Posted by: rcottrill | July 1, 2010

Using Hymns with Children

Ihave been asked on occasion how we can get teen-agers to appreciate and sing the great hymns and gospel songs of the church. There are many ways to encourage this, but the most basic principle of all is: Don’t wait to start this until they’re in their teens!

Each children’s program in the church, Sunday School, Children’s Church, week-day clubs, if you have these, should be regularly introducing and using hymns. Using hymns with children prepares them to have a fuller part in adult worship later on. Conversely, to use only children’s songs and choruses in children’s programming may handicap their later integration into the adult services of worship.

Instead of Heavenly Sunshine or some shallow contemporary song, why not use the first verse of a good hymn as if it were a “chorus” (or perhaps the refrain of a hymn as a chorus, if it can stand alone)? Later, other stanzas could be explained and added.

In some cases, you might have to define a word or explain a concept or two. But so much the better. How often have we taken a moment to do that with the adults? You could also tell a story about the author, or tell how the hymn came to be written. (Many such stories appear on this blog.) If this is done consistently, what children learn will help to prepare them for more meaningful worship with the whole congregation.

And there should be some system to it. Make a list of the hymns you want to introduce in a particular children’s program of the church. Solid hymns, ones that they will treasure in years to come. Then give some thought to how they are to be taught and used. Perhaps you could have a “hymn of the month,” or play a good video of the hymn. Or if you have a gifted soloist or instrumentalist in the congregation, perhaps he or she could drop in on the children’s program and sing or play the song. Or you could involve the children in a little drama, acting out the story of the song.

In addition to fine children’s hymns such as Jesus Loves Me, and Philip Bliss’s Jesus Loves Even Me, here are a few hymns for which the first stanza is sufficiently clear on its own:

My Jesus, I Love Thee (explain “follies”)
Ye Must Be Born Again
Wonderful Words of Life (explain “duty”)
O How I Love Jesus
Jesus Is the Joy of Living(refrain only)
The Light of the World Is Jesus
Amazing Grace (explain “wretch”)
Trust and Obey
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (explain “griefs” and “forfeit”)
Praise Him! Praise Him! (by Fanny Crosby)
Constantly Abiding (refrain)
Blessed Be the Name (explain “majesty supreme”)

With a little study of the hymn book, you will be able to think of many more, and you’ll find using hymns with children very profitable. It builds each child’s repertoire for time to come.


  1. I would add here that even as adults we don’t know every word that comes through a hymn. I did a blogpost on the word, “bulwark” in the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

    Now that word wasn’t used in the translations in my denomination’s hymnals. Still, even though I was well into my adult years before I learned what a bulwark was, the descriptor “never failing” provided enough context to understand the concepts being taught if not the word’s meaning itself.

    I remember telling a pastor, “That hymn used to be titled, T’was on that Dark, That Doleful Night and now it has a completely different title altogether.”

    He said, “Yeah, but who even knows what “doleful” means anymore?”

    I said, “Oh, I know what it means! I can’t put it into words, but I know what it means!”

    • It’s a process. We can’t stop the flow of a worship service to give definitions for each word of a hymn. But time by time, we can point out a word or phrase, and paraphrase it, as we introduce the hymn. I once did a series of Bible studies that analyzed the biblical teaching of familiar hymns. In that setting, I was able to talk more extensively about meaning.

      Don’t know if you’ve ever seen The New Horizon Ladder Dictionary. It lists the 5,000 most frequently used words in the English language. Many folks, I’m sure, never get beyond that (with the exception of specialized terms related to their occupation or a hobby). But I don’t think we need to edit out of Shakespeare or Dickens–or our hymns!–every word that might not find its way into our daily conversation. We just need to patiently teach! (if I may split an infinitive).

      As to male choirs (your other post), yes, the choir is superb. The close harmony, for men or women’s groups, that comes from singing in the same register provides some luscious sounds. Brings back memories. I sang in a men’s chorus for a number of years. We did everything from Mozart to the simplest gospel songs. At one point, the choir had a row of 16 second basses! We could rumble along at the botton of the chord and it was great fun. Once we went on tour, and stopped at a restaurant to eat. Before the meal, we stood at our seats and sang Be Present at Our Table Lord. (Talk about a conversation stopper! But it was also a simple way to say who we were, and what we believed.)

  2. Here is another good one for children: I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.

    I am familiar with this congregation, btw! They have a K-8 day school, and these are the kindergarten graduates.

    Oh, and you can split infinitives any time you want 🙂


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