A silent church is a dying church

A silent church has many implications: lack of youth, lack of emotion, or even a lack of outreach into the community. A silent church can also be afflicted by a lack of music. Congregational and choral singing have had their places firmly etched in worship and yet, music is still viewed as an irrelevant form of worship in today’s culture.

Years of “band-aids” for church music programs have done little to fix the underlying problem. Proposed solutions (paid singers in lieu of volunteers, including contemporary music that is not theologically sound, projecting lyrics in lieu of hymnals, etc.) have not addressed the heart of the issue. Music is not seen as an essential part of worship for many adults.

For music to become a meaningful expression of faith as an adult, it must be practiced from an early age. This is not unlike other customs of our faith. Do you remember being taught the Lord’s Prayer as a young child? Or perhaps you recall a specific prayer that you learned to say before meals? Practically from birth, children are invited to come to the rail and participate in the Eucharist, whether by receiving a blessing or by sharing in the bread and wine. These actions, which seemed obligatory to us as children, serve as the core foundations of our faith as adults.

The question remains: How do we make music a priority to our congregations? The answer is quite simple. Purposefully include the children! By including children in the music making, they will grow to be adults who value music in worship.

Some of you may shake your head and say that this does not fix the problem today. Yes, I agree this is a long-term project. However, it will reap many rewards along the way. Here are some ways to inspire your congregation today and remain a singing church for years to come:

  1. Encourage parents to help their children participate in all aspects of the service, including the singing of hymns.

When I was growing up, it was coloring books and snacks. Today, it is iPads, cellphones, and snacks. When did we decide that kids should sit down and stay quiet during the service?

Encourage your parents to help their children follow the service bulletin, prayer book, and hymnal. Similar to the benefits of reading to young children, a lot can be gained by participating before understanding. As an added benefit, adults who help their children sing will be singing themselves!

A few ways to accomplish this task:

  • provide a printed pew guide for your parents
  • give verbal reminders at announcements
  • have a written reminder in the bulletin
  • use the topic as the basis of a sermon (especially at the beginning of the school year)
  • host a workshop for parents on raising kids in the church (provide free child-care!)
  1. Have enough materials available for adults and children.

Make sure your pews have enough hymnals for the adults and children. Adults will need to guide young children using one book, but school-aged children will feel important and valued when given their own book to follow.

Children with learning differences may benefit from large print hymnals or having access to a text only copy of the hymns. Sometimes, children are more successful when they have less to follow on the page. (Additionally, you may wish to provide extracted versions of the Eucharist service in an easy-to-follow format.)

  1. Use a “hymn-of-the-month” or repeat a hymn regularly throughout a season.

Children learn best through repetition. While the adults in your congregation might not need (or want) to repeat hymns, children will benefit from the familiarity. An explanation for this new addition will go a long way in soothing any ruffled feathers.

  1. Include children and youth in the planning and running of a service.

Youth Sundays are a great way to get children involved in worship. Middle School and High School students can help plan the service, including the music. By learning why specific hymns are chosen, students will gain a better understanding of their importance.

Additionally, provide opportunities for young musicians to present solos in church. Oftentimes, churches set a high standard for their soloists. Including a beginning pianist, who may only play a few bars of “Amazing Grace”, is just as important! Make sure your invitations are welcoming and open to the whole congregation. People tend to shy away from asking for a solo opportunity, and children may not know if they are welcome at all. You will likely get more willing participants by providing a clear invitation.

  1. Regularly use hymns with refrains, and teach the refrains by rote.

Rote singing is learning by repetition. Children who cannot read can easily learn the refrains of hymns by rote. While it may seem like “wasted time” to those who can read, children who cannot read will be ecstatic when they are able to join in the singing. You can incorporate a brief time of learning during your announcement time and then utilize the hymn later in the service.

  1. Sing as a congregation whenever possible.

Use every opportunity to sing as a congregation. Avoid trying to “save time” by replacing a congregational hymn with special music. It is beneficial to have a separate place in the service for soloists and choral anthems. If the size of your congregation allows, plan multiple hymns during and/or after communion. By providing multiple opportunities for singing, your congregation will become more comfortable worshipping through song.

Additionally, you may wish to include a scriptural reference for each hymn in your service bulletin. Those of us who plan the service know that specific hymns are chosen for specific reasons. These reasons may not be obvious to the average congregant. Let your congregation know that the gradual hymn they are singing is directly related to the Old Testament lesson they just heard.

  1. Think of your music program as a community music program.

Youth choirs are incredibly important. Large or small, they serve an essential role in the church service and church community. Participants feel valued for their contribution and can fellowship with others their own age. Formats can vary, from regular rehearsals on weeknights to a simple 10-minute rehearsal following the service. By singing in a choir, children learn first-hand why music is important. This is especially crucial today, when music classes are often the first cut when budget issues arise.

Community youth choirs, that do not require youth to be members, are a great way to bring people into your church. The outreach potentials are limitless! Unlike school programs, you can incorporate songs of faith into your repertoire and provide a welcoming environment to youth from the greater community.

In addition to choral ensembles, consider offering instrumental ensembles, a drama program, or even teaching lessons out of the church. When you teach music at the church, the church reaps the benefits!

  1. Think outside the box!

If your church does not have a youth choir, one option is to incorporate music into the Sunday School time. One of the first things I started after coming to my new parish was a program called “Singing Sundays.” One Sunday a month, I taught the children a very simple song by rote, which was then presented to the congregation on the same day. That program has transformed into a youth choir that is growing by leaps and bounds!

Is your adult choir performing an anthem with a great rhythm? Pass out non-pitched percussion instruments to kids in the congregation and let them play along! It is amazing how a simple maraca can get the kids interested in the music!

Try a “call and response” style song. Compose a song specifically for your program. Teach your congregation to sing a round. Try singing a well-known congregational hymn acapella. Host a hands-on music workshop where kids can play the organ. Have your congregation vote for their favorite hymns. Play “stump the organist” and let kids (and adults) suggest random hymns to sing.

Remember, try any crazy idea at least once. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to do it again. However, you never know where one crazy idea will lead!

Getting the children involved and excited about music making is one of the best things that you can do for your music program. Absolutely, take the time to outreach to the adults. Use a mix of traditional and contemporary music if it brings joy into the service. However, please do not forget the big picture. Today, more than ever, we need examples of the timeless wonder and power of God. Music, that crosses the generations, can be that example. Teach your adults, but remember, it all begins with a child.

Lauren Exley serves as the Assistant Organist, Junior Choir Director, and Director of Education at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Collegeville, PA. She also teaches Early Childhood – 8th Grade music at the Wyndcroft School in Pottstown, PA.