by Mrs. Katie Schuermann
The Reformation was birthed by adults, but it is preserved by children. For centuries, pastors and parents have been preaching a holy heritage into the ears of the young, clearly confessing a salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This happy proclamation, like a precious family heirloom, has been successfully maintained and handed down from one generation to the next through the creeds, catechisms, prayers, and hymns of the Church. Now we are the keepers of these sacred treasures and it is our privilege to pass them along to our children. Singing hymns, perhaps, is the simplest and most effective way of doing this.
Strophic in form, hymns are naturally repetitive and accessible to children. Their metered, rhyming texts make them easy to remember, and their jaunty melodies and rich harmonies make them hard to forget. Reformation hymns, especially, contain vivid word paintings that captivate the eager imaginations of the young all the while preaching deep theological truths that promise to engage their hearts and minds for the rest of their lives.
This spring and summer, consider teaching your Sunday school children one or two of Martin Luther’s hymns in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Not only will this put a right and ready confession of Christ crucified for their sins on their lips, but it will prepare them for a fuller participation in the Divine Service whenever those hymns are sung. Bright is the moment when a child looks up from the pew during an organ prelude and triumphantly proclaims, “I know this one!”
Here are a few practical tips to help you achieve this musical goal:
1. Pick a hymn the children can grow into. I chose “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word” (Lutheran Service Book, 655) for our Sunday school children this year. With only three short stanzas to learn, the yoke is easy and the burden is light for all of us. Brevity aside, each stanza is rich with adventurous imagery that focuses on the primacy of the Word and Christ’s power to save His Church from sin, death, and the devil. The stanzas are also Trinitarian, providing me with an excuse to revisit the hymn often this summer during the season of Trinity. Practice makes perfect.
2. Write the text on poster board. While paper may seem an archaic vehicle for song lyrics in this digital age, handwritten lettering stands apart and grabs the attention of little tablet-weary eyes. Substituting pictures for key words in the stanzas can also help keep non-reading singers engaged in the early stage of learning a hymn. Personally, I like to write each stanza on a separate board to visually reinforce the strophic form of a hymn as well as the subtle independence of each poetic stanza.
One could argue that where hymnals exist, song boards are unnecessary, but heavy books draw children’s hands and heads down toward their laps. Chin-to-chest is poor posture for singing and holding song boards before children’s eyes instead of under their noses coaxes their chins up and out. As I like to keep my hands free when teaching hymns in order to play an instrument or to model actions, I often ask a helper—young or old will do—to hold the song boards for me. The truth is that even the song boards become unnecessary once the children have memorized the hymn. Keep those boards handy, though, and pull them out next year. God willing, someone new in attendance will be in need of them.
3. Make up actions to reinforce the words. Movement not only stimulates the inner ear and brain, but it also results in a greater number of connections between neurons. Translation: movement aids in memorization. Actions, whether sign-language or made-up motions, can help children learn and remember hymn texts. And when chosen wisely, actions can reinforce the meanings of particular words. For example, I often draw a perpetual circle with my hand when singing the word eternity. “Why am I making a circle?” I ask the children. “Because a circle and eternity are both never-ending,” they reply.
4. Don’t be afraid to sing a cappella. The best model for singing is not the piano or the organ or any other instrument. It is the human voice. When teaching children a new hymn, sing the melody unaccompanied one line at a time and ask them to repeat it back to you. This call-and-response form of teaching gives you the chance to model proper pronunciation and musical phrasing all in one shot, and it sets both the singer and the listener up for the greatest success. Once the children have the words and melody under their belt, add in the accompaniment. This only increases the festive mood of their accomplishment.
5. Pair it with a creed. When singing a Trinitarian hymn, why not pair it with a Trinitarian creed? The Athanasian Creed is corporately confessed only one Sunday a year at our church, and this is hardly enough for anyone to learn it properly, let alone children. Try reciting creeds (or portions of them) weekly in Sunday school music. This is one more way to reinforce that clear confession of Faith sung in the hymns, and repetition prepares the children for a fuller participation in the worship life of the church.
6. Sing the hymn regularly. Ask your pastor to program these Reformation hymns regularly in the church service. Thankfully, many of them are good for singing all year round and in every liturgical season. For children, practicing these hymns during Sunday school with other children is one thing, but participating in congregational singing with adults is another thing entirely. Children know they belong in the pew when they can sing and confess the faith right alongside their father and mother, sister and brother, pastor and friend. That is the remarkable blessing of teaching children our hymns, creeds, and prayers. These treasures were never meant to be hoarded but shared, and everyone—teacher and student alike—benefits from their faithful proclamation.
Mrs. Katie Schuermann is a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Sherman, Ill.