When I was five or six years old, the most exciting part of Christmas Eve wasn’t falling asleep with the anticipation of opening presents the next morning. It wasn’t eating cookies or seeing the bright lights up and down the streets of the neighborhood. It wasn’t even watching the snow fall softly outside the window while sipping the hot chocolate my mom had poured for me. Instead, the thing I most cherished was sitting in the back seat of our family’s minivan while driving to church, singing Christmas hymns with my family. It taught me to love music and it nurtured my faith.
Young children should be brought up in a church with good and sound hymns. Cute rhymes and simplified Bible stories may be accessible, but hymns are the best way to teach faith. They combine poetry and music to create beauty — and they possess a special ability to inspire.
“He who sings, prays twice,” the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said. The church has a rich history of hymn writing. Chanting the historic liturgy marked the beginning of hymns in the church and congregational singing especially took off during and after the Protestant Reformation. The best hymns bring theology and doctrine to life and are set to strong, meaningful music. Many churches lament young people’s drift away from weekly worship. Teaching and singing hymns from a young age guards against that trend.
Hymnal texts are part of the church’s theology; they are an extension of the pastor’s preaching and the proclaiming of God’s word. While children may not understand the ceremony of the worship service, the sermon from the pulpit, or the litany of petitions during prayer, they can participate in an important part of worship by learning and singing hymns. Indeed, hymns are part of a church’s purpose in the extension of the Gospel.
Children are likely to learn the words of hymns more easily than lengthy Bible passages or complex theology, since hymns are set to music. Tunes remain in the memories of children and repetition amplifies their meaning. The music also attaches an emotion to the words, often a feeling of happiness and delight. After singing with my family on the Christmas Eve car ride to church, I triumphantly sang “O Come, all Ye Faithful” with my friends as the service began and “Joy to the World” at the end of the service. We quickly memorized these songs, and the congregation beamed as we, the first-and-second graders, sang with faithful exuberance.
But when appropriate, they also create feelings of solemnity and reflection. In choirs on Good Friday, I sang “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” We understood it was a time of mourning, a time to realize that the Christmas joy we experienced a few months earlier meant nothing without the passion of Christ. This is the essence of the law and gospel paradigm, an indispensable part of Christian theology.
Singing hymns at a young age also provides children an introduction to music. Even children who don’t take music lessons on an instrument, if they sing hymns every week in church, receive a wealth of music education and knowledge by osmosis. I learned some of the very basics of melodic lines, harmonies, and cadences from singing hymns at a young age. And although children can simply memorize words and melodies, singing hymns from a hymnal helps them learn to read music off of a page. Seeing the staves, the key signatures, the duration of the notes, and the intervals between tones is distinct in singing traditional hymns as opposed to contemporary praise music.
Modern worship music consists of reading words accompanied by guitar chords and it relies on vacuous repetition or improvisation instead of the depth and structure that hymns contain. This depth and structure is, of course, still accessible to children. Modern, simplified worship music assumes children aren’t smart or sophisticated enough to believe the tenants and the mysteries of the Christian faith.
Hearing children sing in church, though it may be shrill and not perfectly in tune, is an opportunity to be thankful and joyous because of God’s the gift of music and its function in bringing the faith to God’s children. For me, hymns built a foundation of faith and music — and it all started in the back of a minivan.
Nathan Grime is a junior studying Rhetoric and Public Address.