Recently someone asked me what five songs I think are important for every child in the church to know; songs that they would memorize and carry with them throughout life. What a wonderful, thoughtful, question! As I considered my response I wondered if it wouldn’t be more helpful to provide a list of things to consider when choosing songs to sing than an actual list of songs; that way the church could create a list that fit their context. So after some thought, here is a list of things I would consider when creating a core group of songs for children.
1. Connected to Communal Worship
So often we answer the question of what songs to teach our children in isolation from communal worship. Children learn songs in Sunday School or a separate worship time but those songs rarely find their way into communal worship except for a special song once in a while. Instead choose songs that can become or already are a part of the church’s regular sung repertoire. This will further help children participate in your community’s worship and feel that they belong.
2. Accessible but Not Childish
From the church’s core repertoire I would look for songs that are accessible to children but not childish. I wouldn’t worry if there is a word or two that is a little harder for kids to understand. Those words or concepts can be unpacked over time. These are songs that we want our kids to be able to grow into and mature with.
Our voices are instruments that rely on supported breath passing by vocal cords. Young children’s vocal cords are not yet fully developed and need to be treated with care. (Please don’t ever ask children to sing louder; they end up shouting which can damage their voice.) Preschool and kindergarten children have a range from about middle C to A, first to third graders can comfortably sing a full octave beginning at middle C, and fourth through sixth graders can stretch that octave down to B-flat and up to E. The challenge of course is that there are few songs written for worship that are within the range of preschool to third grade voices but it is something to keep in mind.
4. Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
Strangely this adage associated with weddings fits in this context as well. When making your selections don’t be afraid to consider some of the older songs of the church, especially those that have ecumenical appeal. “Amazing Grace,” “When Peace Like a River,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” all have stood the test of time and are sung across denominations. While there is a lot of text to learn, start the youngest children off with learning the refrain or first stanza of a song and then add to it until they know the whole song. If your congregation doesn’t typically sing hymns consider adding a few of these ecumenical treasures into your communal repertoire. You can find band arrangements of most of them. If your congregation primarily sings hymns, don’t be afraid to learn some new songs. Every hymn was new at one time.
One way for us to teach our children that we are part of the global church, that we are united with Christians around the globe, is to learn their songs. When choosing songs from the global church make sure you know that song’s story and context and share that as well. Don’t just choose a song because it sounds “cool” or checks a box but because you want to join them in their song or stand in solidarity with them.
When choosing songs for children you want the songs they sing to help them engage with God in ways that express the full range of human emotion. We often teach children songs as if life is always sunshine and no one experiences “the blues.” We act like children don’t have any significant struggles that need to be addressed but yet we know that that is not true. Parents fight and get divorced, children are bullied at school, they feel lonely, loved ones die, there are shootings in their communities, and even if they don’t understand the politics and division of the world around them they pick up on the fear and mistrust. What words are we going to give them to express their worries and fears to God? What prayers do we want on their lips?
5. God’s Story
Songs are powerful teaching tools so why not utilize them to teach God’s story; creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Find songs that acknowledge the work of all three persons of the Trinity and how we are called to join in the work that the Triune God is already doing in this world. Songs are also a great way to memorize scripture with the Psalms being especially appropriate and accessible.
Finally, consider the overall message that is being internalized as the children memorize the texts. How is it forming their faith? What message are they receiving about who God is, the Triune God’s relationship to them, and their relationship to others and the world?
To see if the above was possible I pulled together the following song suggestions using the hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.
- “Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down / Psalm 95:6–7” 510
- “Our God” 580
- “You Are My King (Amazing Love)” 360, “God Is So Good” 777
- “Yesu azali awa / Jesus Christ Is with Us” 600
- “Don’t Be Afraid” 429
- “By Grace We Have Been Saved (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:23, 5:8)” 675
- “You Shall Love the Lord” 724
2. First–3rd grade:
- “No hay dios tan grande / There’s No God as Great” 275
- “This is My Father’s World” 21 or “All Things Bright and Beautiful” 20
- “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” 175
- “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” 330
- “Amazing Grace” 691
- “He Knows My Name” 339 or “You Are My Hiding Place (Psalm 32:7)” 412
- “When Peace Like a River” 453 or “Neither Death nor Life (Romans 8:38–39)” 450
3. 4th–6th grade:
- “God, We Sing Your Glorious Praises” 519 (use NETTLETON tune 521)
- “The First Place (Colossians 1:15–20)” 15, “How Great Thou Art” 553
- “The Lord Is My Light (Psalm 27:1, 5, 14)” 431
- “Great Is Thy Faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22–23)” 348
- “My Jesus I Love Thee” 366 or “Depth of Mercy” 702
- “In Christ Alone” 770
- “Canto de esperanza / Song of Hope” 941
Obviously I couldn’t keep it to five songs and still ended up deleting a lot of really good options. What about you? If you had to create a balanced list of songs for the children of your church to learn what would they be?
One final thought. What about having your children memorize key scripture, confessions, and liturgical texts? Sounds like a good topic for another blog!