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.