By Kristin Thompson
Do you remember the first time you worshiped God through song? How old were you? I was probably eight years old, singing the words to “Awesome God” from an overhead projector in Sunday School.
I want to invite you to come on a journey with me (a self-proclaimed children’s ministry geek) to explore the impact of children’s worship. I even want to introduce you to a few friends/experts that I roped into the conversation too. We’ll hear from a children’s pastor, a children’s musical artist, and a kids’ worship leader. So sit down with a mug of something hot, and let’s begin to enter the territory where the topics of worship and children meet!
Kids and Worship: All Forms Are Valuable
Children experience worship of many varieties. Often, kids get to be part of adult worship in their church community. This may be the main way children are exposed to worship— wiggling in the pews or draped over a parent’s shoulder during the worship service. It is also uniquely beneficial when children get to participate in worship with their family at home. Multigenerational church services and family worship times at home are part of the ways kids get to worship. The one I want to focus in on is kids worshiping with other kids in their own unique kid way.
Jane Van Antwerp, a children’s pastor with over 30 years of experience in children’s ministry, states it this way: “Worship is about responding to God. So much of church for kids is about listening and doing, but worship gives them a chance to respond. It’s essential because it really is about the connection between God and kids. It’s about an individual connection within a community—seeing others respond and belong, and kids doing so themselves.” It’s this response to God within community in true kid style that makes for great children’s worship.
The reality is, kids are capable of worshiping God within the context of being children. They need adults to advocate for them, to entrust and lead them in worship experiences designed for them, and to welcome them into the worshiping community of believers. Kids are ready to be participants in the church, and having a kid-friendly way to do that is crucial.
Part of the Goal of Kids’ Worship Is Child Discipleship
Though this is well-traveled territory for many worship leaders, let’s restate the goal of children’s worship: Kids worship gives children a chance to honor God, and to grow together in their faith in Jesus.
Kids worship is a part of child discipleship. When we talk about child discipleship, we’re referring to a child’s deepening ability to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ in their daily life. At Awana, where I work, we have found that that best format for child discipleship happens in a setting that is both highly relational and highly scriptural. This approach enables children to interact with God through His truth given to us in the Bible, and in communities of deepening relationships like family, church, school, or ministries like Awana.
Worship helps kids feel like they are a part of the community as they sing together the words that are deeply rooted in Scripture. This is why kids’ worship matters so much—it is an ideal setting for discipleship!
Guidance From Scripture: Kids and Worship
What does Scripture say about musical worship and kids? Paul tells the church in Ephesus to participate in singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20) When we remember that the early Christian communities were comprised of whole households including children, it is easy to imagine that children participated in this as well. Scripture helps us see that kids belong in corporate worship settings.
In Scripture, we read of an account where Jesus used a child coming to Him as an example to adults. Jesus told all of us to imitate a child’s approach to him, implying a child’s boundless trust and faith in the heavenly Father. Jesus said, Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Mark 10:14) Experienced kids’ worship leader and workshop instructor Megan Whittow refers to this verse saying, “God’s kingdom is going to be all about worshiping… acknowledging Him for who He is, and in this verse, Jesus says that kids have the right attitude about that.” Scripture tells us that kids (maybe even more than adults) worship God with the right posture of humility and dependence.
Kids’ music creator and artist Randall Goodgame, of Slugs & Bugs, gives additional insight to what Scripture says to adults regarding leadership of kids in general and specifically within kids’ worship settings. “Jesus says in Luke 18:16 to let the children come to Him—and not to hinder them. And I consider this a shot across the bow to anyone to take up a guitar in front of kids. Kids will sing whatever we tell them to sing, so we have to be discerning—all the responsibility falls on the leader to provide a guided experience that helps and not hinders a child in coming to Jesus through music.” Scripture calls us to be part of kids coming to Jesus (including through worship). This call in Scripture to treat children with special care makes us all their advocates. This extends to being advocates of kids worship as well because worship is part of their process of coming to Jesus.
Providing an Experience
If you were to look at a group of kids as they sing worship songs, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell at what level each of them is worshiping God. Randall Goodgame uses a great metaphor to describe what kids’ worship looks like from the outside. He explains, “When we lead kids in worship, we’re putting them in an opportunity to have a childlike experience, but it can seem messy to adults. I think of it like a soccer game for 6-year-olds—everyone is all over the place, and some kids might seem more into it than others, but everyone is having an experience together.” I love this metaphor because it carries so well over into what it implies for the role of the adult worship leader.
Just like a soccer coach of 6-year-olds will tell you, the adult is giving the structure and parameters but must be willing to let kids be kids as they try out the experience. As Randall says, “We need to provide, as the adult, the experience for kids to participate in worship at whatever level they feel ready to engage in. They might just be thinking ‘this is fun I want to sing this song,’ but the song also needs to be deep enough for kids who are ready to grasp the truths in it.” This may seem like a tall task, but let’s bring in some insights to help because it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or overcomplicated.
Children Are Unique
For some reason when we think of children, we tend to take all that we know about “people” as a general category and push it all to the side to start a separate category, and label it “children.” Children are not a separate species, nor are they small versions of adults—they are a group of individuals at a particular point of development with distinct needs and characteristics. The good news is that every single adult has firsthand experience with being a child, and therefore can relate in one way or another to the needs of children.
Children are developmentally going through a lot as they grow from infancy to adulthood. Their minds and bodies are an ever-changing landscape of ability. They are learning at rapid rates about themselves and their world while simultaneously undergoing physical changes. Because of this growth process, they have certain needs that have to be accounted for in the kind of experience we facilitate.
A great deal of determining what is the best practice for childrens’ worship depends on what we know about kids’ needs through the lens of child development. Let’s explore some child development insights that have implications for discovering the best practices in kids worship.
Repetition, movement, and fun have specific reasons why they resonate well with kids. Repetition allows the brain to reinforce pathways and information so that it’s better remembered and more easily accessible. Movement allows the child to engage physically through acting out gestures along with a song, making it register better in their minds and using some of the energy they have (sometimes in abundance).
Fun is of critical importance to kids because it is the channel through which they learn. Fun isn’t about providing entertainment for kids—it is actually using the best pathways in their brain to involve them deeper in a learning opportunity. Research is clear when it comes to the value of play and fun in how it helps learning—the fact that it is enjoyable is a great side benefit!
We also have to keep in mind the fact that children are more literal thinkers. If we want them to sing with us about an abstract concept concerning God, we need to be ready to explain it on their level so they can sing it with meaning. Kids on a daily basis experience deep thoughts and emotions they struggle to express—have you ever seen the grief expressed by a child whose block building has unexpectedly been destroyed? If kids are experiencing deep feelings, they are ready for those depths to be responded to with the truth and comfort God gives us in His Word.
Providing deep yet singable songs with good fun energy opens a child-friendly avenue for the truths their childlike faith can attach to and trust. Teaching kids to sing songs that contain theological truths is a statement of trust to kids, but let’s remember that they are the experts in childlike faith—that’s why mindless and boring songs just don’t cut it when it comes to kids’ worship!
Let’s Do It Even Better
How can believers deepen the avenue of children’s worship music to allow kids to better achieve the goal of worship? I would suggest five ideas to start with…
Elevation: We need to think more highly of kids’ worship and what it can achieve in the lives of kids—discipleship!
Advocacy: We need to be ready to communicate the value for quality and best practices in what we do in kids’ worship.
Inclusion: We need to be more welcoming of children into our worship gatherings and realize that for kids just to be in that setting, at whatever level they participate at, is aiding in their discipleship.
Modeling: We can expect that if we are encouraging kids to worship God, we need to be doing this often ourselves, and letting kids see what this looks like in our example.
Intentionality: We can move towards greater thoughtfulness in the songs we select, the ways we adapt them to our specific settings and the ways that we explain the truths in these songs to children.
Remember the Possible Outcomes
Let’s go back to where we started our journey: reflecting on our own worship experiences as a child. Did you remember any? Do you see any way it impacted the trajectory of your faith, or could have? Have you recently seen a child worship Jesus? Let’s seek to enable kids to worship because they need to draw near to God now, and into eternity!
The call for us is to see the value of children’s worship. By this call, we are moved to give kids a manner in which to worship that accounts for the needs of their developmental stage while nurturing their childlike faith in a community where they can sense belonging. And this matters to all of us, because children matter to God, and He has tasked us to do our part to make the way clear for these kids, our fellow worshippers.