sonicflood and David Crowder Band required drumming that reflected the sound of rock and punk.

“Modern worship music is all about intentionality and pocket,” said Whitaker, pointing out that when drummers aren’t driving the tempo, they have to develop sensitivity and subtlety. “You have to reframe these changes as a new challenge. Playing this music well actually takes a lot of maturity and musicianship.”

Wagner has found that the safety of the click allows him to experiment with different grooves and plug in musical ideas borrowed from other songs or arrangements.

“I used to play almost exactly what’s on the recording. I like to honor the parts that the drummers on the recordings have put together,” he said, “but I’ve gotten to the point where I can take some creative liberties.”

For drummers who developed their skills in bands where they were the indispensable timekeepers and rhythmic drivers, the changes in musical style and the role of technology can seem disempowering.

“It takes a lot of self-control and restraint to play this new music,” said Allen. He also pointed out that it takes spiritual maturity to be willing to serve and worship, whether you’re playing or not.

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The automation of some parts of a drummer’s job has also opened up opportunities for new musicians to step in and play without the pressure of holding everything together. Drummers can be hard to find.

“The simplification of drums may have to do with the sort of talent pool that exists,” said Busman, the musicologist. “There’s a smaller pool of drummers.”

A drum kit is expensive and takes up a lot of space. For a kid to begin learning to play, parents have to make room, find money for the set and lessons, and resign themselves to a noisier home. And many school band programs require students to learn to play piano before being allowed to play percussion.

IEMs and a click mean that a new or out-of-practice drummer can step in and know that even if they get lost or make a mistake, the rest of the band will be able to keep in time and finish out the song, even if the drums drop out altogether.

Will Shine, a drummer and PhD student at the University of Georgia, pointed out that the tech tools that make it easier for a beginner to join in also make it easier for churches to recreate popular worship songs in weekly services.

“You have to play to your lowest common denominator, skill-wise,” said Shine. “At the same time, for a song to become popular, it has to be replicable.”

Today’s popular atmospheric anthems would not be as easy to recreate without the increased use of tech. But the new technology also makes it possible to automate the music, to the point that musicians start to wonder if they even need to be there. It also makes it harder for a worship set to have any spontaneity.

“There’s a strange disconnect,” said Allen. “It seems like a lot of musicians and leaders want the crowd to experience this vibey, unplanned worship experience but to still have the ability to manage its production down to the second.”

Finding balance between programming and spontaneity is a challenge for church musicians and leaders implementing new technology. And while congregants seem to value and even seek out opportunities to participate in worship that has the potential to lead to unexpected outpourings, the popular music many churches are using requires a high degree of technical orchestration.

It can also leave musicians like Wagner scrambling when there’s a glitch.

“I spent a little more money on my new in-ears,” he said, “so hopefully it won’t happen again.”