Youth and the Music of Worship: Part I – Children and Hymns

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being” (Psalm 104:33). Often the language of praise is the language of song. One of the most enjoyable of our reverent and loving responses to God is praise expressed in music and song; praise to God for the abundant life in Christ.

Praise and prayer in song is such an important part of worship that the church has generally provided hymns for this purpose. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley recognized the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual benefits of church song; so they wrote, or had others write, songs by means of which people could express feelings they could not otherwise put into words. These songs prepared them for religious experiences and taught them spiritual truths. The truths sung reflected their theology. Many denominations, realizing the tremendous influence of song on the spiritual life of God’s people, followed their example and published their own hymnals.

Why Teach Children Psalms and Hymns?

Often, however, the teaching of a church’s hymns to the young is either neglected or conducted in a haphazard manner. The church may exercise great care in providing graded religious instruction in harmony with tlle church’s teaching but will leave the children’s singing to the discretion (or indiscretion) of the leaders in charge, with no directive other than their own personal choice. Consequently too many children are brought up on a hodge-podge of gospel hymns and choruses, far removed from the church’s hymnal. Professor Ralph Thibodeau is so right when he comments, “The ‘People of God’ have been had.”1

Such a procedure is educationally unsound, providing no opportunity for growth in the expression of praise and in the knowledge of God and of Jesus, our Lord. Dr. James Sydnor points out that when such a situation exists “we will be training a generation of Christians who will always find worship frustrating . Their plaint will be that of their fathers, ‘Why can’t we sing something we know?’”2 And when young people remain silent during the congregational singing or feel no sense of participation the minister and elders wonder why.

When Teach Children Psalms and Hymns?

The optimum ages for developing musical interests, skills, and attitudes of young children are now viewed as being three through eleven years. In the home the pre-school child can be taught short, easy selections from The Children’s Hymnbook, published by the National Union of Christian Schools. The melodies are easy to sing and a polished performance is not necessary at this age. As one reviewer of the hymnbook pointed out, this is the period of “orientation and exploration” and she was pleased that her three-year-old was “on her way toward appreciating a masterpiece (‘How Lovely Are the Messengers’) and had the thrill of adding wonderful new words to her vocabulary.”3 Another reviewer describes the music and words as “worshipful and dignified, yet simple enough for a child…, all are full of meaning and within the comprehension of present-day boys and girls.”4

When the child 6rst attends Sunday School or Bible School he may be too young to learn an entire song. However. he can be taught 6rst lines of hymns such as “Now Thank We All Our God,” which uses only two different notes. He can sing the last phrase of “Jesus, From Thy Throne on High,” the five alleluias in “All Creatures of Our God and King,” the response to the question in “Who Made Ocean, Earth, and Sky?”, all of which are found in The Children’s Hymnbook. In classes where children of widely differing ages sing together, this method provides a natural way for everyone to participate. With a little creative imagination many other songs can be arranged in this way.

In the Christian school and in the educational programs of the church the singing is usually a part of the devotions. This period provides a wonderful opportunity to teach the “why” and “how” of praising God through song. This requires planning in the selection of hymns (no last-minute, random choices). thoughtful consideration of the purposes—both immediate and long-range–of singing hymns, and the quality of the hymns.

Primary Purpose of Singing Hymns and Psalms: Worship

The primary and immediate purpose of singing hymns and psalms is the worship of God through musical praise and prayer. When leaders and children alike understand this the aim will not be “one long shout” intensified by admonitions to “sing it out,” or a fun-time with foot-tapping and hand motions, but a clear, natural, childlike singing—joyous or thoughtful as required by the song—but always musical. There will be frequent attention to the words so that the meaning is clear, the beauty of the poetry observed, and the mood of the hymn determined.

The hymns of the devotional period should vary in topic and mood. Some or all of the following might be sung:

1. A general praise hymn, for example, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” or “Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens Adore Him.”

2. A hymn appropriate to the season.

3. A hymn appropriate to the Bible lesson.

4. A prayer hymn or response to the spoken prayer, for example, “Father, Bless Our School Today,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Be Present Now.”

5. A hymn for the permanent repertoire, sung at every session of the class until memorized.

6. In Sunday School, a hymn which will be, or has been, sung in the church service. Call attention to its use in the service, as praise, prayer, or confession.

Experienced teachers know that when the music is beautiful, children are content to sing only the melody. But singing can be enhanced by the addition of the descants found in Hymns For Youth, another National Union publication. Younger children can sing the melody and the older ones the descant. From third grade on, children also enjoy singing rounds and canons found in both hymnbooks previously mentioned.

Teaching Children to “Know” Hymns and Psalms

The long-range goal of teaching the hymns and psalms of the church is to acquaint children with their rightful musical heritage which still remains relevant for the twentieth century Christian. The present emphasis in music education has shifted from “appreciation” to “knowing” a piece of music, a teaching for what Professor Harry Broudy calls “enlightened cherishing.”5 A Christian will more surely “cherish” Psalm 68, “God Shall Arise and By His Might,” if he knows that the confident singing of this psalm by his spiritual forefathers instilled fear in the hearts of their enemy as they met on the battlefield. Singing this song in the spirit of confidence and with exuberance, not slowly, will make this song live for children and adults alike. Or consider Martin Luther, not only the stern Reformer but also the father, who each year prepared an entertainment for his family on Christmas eve. For one of these he wrote “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” with one person dressed as an angel, singing the first part, the children responding. (Incidentally, there has been ample proof for some twenty years that Martin Luther did not write “Away in a Manger.” It is probably American in ,origin, having been written “between…1880 and Christmas 1884.”6 ) In this affluent age, when the bright Christian grace of gratitude is often lacking, children do well to cherish the universal hymn “Now Thank We All Our God”—thanksgiving, prayer and doxology. They should know that this famous hymn was written during the deep misery of the Thirty Years’ War in the context of “plague and bereavement and slaughter and famine…as a Grace to be sung before meat at its author’s table.”7 And wouldn’t it be wonderful for children to know that the reason for the tune name, “Nicaea,” used for the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” refers to the Nicaean Council, held in A.D. 325, which confessed the Biblical truth concerning the Triune God? (Teachers would welcome the publication of handbooks to accompany the National Union’s hymnbooks, in which they could find these aids to an “enlightened cherishing.”)

“Knowing” Hymns Through Memorization

But “knowing” a hymn also requires memorization and constant use. In an Atlanta, Georgia, Presbyterian church Mr. and Mrs. Haskell Boyter instituted a hymn memorization project for the children from seven through thirteen years old. The rules were:

1. Memorize the melody.

2. Memorize the first stanza.

3. Sing the song unaccompanied, from memory, for a listening committee.

The important feature of the contest was that the hymns were taught by the parents, hopefully to revive family hymn-singing. The contest was successful beyond expectation, and frequent family hymn-sings were held for one hour on Sunday afternoons, with entire families represented. Later, hymn-playing contests were added, and there was great enthusiasm for both projects.

In another Presbyterian church, Dr. James Sydnor prepared graded hymn lists to coordinate the teaching of hymns in the educational program. The lists begin with hymns for first graders and extend through college age. Seventy per cent of these hymns are found in The Children’s Hymnbook, Hymns for Youth, and the Psalter Hymnal.

Why Good Hymns and Psalms are Not Being Taught

There are several reasons why these hymns and psalms are not being taught to the extent suggested above. In churches where Sunday Schools and Bible Schools seek out the non-churched children of the community, leaders feel it necessary to use music which they consider more “evangelistic.” In Church Music and Theology Erik Routley remarks on “the curious fact that zeal for souls goes with debased musical taste.” He accuses modern day evangelists of using music “deliberately contrived in order to express…the standards of the world…That is why they intentionally exploit the musical platitude, the cliche of rhythm and phrase.”8

It would be more charitable to say that many who love the Lord and show concern for their fellowman’s eternal welfare are influenced in their selection of music by the successful use of the gospel song in the evangelistic efforts of a century and a half ago. Succeeding evangelists have used the songs, characterized by Dr. Louis Benson as “charged with emotion (having) a contagious melody…a frequent march or dance rhythm, and that peculiar thinness of effect which comes of continuing the harmony unchanged through the bar.” Consequently, the commercial publishing houses continue to engage in the highly lucrative enterprise of publishing thousands of gospel song and chorus books.

In that day, when public school music was in its infancy, when there were few symphony orchestras in the country, and broadcasting and recorded classical music were non-existent, people needed songs that were simple and easily caught. Today’s elementary school children, when properly taught, learn art songs by Schubert, Schumann, Franz, Wolf, Brahms, Ives, and Hovhanness. They listen to music by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Brahms, Bartok, and Ives. Professor Cording might well have included children when he said, “Pity the man, who having developed complicated aesthetic sensibilities, hungers for a message of God in praise and finds it clothed in undignified musical rags. He is the forgotten . man in much of today’s evangelism.”10

If, as Dr. Nederhood suggests, the Sunday School can serve “as the vestibule, the entrance way to the church,”11 how misleading—dishonest, in fact -for these agencies, while presenting the gospel as the child will hear it in the church, to leave him totally unprepared for the worship of the church in song.

A second justification for the use of these songs for children is that children like to sing these songs. It would be more correct to say, “Children like to sing.” A father tells the story of his young son who returned from Bible School each day, lustily singing the choruses he had been taught. Later in the summer the boy attended a Bible School in a Lutheran church and sang, just as lustily, the chorales he learned there.

Educators know that children respond to great music when it is enthusiastically presented. The teacher who has watched thirty-seven sixth graders listen in complete silence to Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves,’” or who has heard seventh graders react to a Bach Suite for orchestra with “Man, that’s cool music!”, or who has had a chorus of fifth and sixth graders beg to continue rehearsing “Dona Nobis Pacem,”—that teacher knows that truly great music still appeals to children: normal, modern, transistor-toting public school youngsters living in a culturally deficient community—the kind of children who will attend Sunday School and Bible School.

Evaluating Hymns

Quoting Professor Broudy once more, he says that “enlightened cherishing” also means bringing the child into contact with the “factual, measurable content” of music so that he can apply some sort of standard to arrive at an evaluation of a work. (Had such teaching taken place in our churches and schools there would not be the confusion of values as we have in church music today.) In order to teach children how to evaluate a hymn the leader or teacher must first examine the songs he chooses. He cannot teach what he does not know, but it is possible to learn from books, articles, and forewords to hymnals what makes a good hymn.

As a basis for evaluation, the following questions can be asked about the text:

1. Does the song praise God, or is it ego-centric, with an abundance of personal pronouns?

2. Do the words contain scriptural truth?

3. Does the hymn give a worthy concept of religion?

4. Does the hymn foster reverence and create a spirit of worship?

5. Is the poetry good enough to read without benefit of a tune?

6. Are the words expressed simply and are the concepts suitable to the age of the child?

7. Will children tum to this hymn in later years for spiritual help in difficulty?

8. Will the children recall this song with pride in later years, or will they hear it parodied, or sung as a “pop” tune?

Deciding on the worth of a tune, whether it is a fitting offering to God in worship, presents more difficulty. The problem of quality in music is an elusive concept. The musician spends many years in the study of its many aspects and much rests on a refined taste which is often instinctive and difficult to verbalize. What the layman must accept is the fact that music has grammar just as literature has. There is a much quoted instance from The Complete Organist by the late Dr. Harvey Grace, in which he suggests that a congregation would be shocked to sing, “I is an awful sinner/The same as what you am,” but worse musical grammar is found in thousands of tunes coupled with a religious text.

Mass education in this aspect of music is too much to hope for, but, just as in the case of the grammar of language, taste can be acquired by experience. The Christian school and the church’s educational program can do much to raise the level of taste for good sacred music. Thanks to their training in the Christian colleges, many Christian school teachers are doing this so successfully that the youngsters’ tastes often sur· pass that of their parents. But attitudes and aesthetic appreciation are fostered in the home and until parents arc willing to learn, the level of appreciation will remain low. All learning requires humility. The readers of this article need that Christian virtue to accept the judgment of Christian college professors, Christian school teachers, and well-qualified church musicians. Reading about this subject will help but there is no substitute for constant use of the psalms and good hymns in church services, church meetings, choir rehearsals, group singing, and above all, in the home.


1. Thibodeau, Ralph. “Threnody for Sacred Music, 1968,” Commonweal LXXXIX (December 13, 1968), 379.

2. Sydnor, James R. The Hymn and Congregational Singing. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1960, p. 142.

3. Williamson, Melba. Booknews Letter. February, 1964.

4. Hollowood, Jane. North Star Baptist, February, 1963.

5. Education: Joining the Mainstream, The Tanglewood Symposium, part 6.

6. Joint Commission, Protestant Episcopal Church. The Hymnal 1940, Companion. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1951. p. 34.

7. Routley, Erik. Hymnal and the Faith. Greenwich, Connecticut: The Seabury Press, 1956, p. 32.

8. Routley, Erik. Church Music and Theology. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959, pp. 73–74.

9. Benson, Louis F. The Hymnody of the Christian Church, Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1956, ep. 200–287.

10. Cording, Edward A. “Music Worthy of God,” Christianity Today (November 24, 1958).

11. Nederhood, Joel H. “Time Wasted?” The Banner CIV (June 27, 1969), 5.

Mrs. Vander Baan, a Christian school teacher from Whitensville, Massachusetts, served as editor of two hymn books for children and young people, THE CHIDLREN’S HYMNBOOK, and HYMNS FOR YOUTH both published by the National Union of Christian Schools.