Last night after dinner I heard my daughter chiding her sister: “You forgot to clean the table! Put your dishes in the sink.” Except she wasn’t just saying it—she was singing it, to the nineteenth-century hymn tune Nettleton (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”). Sibling bickering aside, it was encouraging to hear how the church’s song has become so much a part of my children’s daily lives.
How can we—as educators, parents, pastors, or church musicians—help to promote this kind of deep, formative, and even playful engagement with the music of Christian worship? How can we keep our children singing? Here are a few ideas from my own observation and experience.
Teach and model. I give thanks for the excellent musicians, educators, choir members, and other volunteers in our congregation who are so dedicated to passing along the treasury of the church’s hymnody. I need their wisdom, energy, and support in raising my children in faith and in faithful song; but they also need my partnership as a parent. We must stand beside our children in worship, helping them to navigate hymnals and bulletins, demonstrating active and joyful participation, and encouraging them to sing. This kind of modeling is critical in liturgy and in all of life.
Bring it home. A second point is like the first: find ways to incorporate the church’s music into your daily routines, so that these songs accompany you “when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). This doesn’t have to be a stiff and pious chore. Belt out “Morning Has Broken” to rouse sleepyheads from bed; hum “Be Thou My Vision” as a lullaby (“waking or sleeping, thy presence my light”); sing a blessing before meals (try Glory to God 658–660); sing “Create in Me a Clean Heart” when you are washing the dishes; keep a hymnal by the couch, or plant one in the back seat of the car on a long road trip.
Give hymnals. Speaking of which … hymnals make great gifts for children. When the new Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God was published, I ordered copies for each of my children with their names engraved on the cover. I’ve been happy to find them put to good use—yes, sometimes in ways unintended, but also in playing school or church, or as bedtime reading. The covers are scuffed, the pages are wrinkled, but they are also flagged with sticky notes and bookmarks as my daughters get to know the collection, finding “friends” new and old among these songs.
Study hymns. Make good use of hymns in Christian education. Hand out hymnals and peruse the “Creation and Providence” pages when you’re teaching about Genesis, stewardship, or ecology; leaf through “Jesus Christ: Resurrection” in the Easter season; find fresh insight into the sacraments through the words and music of the “Baptism” and “Lord’s Supper” sections. Ask children to read certain selections aloud, and then inquire about what they mean; or simply let them explore and raise questions of their own. Glory to God was intentionally organized so that it might help us teach the story of salvation through song; take advantage of that great feature!
Have a hymn festival. Most of us are familiar with “Lessons and Carols” services at Christmas time. You can do something similar in other seasons of the year, or around aspects of the church’s mission and ministry. This doesn’t have to be complicated or highly choreographed. Select a few key passages of Scripture, perhaps alongside other appropriate readings. Use the indices of the hymnal—with the assistance of children—to weave together a pattern of readings and songs, being sure to have a good blend of familiar and new. Sing some songs all together, and use soloists or small groups to introduce others. Allow time for discussion during or after the gathering.
Sing through the year. Worship planners can help to bridge the gap between singing at church and at home by selecting seasonally appropriate songs or refrains to use for a span of weeks within the Christian year. Used as gathering music, invitations to prayer, doxologies, sending songs, and so on, these repeated hymns or hymn-fragments empower children’s full participation, as they will easily memorize tunes long before they learn to read words or music. These simple, repeated songs will also become “earworms”—likely to travel home, finding a place at the dining room table, at bedtime, or at the door before school.
Sing a new song. Children love to be leaders, and grownups are delighted to be taught and led in worship by children. So when you are introducing new songs in worship, consider teaching them first to a Sunday school class or children’s choir. (I’ve heard that John Calvin commended this strategy as a way of promoting psalm-singing.) On the lips of children, new songs quickly become old favorites; words in unfamiliar languages ring with the universal message of the gospel; tricky syncopations leap into life.
Just enjoy singing. At the moment, my younger daughter loves to try to sing the hymns an octave higher than intended, often to the amusement of those seated near her in worship. So what? She’s making a joyful noise, giving glory to God “in the highest.” Singing prayer and praise to God is serious business. But for children it can also be a lot of fun. After all, as the Westminster Catechism teaches us, our whole purpose in life is to glorify and enjoy God forever.
David Gambrell is associate for worship in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship and editor of Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching, and the Arts (pcusa.org/calltoworship). He was a staff advisor to the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (the Glory to God hymnal committee) and is a representative to the Consultation on Common Texts (the ecumenical body responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary). A Presbyterian teaching elder, David has an M.Div. from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.