It is often what a person sings about God that he or she really believes and takes to heart. Dr. Hugh T. McElrath once said, “Singing is the most practical theology taught.” If we care about what our children think about God, the music we select for them to sing truly matters.
So, what criteria should be used when writing or selecting music for children?
Children need to hear songs that are true. They need to sing songs that present the Bible’s teachings with clarity and accuracy. It is important to note that there are songs that are biblically accurate but not readily understandable to children. There are also songs that are simple and clear but a bit sloppy in asserting truth about God. Ideally songs should be clear and true.
When people look for Christian songs for children, they ask themselves, “What do the children need to learn?” In an essay entitled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952), C. S. Lewis wrote, “If we ask that question, we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask, ‘What do I need?’ For I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age.” In other words, children are just as human as adults, and they very often need to learn the same things. Kids need to praise the mighty Creator for all of His dazzling greatness. They need to sing about humanity’s rebellion against God, and confess their sins corporately through song. Children’s music should teach them how to confess faith in Christ—in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Children need to sing about how Christ speaks to the Father on behalf of Christians, and how he will one day return and restore this broken world. Children need to hear the gospel in their music—just the same as us.
Children need culturally appropriate music that is excellent in its own genre—good music that even adults will like. In the same essay quoted earlier, C. S. Lewis said, “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” The same goes for a children’s song. Of course, musical tastes will vary. Musical genres are a matter of aesthetics and not morality. It does not matter whether you are a protégé of Isaac Watts, Matt Redman, or both. Whatever style of music you prefer, write and play it in a way that reflects God’s excellence. Write and play to the glory of God. If you are a composer, write creatively as a reflection of the Creator. Since children love repetition (“Play it again, Daddy!”), whatever songs you sow in their hearts will be heard again and again. Yes, we may be listening to that song in the minivan all the way to grandma’s house!
Children need music that is singable. Children’s songs should be in a range that is appropriate for young children (pre-puberty) to sing. This is NOT always easy to find. Unfortunately, too many songwriters write for their own low voices and not for kids’ voices. Children’s songs should also have a well-crafted memorable melody that is easy to learn.
The bottom line: a song’s meaning needs to be as clear as possible for children. Consider their age. Because young children have a difficult time with abstract concepts, we must avoid songs with a strong use of poetic and symbolic imagery and seek songs that have concrete language. For example, a poetic song may say: “I look to the cross,” rather than saying more concretely: “Thank you for Jesus. He died on the cross for my sins.”
"You follow a liturgy with your children?" you may ask. Well, yes. We believe that a liturgy is a great tool to teach kids about the various ways that Christians express faith—praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, confession of truth. Incorporating these different types of songs will help children learn about God and learn to pray to him. It will give them thoughts about him and words to say to him they might not otherwise have. Along the same lines, following the Christian calendar helps the children to think about the Lord throughout the year and to remember him. Remembering is taught throughout the Scriptures as the means by which God’s wandering children repent from sin and embrace him again. We want our children to remember the Lord all year long (from Easter to Christmas) because are prone to wander and forget, too.
After all, we’re talking about kids. Children love to laugh, dance, and do hand motions when they sing. And the Lord doesn’t ask us to only bring him a dirge.
At most churches, you will have only a limited amount of time to teach and sing music with kids. There are countless songs we could teach them. When we select music for children, we should earnestly pursue the same Scriptural accuracy and God-honoring musical excellence we pursue when selecting songs for adult services. When evaluating a song, ask yourself, “In light of these standards, is this song good, better, or best?” Then, choose only the best. It would be easy to pick a bunch of church songs for our kids, skimp on planning, and simply entertain the kids as if you were at a library sing-a-long. But we are called to a higher standard. We must lead our children to sing to God.
Check out Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet, a 5-day curriculum for VBS and Bible Clubs that teaches kids about responsive worship. The starter kit includes a director’s guide, games guide, craft guide, assemblies, printables, and much more. Learn more and sign up to receive promotional information at the New Growth Press website.
I worked on this post in collaboration with Chandi Plummer. It originally appeared at The Worshiping Community.