Children's Hymns in Worship: Using Repetition

I love singing with children - (well, most of the time, but that part doesn't come into this story). They soak up words and melodies like sponges, storing them away and pouring them out at every opportunity, “in season and out of season” - as the parents in our church ruefully attest.

What makes a good children's hymn? Or a good song for young people? Nobody I know, and no-one I've ever read, has ever come up with the formula.

The problem is compounded by the fact that children will gleefully and confidently sing a song that is not at all what we think of as a “children's” hymn. Three-and-a-half year-old Joseph in our church can sing “Kwase, Kwase/Be Like Him” by Kirk Franklin, or join his (younger) brother Benjamin in a duet of “U ya-i mose” from Zimbabwe. (Two-year old Benjamin sings the bass part.) And, while I'm thinking of it, I remember 11- and 12-year-olds singing - lustily and with good courage - Charles Wesley's “And can it be that I should gain” at every opportunity at summer camp.

Then there's the practical challenge. In the classic worship situation, children troop up to the front for the Children's Sermon while we adults sing verse 1 and 2 of a hymn that mentions children. Then, as they head off to Sunday School, we sing the 3rd and final verse. We might be singing a worthy hymn, but we are really using it as walking music, a sung processional and recessional to frame the children's time up at the front.

Making a place for children's song in worship brings with it some practical problems - not the least of which is that many of the kids don't read yet. Even if they do, they don't carry hymnbooks up to the front. I'm also not convinced that (even for readers) projected words on the screen are the answer. Give me a human face any time - but that is also another story.

Of course, the content is important, but I look first at the form. I look for how its repetitions (rhythmic, melodic and lyrical) lead the singer into the heart of the song.  Then I look at how the repetitive elements can be used in teaching.

I love African American spirituals and gospel songs for that reason. In my church, Trafalgar Presbyterian in Oakville, Ontario, we use one song for a month, linking it with the church school lesson. I think of it as repetition on a large scale, with the whole of worship for that month being the stanzas, and the children's hymn being the refrain.

We used “I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” while they were studying communion. We used “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” while they were studying the Joshua story, and (since it was Black History month) linked it with stories of African Canadians and African Americans making other kinds of walls fall down.

Our choir sang “Guide My Feet” (thanks to the new “African American Heritage Hymnal” from GIA) as an anthem, and I am looking forward for just the right time to use it with the children.

We use other kinds of repetition. Two weeks ago, we used the opening lines of Handel's “Hallelujah” from “Messiah” as a response to the call to worship.

John Bell's “Jesus is risen from the grave” and “When Jesus the healer” both use repetition as a way into the story and we have used the repetition in various ways. Sometimes I have the adults begin each new verse, and then gesture for the children to continue. I take time at the beginning of worship, when necessary, to teach how we will do the children's song later in worship.

I often have them sing by themselves and unaccompanied, either for a whole verse or chorus, or singing the repeating line. When the song depends on their voices - and they can hear the difference - they gladly fill the acoustic space created for them. It lets us all know that there are times when “a child shall lead them.”

To Be Continued.

Singing Pentecost

PourMusic adds many layers of meaning - subtle or obvious - to the drama of scripture.

Take Pentecost for example. The story in Acts 2 is rich with allusion, imagery, history, narrative - all of which have filled many books and many sermons. If we frame the reading of the story with a musical response sung by the congregation, we encourage the worshipping community to glimpse more of those layers. More than glimpse: experience.

It is the prophet Joel's story: though he'd lived long before New Testament times, his presence continued to be felt. Repeating the refrain reminds us of the prophetic witness that informs this account of the event.

It is a Jewish story: there were many Jewish renewal movements before, during and after Jesus' time. The events described by Luke took place during Shavu'oth, the harvest festival, with Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world. The music below is in the form of a hora, a Jewish dance of celebration. Even though the composition is modern - and we of course do not know how the music of the time of Jesus sounded - the music itself can give us a flavour of the times.

This is our story: singing a response allows us to both listen and participate in it.
The music lives in our soul long after we've left the worship space, drawing us back into the story to experience new insight.

Singing also gives children an access into the scripture reading: they can remember short texts and repeated melodies and rhythms. Parents in my church community often ask me how to get their children to stop singing - over and over and over - music they learned in church.

For a downloadable .pdf file of this song, click here.  For an .mp3 file to listen to, click here.

Deck the Walls with Praise

I've been using a tool for small group worship that has helped bring a fresh twist to 'plain ol' strumming and singing.

I print out twently-four, 8.5 x 11 sheets that each have an artfully fonted, black and white excerpt from the Psalms or some other praise text.  If the room is large, I print out double-copies.  Before leading, I hang these sheets on the walls of the worship space using scotch tape.  Some I hang low on the wall, some eye-level, and some higher.  Some sheets, I scatter on the floor.  It is best to have the sheets three to five feet apart from each other.


Typically, as I did early this morning for a Fuller D.Min. class, I begin with one song of declaratory praise, sung together.  After that song is finished, I play quietly as I explain the worship excercise, saying:

1. Notice the words of praise from the scriptures scattered throughout the room.
2. As the music continues quietly, feel free to wander about, reading these verses.
3. You may read in silence.  However, as a particular verse, phrase, or word impacts your soul, you are invited to read it aloud, spontaneously.
4. There is no hurry.  We will allow several minutes to praise God through his Word in this way.

After the groups seems to have made it through most of the scriptures, I seemlessly lead into a final few songs.  When this ritual is unfamiliar to the group at hand, it never fails to prompt a sincere and engaging worship response.

Free "Scripture Posts" can be downloaded   here  (these were created by Aaron Klinefelter)

4/30/06 music

Just for fun I thought I'd post a list of music we're using this Sunday with some notes about the choices:

4/30/06 3rd Sunday of Easter
Scripture readings: Psalm 116 and Colossians 1:15-23 (sermon text)

Bb – A Shout Rings Out/Daar juicht een toon (PsH 392)
    “prelude” choir sings verse 1 in Dutch
    then with cong 4 verses

Psalm 116 with “I Love the Lord” (SNC 227)
(We'll volley back and forth between the reader and the people singing the song.)

The First Place
(A great song by Matthew Westerholm which fits the sermon scripture like a glove. I created backing vocals for the choir to fill out the refrain a bit.)

D - God So Loved the World (choir only)
D – At the Name of Jesus/Walker (JN 32)
D/Eb – Oh Que Bueno (PsH 401)
    (using clave, maracas and bongos to bring the rhythm to life)
Eb - Beautiful Savior (JN 5)
Eb – O Christ, the Great Foundation (SNC 177)
    (May use the "Let It Rip" arrangement of the tune “Aurelia”)

By way of context, the congregation is Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids. It's a liturgical CRC church with strong ties to Calvin College, Calvin Seminary and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Stylistically, we lean heavily on the Psalter Hymnal and Sing! a New Creation. We also use a good bit of global music, some home grown songs, and dip lightly into choral repertoire and praise and worship.


Greg Scheer

Confessions of a Baby Ethnomusicologist

I have no business doing what I'm doing.  I'm a United Methodist pastor by training and spent 25 years in parish ministry.  But God's calling is never predictable.  Five years ago I took a leap of faith based on that new calling and founded a ministry called The Ministry of Congregational Singing.   I try to help congregations sort out why their singing has gotten timid or conflicted.

Then a year and a half ago, a colleague who now serves as mission director for United Methodism's new work in Cameroon emailed and said, in effect, "I need someone to come over here and encourage the young leaders of the church to create their first hymnal/worshipbook."  Since the first leap had been really energizing, I decided to leap again. 

At one level, I was a fool to say yes.  I had no business thinking I could walk into a bi-lingual culture (French/English) with only a few years of high school French and act as an entrepreneur of hope for people who had more music in their index fingers than I had in my whole body.  But sometimes the call to do something comes before you have all the actual equipment to live in that call.

What I'll be doing in this blog is to tell stories about the journey I've had as a baby ethnomusicologist.  I'll report the stumblings and the victories.  I hope what will be most transparent is the degree to which what is happening in Cameroonian Methodism is nothing more or less than the grace of God taking amazing forms.

Blessings on the journey.

John Thornburg

Further Thoughts on Lamenting Well

My community has experienced the benefits of expressing our anger and confusion with God in a time of Lament.  One time of lament that we (the worship arts team) came up with was particularly meaningful.  We married two songs together and used a Psalm of Lament to structure our time.  The Psalm was 60, and the songs were "O God, Where are You Now?" W/M by Sufjan Stevens and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," W/M by Watts/Croft.  The first song can be found on the album "Michigan."  It contains the following stanzas, rich with meaning and content:

"Oh God, where are you now? Oh God, save somehow

There's no other man who could raise the dead

So do what you can to anoint my head"

Stevens is a young artist (and Hope College Grad) who has gained notoriety for his plan to write an album about all 50 states.  "Michigan" and "Illinois" have been released, "Oregon"Sufjan  is currently being researched.  Being an Episcopal, he no doubt approves of this liturgical use of his music.

We interspersed the three verses with the reading of the Psalm and with times of instrumental music (comping).  We closed the time of Lament with the promises of scripture found at the end of Psalm 60 ("Give us aid against the enemy, for human help is worthless.  With God we will gain the victory...) and an almost a capella version of "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (verse one only).  We led the entire section in the musical key of C major for ease of singability.

I hope that this has been helpful and inspirational as you seek to plan meaningful times of lament in your own context.

pax, pba


FootholdSomeone I know well recently entered -- and won -- a Hymn Search contest held at Fuller Seminary.  One purpose of the song was to commemorate the Fortieth Anniversary of the School of Psychology. 
The other was to articulate something about trust in God for healing.  The author thought Psalm 25 was an excellent expression of this sort of prayer, and so used it as a basis for this text.  It is meant be sung to the tune Kingsfold.  Here is the text and melody laid out, with chords hand-written above.  This harmonic arrangement of the tune is courtesy of the jazz pianist/preacher Bill Carter.  To get a sense of the arrangement, click here for a down-and-dirty homemade Mp3.

Come to the Table

Screenhunter_002 A wonderful way to make explicit the sacramental connection between our everyday life and its distillation in liturgy is to sing a variation on the Great Prayer over our ordinary meals. Chip Andrus, a pastor, teacher, and musician with the Office of Theology and Worship for the PC(USA) has written a lively folk prayer that works well for just this purpose.             

Sing upbeat, but not too fast—maybe 88 bpm. The song is syncopated throughout, but is notated more simply here for easier learning. Once you’re familiar with it as written, attempt appropriate syncopation where you feel it (the third “come” in the first measure should slightly anticipate the third beat). If you have trouble, ask your kids for help. The song repeats the chorus a few times, and then concludes moving to the tonic and repeating “come.”

This wonderfully percussive tune works best antiphonally. When the meal is almost ready, begin to sing (“Come, come, come!”) as you bring the food from the kitchen to the table. Or send out a family member to the corners of the house, singing and summoning everyone together. When all are assembled, conclude with a spoken prayer to God, since this song is a call to pray and feast rather than a prayer itself.

It’s especially fitting to pray following a classic prayer pattern, like a collect. So, for instance, begin by (1) addressing God and naming one of God’s attributes (“God, you are . . .”); then (2) speak a word of thanks and/or make an appeal rooted in that attribute (“we thank you for/help us to . . .”); finally, (3) express an aspiration rooted in God’s character, an outcome that makes sense of the request (“so that we might . . .”). For example, (1) Lord Jesus, you said that wherever two or three are gathered together, you are with them. (2) We thank you, then, for this good food, for those who made it, for each other, and for your presence with us as we eat. Open our eyes to see you at this table, (3) so that we might more easily see you when we leave it.

(For more table graces for the home, see here.)

The Lord Be with You

TLBWY.openingA few years ago, my worship team tackled the question of how to begin our 'contemporary' worship services.  Sometimes the band would just walk up front and begin to play. Sometimes there'd be a time of teaching new music.   Sometimes there would be a song that felt like a prelude.  Other times there were announcements. 

We wanted to create a dramatic launch to the service ("Here we go!") without succumbing to the cultural forces that pull us toward making the whole thing an entertaining show ("Ladies and Gentlemen!  Your attention please!")

We decided to begin with an appropriate greeting -- in the Lord's name, if not in the Lord's voice -- and then remind each other of why we've gathered: to worship, to renew the covenant of grace between God and God's people.  What we came up with was a short opening song.  Click here for the music in lead sheet format.  And here for an Mp3 recording.

It's free for anyone's use - but do report that use to CCLI. 

Technology in Worship

Last week I finished writing a piece for Fuller Seminary's 3x-yearly magazine of theology & commentary, Theology News & Notes. This particular issue's theme is the place of music in worship, and I was asked to contribute a piece on the effect of technology on worship music. My thesis, simply put, is a truism borrowed from the computer industry -- hardware drives software:

As the church seeks to make the most of certain hardware technology – amplification, lyric projection, and looping DJ software, for example – we can expect that our worship software, i.e. the style of our worship itself, will also change. It may expand in potentially wonderful and creatively enculturated new ways, following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Or it may be narrowed in ways that are hip, but historically, and even theologically, suspect.

The article then examines the three aforementioned technologies, pointing out the good and the bad, the helpful and the heinous.

The idea for the piece arose arose out of a seed of an observation about hardware and software and the composition of some contemporary worship songs:

I have begun to see signs that some songs are being composed, perhaps unconsciously, not just to take advantage of the technology, but bounded by its peculiar limitations. The structure of the songs and the shape of the melodies are being molded to fit the size of the screen and the super-sized words projected onto it. Thus, we no longer get lyrical lines of melody and text; we get textual phraselets and melodic motifs -- mere musical fragments, not bearing repetition, but repeated nevertheless. And repeated.

Lest I appear a Luddite here, I hasten to add that in the article I have many good things to say about amplification, projection, and yes, DJ looping software. SplashlogoBut I am concerned that we are less discerning than we might be. I challenge you, for example, to visit this website and find a single theological insight brought to bear on the use of technology in worship. Sigh. There's a lot of work to be done.

I am quite interested in hearing from others who read this blog: what effects on worship style/software do you see as a result of the church's adoption/adaptation of certain hardware technologies?  Do you have examples of really wonderful and fitting uses of technology? 

For example, I have seen pastors use video clips in sermons, sometimes well, sometimes not so much.  But the time I really thought a video clip was used well in a service was when the sanctuary went dark just before the congregational prayer, and we saw a 5 minute home-made video that had been taken the week before by the pastor going to visit some of the elderly folks at the nursing home and a couple of shut-ins.  These people told little bits of their stories, and said what they wanted prayer for.  Some couldn't talk, and then the pastor did a bit of voice-over.  It was a powerful introduction to congregational prayer - reminding us again that we are a body of Christ, united with many others, present and not present, as we gather together to pray.