Helping Kids Understand Worship Through Music: Ideas and Encouragement for Those Who Lead Children's Choirs

Directing a children’s choir offers several opportunities to teach children what worship is and what it means to worship. As choir directors, our primary tool for teaching children about worship is the music that we sing. This article will focus on how the music we choose can be a teaching tool for children to understand worship—and at the same time, how it can help them lead the whole congregation in worship.

Begin with the Basics

When selecting music for a children’s choir, you’ll want to consider three areas: the text, the tune, and how they work together. Remember the wisdom of the saying “Choose music worth keeping in a child’s memory.”

  • The text is the most important part of any music you choose. Is it theologically sound? Appropriate for the age level? Will it aid in the spiritual development of the singers?
  • The tune is the melodic line your children sing. Is the tune memorable and the range appropriate? Not too high and not too low? For younger choirs: Is there repetition in the form of the piece and is the melodic line rhythmically simple yet interesting? For elementary choirs: Are they ready to sing parts? Is the melody memorable yet challenging?
  • So you’ve chosen a meaningful text and a beautiful melody. But do they work together? After reading the text, play the melody line. Does the tune enhance

Lent and Easter Gems for Children’s Choirs

Songs and Seasons, Michael Bedford, Choristers Guild CGA-540, unison piano with optional two-octave handbells.

This seasonal collection of seven unison anthems is perfect for the primary choir. The text of the anthem for Lent, “For Things That I Do Wrong, O Lord,” emphasizes the need to ask for forgiveness and reminds us that God is always there for us. “When I cannot see what’s best for me, you are there to show the way” and “I put my trust in you” are words worth keeping in a child’s memory. Consider printing the text in your bulletin. Have the choir sing the anthem (two minutes long), then have the congregation read it aloud, pausing at the appropriate time for reflection and private prayer. The choir could close the time of confessional prayer by singing the chorus, or the “A” section one more time. This is an effective way for your choir to lead the congregation in one of the most important times in worship.

The other selections for Palm Sunday and Easter are also with handbells and are quite fitting for a joyous anthem by your young singers.

The Children’s Choir Companion compiled by Lee Gwodz, Lorenz 45/1038U, two-part piano with optional handbells.

Composers Anna Laura Page, Allen Pote, Mary Lynn Lightfoot, Arnold Sherman, John Burson, and Eugene Englert have contributed anthems to this collection of six seasonal anthems for upper elementary choirs. All of the pieces are two-part with energetic and well-crafted piano accompaniments. Arnold Sherman selected Psalm 51:10-12 as the text for his Lenten anthem “Create in Me a Clean Heart.” The melodic line emphasizes the important words, creating several moments for the singer and listener to capture the essence of the text. The director will want to take the time to study the psalm with the singers so they will understand what they are singing about and therefore more effectively lead in worship.

“Hosanna!”—the Palm Sunday piece composed by John Burson—is uplifting with the three-octave handbell accompaniment.

“Little Grey Donkey,” Natalie Sleeth, Choristers Guild CGA-84, unison, piano, or organ with sand block and wood block, oboe or flute.

A primary choir gem. The simple stepwise melodic line combined with the clip clop of the piano and percussion instruments sets the stage for that triumphal day. Easy to sing, the youngest preschool choirs could join with a primary choir on either one or all of the three stanzas. A

wonderful lead-in to the Scripture of the day or perhaps the children’s sermon.

“Hosanna to the Son,” Jody W. Lindh, Choristers Guild CGA-606, unison, piano with optional three- to four-octave handbells.

One of those pieces your choirs will love to sing over and over again. Lindh’s very singable text based on John 12:12-16 makes you want to get up and shout! His accompaniment lifts the text to a song of praise and triumph as it tells the story of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Consider having a reading of the text from the book of John before the children sing to aid in the congregation’s involvement in the anthem. Make sure your singers’ faces reflect the text—gloomy faces aren’t appropriate for the words “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

“Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” John Ferguson, Choristers Guild CGA-843, treble choir, SAB choir (optional), SATB choir, organ.

What better time to have children, youth, and adult choirs join forces than Palm Sunday! Ferguson has taken the familiar text by Henry Hart Milman and created a new tune that is shared by up to three choirs. Your children’s choir will need to be of elementary age, as there are a couple of high Fs and Gs. The youth choir has its own part from time to time as well as doubling the adult choirs. The adult choir serves as the foundation as the choirs exchange calls to one another to “ride on!” The middle stanza, sung by the adult choir, is quite substantial as the men and women divide into SSATTBB. This piece will serve choirs both large and small and is attainable for beginning through advanced singers. A great piece for portraying the drama and power of Palm Sunday.

Let’s Sing! Songs for Young Singers, Helen Kemp, Augsburg Fortress 11-7210, unison, piano.

Helen Kemp has compiled an array of treasures in this collection of short pieces for the youngest of singers. The headings are God’s Children, God’s World, Giving Thanks, Songs for the Church Year, God’s House, and Children’s Prayers. My favorite is “Night Song,” a song I sang to my daughter every night as she was growing up. “The Easter King,” written by Marie Pooler, fits the voices of young children as they sing, “Jesus lives, Jesus lives, Alleluia!” This book is for those who teach young children or have young children of their own. A true gem with texts you will want to have in your child’s memory.

“An Easter Carillon,” W. Leonard Beck, Oxford University Press 94.503, high voices, piano.

The percussive piano part, written to sound like bells answering back and forth, moves along quickly under the flowing melodic line. The text, taken from the Oxford Book of Carols, proclaims the glories of Easter morning: “All things living make praise, Alleluia!” A quick tempo and complex rhythm puts the piece on a level of moderate difficulty, but it is well worth the effort. The contrasting dynamics and grand crescendos make it a fun piece to sing as the congregation is lifted to worship in praise on Easter Sunday. One of those pieces that is almost more fun to sing than to listen to! 

Judy Britts has conducted festivals and workshops around North America. She has just completed six years on the national board and executive committee of the Chroisters Guild (www.choristersguild.org); she was also a presenter at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts in January 2003. You can reach her at jbritts@aol.com.