Introducing Songs for LiFE: A new hymnal and worship education program

Have you noticed the new "kid on the block," or, more accurately, the new hymnal reference in all the service resources in this issue of RW? Those of you who check out the fine print for the sources of songs used in the various services and drama, will notice a new set of letters. SFL stands for Songs for LiFE, a new children's hymnal just published by CRC Publications. A leader's edition is scheduled for release this summer.

Since Songs for LiFE was released in December, 1994, the committee who planned it has been basking in appreciative comments from people in all parts of the continent. But our work isn't quite completed. At this writing, I am putting the finishing touches on the Songs for LiFE Leader's Edition.

Why a Children's Hymnal?

Actually, the genesis of Songs for LiFE goes back to the work of another committee, the one that prepared the 1987 edition of the Psalter Hymnal. As that committee studied other hymnals and prepared criteria by which to choose songs for a denominational hymnal, we became increasingly uncomfortable with an implicit assumption in virtually all denominational and commercial hymnals: they were intended for adults only. Children were expected to "grow into" them at some point.

However, a trip to any church school quickly revealed that the songs the children were singing were often very far removed from the worship songs of the adults. A "split track" mentality prevailed. Although curricula helped children develop their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures and confessions of the church, nothing was provided to help children "grow into" an understanding of the worship of the church or to involve them in worship. Nor were helps available for leaders to choose songs that were more than just fun and entertaining ways to occupy the church school children before they split into smaller sections where the "real" learning took place. Superintendents were grateful if they could find someone to choose some songs and someone else to play the piano. But materials? Song leaders were on their own.

The Psalter Hymnal committee responded by adding a number of children's songs to the hymnal and including an index of "Songs for Children." That index became the basis for a separate publication, With Heart and Voice (1989), which simply lifted 160 songs directly out of the Psalter Hymnal.

That was a beginning. Then the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) decided to work together on a new curriculum for preschool through grade 6. The curriculum was named "LiFE," which stands for "Living in Faith Everyday." (That explains the unique spelling of LiFE in the title Songs for LiFE.) Here was an opportunity to develop a truly complete curriculum, including a children's hymnal and worship education program, that would fill the gap of previous curricula and also give structure to the "gathering time" at church school when children meet all together for singing before (or after) meeting in smaller groups.

So Songs for LiFE began as part of the LiFE curriculum, with the understanding that it could also stand on its own as an independent resource for church, home, and school.

Getting Started

I began meeting with a committee of six in December, 1989. The group included both CRC and RCA members, of whom three were from the United States—Norma deWaal Malefyt, Charlotte Larsen, and Richard Van Oss—and three were from Canada—Joanne Hamilton, Fran Huberts, and Bert Polman. All were active in music teaching and leadership in schools and/or churches. Polman, who chaired the committee, had also been a member of the Psalter Hymnal Committee.

We began by settling on a stmcture for the hymnal. The first section, "Meeting with God's People," reflects our desire to link this hymnal very closely to congregational worship. The second section, "Singing God's Story," begins with creation and includes the entire Christian Year. The final section, "Living in God's World," is patterned after Our World Belongs to God, the Contemporary Testimony of the Christian Reformed Church.

Choosing songs was a great joy. But whittling down the list from the hundreds under consideration was a struggle. We reviewed over forty hymnals and collections of songs for children and youth, and also combed through several recent "aduit" hymnals for the best of the more recent Scripture and praise choruses. Resources from the Hymn Society and the Choristers Guild were very helpful.

The Toughest Question

The toughest question was how many historic hymns of the faith to include. Since Songs for LIFE would be used in churches, traditional hymns would already be accessible to children in the pew hymnal of the congregation. Why duplicate them here? Better to use the space for additional songs more specifically geared toward children.

On the other hand, the committee believed that to ignore the historic hymns of the faith would send the wrong message. Just as the Psalter Hymnal tried to be more inclusive, acknowledging the children in our midst, so too this children's hymnal needed to be inclusive. We wanted to provide songs for all God's people to sing, young and old, including those songs handed down from generations past.

So we included traditional and historic hymns, usually selecting stanzas and providing simplified accompaniments. We hope the message is clear: these songs belong to all God's people, including children.

The Leader's Edition

Now that Songs for LiFE is here, we're halfway. But what about those who lead the children? No good curriculum presents materials for children without providing resources for the leaders, including backgrounds and lesson plans. Why not do the same for the hymnal, and treat it as the children's component of a more complete curriculum for worship education?

When we started talking about a leader's guide for Songs for LiFE, we knew we were really in new territory—at least in the Reformed tradition. The Lutherans have a long history of music education in the church. But worship education has been virtually nonexistent in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches, except in children's choirs. And while children's choirs offer one avenue for worship participation, how much better for all children to be actively involved in congregational worship!

The goal of the Leader's Edition is to provide enough suggestions and possibilities to keep children actively involved in congregational worship on a regular basis. Leaders are enabled to take on a much richer responsibility and privilege. Not only will they be able to teach children new songs, they will also be teaching and modeling what it means to worship God in song. This new role even suggests a new name: these leaders are not only "song leaders" but "worship leaders."

Usually, the "gathering time" for group singing in church school is very short, only fifteen or twenty minutes. Songs for LiFE is offered with resources to make every one of those minutes count. Because every one of our children counts.


Songs for LIFE offers 252 songs from many different lands and cultures. In this collection you'll find historic hymns of the faith, new psalm settings and Scripture choruses, and simple call-and-response songs. Songs for LIFE is for children of all ages, especially those in preschool through sixth grade. It is intended for use in church school and many other settingsófamilies, day schools, children's choirs, and public worship. The arrangements are often simple enough for children to play. Many songs include descants and instrumental accompaniments. The title expresses our hope that many of these songs become companions for life, helping children to praise God and live in faith every day.

Resources in the Leader's Edition of Songs for LiFE

1. Song Notes

Every song comes with notes on the text and music, plus suggestions for congregational use. Three examples, lifted directly from the Leader's Edition, are found on pages 29-31. They are, in effect, the "hymn of the month" for this issue of RW.

2. Twenty-One Units

Each unit lasts from two to four weeks, providing more than a year's worth of materials (see box on page 28 for list of units). Each unit includes

• Unit Focus and Goals. The goals include faith nurture (for both leader and children), faith knowledge (for children), and faith modeling (for leaders).

• Materials. Songs and other worship-related items are listed to tie in with the theme of the unit.

• Preparing to Lead the Gathering Time. Backgrounds for each unit provide, in effect, a mini-course on worship education, directed to the leader but full of suggestions for making the material accessible to children.

• Working with Congregational Worship Leaders. Suggestions for involving children in worship.

• Unit Plans. These plans form a model that churches can easily adapt to their own situation, (see below)

3. Indexes

The children's edition only includes copyright holders and first-line indexes. The Leader's Edition will have more than a dozen indexes, including the traditional hymnal indexes plus a complete scriptural index, an index of signing motions, rounds, and much more.

More Resources

The third component in Songs for LiFE will be recordings, available both on audiocassette and CD. Two recordings include songs sung by children and adult soloists. Here leaders and children will be given models of singing that will make learning the songs much easier.


The 21 units include 71 weeks—more than a calendar year. This allows churches to schedule the units to fit their own calendar. Flexibility is important for at least two reasons: first, Easter and Pentecost fall on different dates each year. Second, some church schools meet year-round; others begin in September and break for the summer. The units, typically three weeks, can be expanded or contracted as desired. Here is one possible three-year curriculum plan following a September-June schedule. Some units would be covered only once in three years, others twice; still others on the Christian year would be included every year.

Year 1: Units 1-4, 8-11, 5, 12, 14
Year 2: Units 15-16, 21, 8-9, 18-19, 12-13
Year 3: Units 1, 6-7, 8-10, 19-20, 13-14

Units on the Elements of Worship

Unit 1 (3 weeks): Opening of Worship
Unit 2 (3 weeks): Confessing to God
Unit 3 (3 weeks): Listening to God's Story
Unit 4 (3 weeks): Baptism: God Includes Us in His Family
Unit 5 (3 weeks): Lord's Supper: God Feeds Us at His Table
Unit 6 (4 weeks): Responding to God's Story (1)
Unit 7 (4 weeks): Responding to God's Story (2)

Units on the Christian Year

Unit 8 (4 weeks): Advent
Unit 9 (2 weeks): Christmas and Epiphany
Unit 10 (4 weeks): The Life and Work of Christ
Unit 11 (4 weeks): The Suffering and Death of Christ
Unit 12 (3 weeks): The Resurrection of Christ
Unit 13 (3 weeks): Ascension: The Reign of Christ
Unit 14 (3 weeks): Pentecost: The Work of the Spirit

Units on God's World

Unit 15 (3 weeks): Creation
Unit 16 (3 weeks): Providence
Unit 17 (3 weeks): Redemption
Unit 18 (4 weeks): Mission
Unit 19 (4 weeks): Serving Jesus in Our Work and Play
Unit 20 (4 weeks): Helping Others Both Near and Far Away
Unit 21 (4 weeks): Thanksgiving

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 36 © June 1995, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.