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.