Music can serve as a lifelong discipleship tool. Research demonstrates that musical training can increase children’s working memory capacity. And the repetition, rhyme and rhythm of songs combined with the brain’s plasticity during childhood can cause songs to stay with children long into adulthood. The ways people use and access music have shifted with the increasing availability of music online, including how people incorporate music into the church.
Below is an interview with composer John Morton, who has written, produced and published hundreds of children’s songs for curricula for companies such as Standard Publishing and Group Publishing. He is also the co-founder of the nonprofit, EduCAN Development Corporation, and has been invited to various countries throughout East Africa to train teachers in child development.
We sat down to discuss the music trends he’s observed over the years and how children’s ministry leaders can use music to effectively teach children biblical principles.
A: What are some shifts or trends you have observed in how children’s church leaders use music?
One thing I’ve observed is that there is no longer a common set of songs that children know and sing across many different churches and regions. You can’t assume children know particular songs now because there are so many for leaders to choose from, as well as so many more ways to find songs than in the past.
Another would be an increase in leaders using adult worship songs in kids’ ministry services. Leaders do have more songs to choose from this way, but adult songs can be less effective in terms of discipleship, since so many of them contain a lot of metaphors and abstract concepts that children do not yet have the cognitive ability to understand.
A: Oh, I hadn’t considered that. So, how would kids’ comprehension of songs be different between preschool and elementary school?
In preschool, children are not able to understand abstract ideas, so it is important to sing songs that include very concrete and literal language. The songs should include repetition, easy melodies and simple lyrics that connect children with sensory details of biblical stories. What did characters see or touch? The kids may be able to sing more complex tunes, but the key is to sing songs that they actually understand. Checking in by asking questions about what they think a song is about is a good way to measure whether it’s a good fit for them.
A: And elementary school?
Kids begin to understand more abstract concepts at around the ages of seven or eight , but there is still a large gap between early elementary and late elementary in terms of cognitive development. In early elementary, simpler songs are still the best way to engage the children, but as they get older, children develop a wider vocal range and more complex vocabulary, and can therefore sing songs with more complexity in terms of structure, melody and content.
Just like speaking and reading, singing can provide children with opportunities to develop their language abilities, as they interact with teachers and peers and use words to communicate meaning.
It’s not as common as it used to be in churches, but using simple rhythm instruments during worship or class time can further engage the children as well. They can keep time with woodblocks, rhythm sticks, or instruments of their own making, keeping their minds, mouths and hands fully engaged throughout the songs.
A: Early middle school is sometimes considered to be part of children’s ministry; would music change much between late elementary and middle school?
In early middle school, kids begin to exert more independence, entering the more “grown up phase.” They may not be as enthusiastic about the sillier songs as they were before and it is important for leaders to consider the fact that young boys’ voices are changing when they choose a song’s key. By middle school, the students can begin worshipping Jesus from their own hearts, so leaders could even ask them for input as to what songs they would like to sing.
A: How do you think children’s ministry leaders can help teach kids what it means to worship Jesus from their own hearts?
When teaching children how to worship, it is most important to convey what worship i s , and not necessarily what it is “supposed” to look like . Worship is ascribing worth to God, and it can take many forms. Children may have ways that they like to worship God that might look different than adults. Allowing them freedom to express what is in their hearts for God in their kid-like ways teaches them about having a heart for God and not necessarily just doing church-like things.
Modeling life with Jesus is very important, as is living in community. It is important to keep in mind, though, that discipleship is not about enculturating kids or showing them how to simply fit-in with the rest of the church-goers. It is about teaching them who God is, what he has done for them and what it means to have a relationship with him, which includes expressing their hearts in worship.
A: Any last parting thoughts?
Just one thing. Worship styles come and go, but the fact that music enables kids to memorize principles and verses will stay the same. The heart of worship stays the same. The purpose of kids’ church is to train children to know and love Jesus, and that is the most important thing.