Making Music for and with Children at Church

Oct 10, 2023 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…" Chances are, if your congregation sings this song, even if it is one of the newer, less racially charged versions, the elder members of your congregation are much more enamored of it than the actual children are. Frankly, in most congregations, the music congregants hear on a regular basis hardly ever is chosen with our youngest members in mind. But music is one of the most important forms of expression in the human experience. Were I to mention important life events like weddings, funerals, graduations, proms—I bet there's music that pops into your head that's intimately attached to each one. Hearing and making music enables us in meaning-making, unites us in purpose, and powerfully aligns the rhythms of our movement and our breath, even if only for a moment. So how do we make sure that God's gift of music is available to children as they live out their faith, both inside and outside of the worship setting?

Below, I'll provide some suggested guidelines that can be used to equip children and youth to experience music as a beloved tool with which to deepen and express their faith. First and foremost, I suggest making church a place where people listen to and make lots of music, and not just in worship. As it becomes less and less common in our wider culture for average people to be given opportunities to make music, church is one of the few places where music belongs to everyone. So surround your spaces with sacred sounds, from background music when other activities are happening, to Orff instruments used to accompany Bible stories, to sung prayers as standard fare in many different types of gatherings. And cultivate the belief that talent is not a pre-requisite of communicating with God and one another through song. We all have bodies that can be used to create a variety of joyful noises, and we should all be empowered to do so.

Another useful tool is making sure the devotional music we expose children to is developmentally appropriate, both in terms of the lyrics and, if it's music that is intended to be sung by them, is actually suited to children's voices and memory capacity. Your minister of music can likely help point out pieces that contain too-large intervals or overly complex melodies, etc. That said, also be willing to occasionally expand their horizons will very high-quality music that is worth a bit of extra effort. Explain why this "hard song" is actually really amazing to hear/play/sing, and give them the chance to participate, even imperfectly.

Ensure the lyrics of sung pieces are in keeping with the theological positions of your tradition. Hearing offensive theological content is bad enough, but having to sing out words of oppression is painful on a whole other level. Read all verses of hymns and other sung material ahead of time and ensure you aren't asking your young people to sing things you would never ask them to say. Also take the time to learn who wrote the music you plan to engage and develop a robust theology around when and how you can and cannot "separate the art from the artist," and let young people have a say.

Make your music accessible to d/Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and nonspeaking children, as well as other children with a wide variety of dis/abilities. Provide professional signed interpretation (and please only ever have children learn the signs for songs if you are doing so to improve accessibility for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, not as entertainment for hearing people), regularly include instrumental music in your time together, and make frequent use of percussive sounds that can be felt through the floor/furniture. Talk directly with children with disabilities and their families about how you can best make every aspect of your time together accessible, including the music. Remember that children with disabilities may have different questions and suggestions regarding accessibility than their parents have, especially if the parents do not have the disabilities that the children have, and it’s worth getting both perspectives rather than only relying on what the parents say.

Incorporate scripture and key theological/doctrinal statements of your faith, and put Bibles and hymnals/worship books in young people's hands (and on their cell phones!). Ensure they know that these tools belong to them, not just to church professionals. Whenever I encounter adult Christians who tell me they don't have any scripture memorized, I start singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel's Messiah. Almost every time, they quickly start singing along, and I let them know that they have indeed memorized portions of the 11th and 19th chapters of Revelation. Music is an incredibly powerful memory tool, and whether it's the “Hallelujah Chorus;” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God;” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling;” or “Let It Be,” by the Beatles, when we pair powerful scripture or doctrinal statements with beautiful music, they are much more likely to stick in our brains.

Lastly, provide music that speaks to the breadth of children's lived experiences, and give them a say in the musical life of the congregation. (Often, music written specifically with children in mind only invites them to express feelings of joy. Make sure they have musical resources they can turn to when they are sad, angry, confused, etc.) Be willing to also reach outside of the hymnal! Searching for answers to life's big existential questions is a near-universal experience, so we shouldn't be surprised to find that issues of faith appear in every genre of music. Let young people join your liturgical planning team and invite them to have a say in other spaces where music is planned. Ensure they know that the music we choose has to meet certain criteria (e.g., fits your theology, makes sense with the acoustics of your space, is accessible to a wide variety of skill levels, etc.) and that they might be told no if the music they suggest doesn't work for those reasons. But you may be very pleasantly surprised by the beauty and theological depth of the "secular" music they share with you. The lives of young people today can be very hard indeed, and many surround themselves with music that speaks to them of joy and pain, life and death, and all that it is to be human together. Their songs have much to teach us, and all our voices stand to be made stronger and more authentic when we join them as one.

Topics: Children Ministry, Youth Ministry, Music Ministry, children, music

Jessica Davis

Written by Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis, MA is a Christian educator, pastoral counselor, church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Their ministry passions include youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, they can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with their work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.


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