Seen but not Heard

This article was first published in Different Voices magazine in 2009.

In her fourth article, regular praise band columnist Suzanne Butler offers practical suggestions for involving children – and without disenfranchising the adults.

This article has to start with a disclaimer: I’m not exactly neutral when it comes to writing about music for children and families! My day job is as events manager and musician for Fischy Music, a charity which specialises in producing music that ‘promotes emotional and spiritual well-being’ for children in their families, schools and churches. I’ve been with them for over ten years, so having now declared my bias (naturally, I think the material that Fischy produces is top-notch!) I can also be positive, and say that I am passionate about the power of music to express, explore and celebrate who we are at any age or stage of life.

I could easily take up the rest of the article with personal examples of music being used well (and badly) in situations where children and adults are together. However, I’ll spare you the anecdotes and go straight to Linda Pollock for some wise words on what we should be aiming for in all-age worship situations. Linda was the Church of Scotland specialist in children’s ministry and, having worked with her at the ground-breaking Children’s Assembly in 2008, I knew she would be able to give us some good pointers to get started.

Inclusive worship – the real and the ideal

Linda comments that in spite of today’s ‘child-centred’ approaches, we are still in the Church often stuck with older patterns, tending to do things ‘to’ children or only allowing their presence in our worship communities as passive spectators. How do we enable children to use their gifts from God in their faith community, to practise their discipleship alongside the adults? How do we encourage them to be full members of the Body of Christ as far as possible for their age & stage?

Let’s not get too depressed or bogged down in theology, as the good news is that a few simple changes and/or additions can transform our communal worship, and allow children an honoured place without the adults feeling they have to lose their dignity or ‘dumb down’ worship to Teletubby ‘let’s all jump around with Jesus’ levels! Linda Pollock prefers to use the term ‘blended worship’ in her work, as experience tells her that many adults associate the phrase ‘all-age’ with having to put their needs aside for the children’s sake. ‘All-age’ also fails to take into account that there is more to being inclusive than just catering for different age groups – our various special needs, life circumstances or religious backgrounds can determine our preferences just as much as our age and stage.

Checklist for ‘blended’ worship

Before I go on to write specifically about music, we need to set out some basic universal requirements for the overall shape of your worship.

  • ‘Order’ does not necessarily mean boring. ‘Chaos’ does not always mean fun! Make sure there is a well-considered shape to the event, and that noise, stillness, spontaneity and structure are balanced.
  • Remember the key elements of even the simplest worship event as:
    A – adoration
    C – confession
    T – thanksgiving
    S – supplication (asking things of God in prayer)
  • Think carefully about how to cover key elements such as: visuals and volume (can everyone see and hear?); giving opportunities for active responses from the whole group; stimulating the senses and making the event relevant to the season, current events and the needs of your group.
  • Don’t be afraid to stretch children’s knowledge and understanding through creative use of language, art in various forms, and the sharing of our spiritual heritage – as long as you are prepared to explain things as necessary.

The role of music

In my experience, children are remarkably similar to adults when it comes to their musical taste. We all like good tunes, an engaging rhythm (NB this does not always mean ‘fast and furious’!) and lyrics that are artistically satisfying, understandable, and that relate somehow to our own experience of life. I was introduced to Sibelius, Mozart, the Beatles and Joni Mitchell as a little girl through my parents’ eclectic record collection. While I am more able now to appreciate the subtleties of lyrics and composition than when I was six, the emotive pleasure of a well-crafted piece is exactly the same.

One of the things that drove Stephen Fischbacher to set up Fischy Music in the 1990s was a conviction that children deserve the very best music we can offer them. As a parent of young children, he began to notice just how limited the children’s music repertoire was, particularly in churches, and how little relevant new material was being written. What existed seemed to focus almost exclusively on the ‘sunny’ side of life, ignoring the fact that children experience sadness, confusion and anger just as adults do, and need a means of expressing them. The most popular track on the first Fischy album It’s a Noisy World was ‘The Angry Song’ – acknowledging that we all get angry sometimes, and that God understands how we feel.

Sometimes I…
Stamp my feet…. Clench my fists…. Grit my teeth
Slam the door (CRASH! BANG!)
Shout out loud (THATS’ NOT FAIR!)
Because I feel so angry, I feel so angry
I don’t know what to do
Because I feel so angry, I feel so angry
Oh Lord Jesus, what should I do?
Well sometimes God feels angry, God feels angry
But he knows what to do
Well sometimes God feels angry, He feels so angry
Oh Lord Jesus, what would you do?

© Fischy music 1995

Since then, Fischy Music have produced many more albums of songs aimed at primary-age children and those who work with them – some intended mainly for mainstream school use, where no faith background may be assumed, and some for a more Christian context where songs for praise, reflection, celebration and times of sadness are needed for communal worship times.

There are, of course, other individuals and organisations producing excellent music resources for children and ‘blended’ worship situations (see the references at the end). For me, the main criteria when choosing music to use with children are as follows:

  1. Is it well-written and relevant to my group?
  2. Are the melodies memorable and easy to teach within a short time?
  3. If using a CD, would I be happy to listen to the album myself, or does it sound like it was cheaply produced without much musical expertise or imagination? A song that makes me grit my teeth is not good enough for anyone, let alone an impressionable child!
  4. Does it feature lots of possibilities for joining in, whether vocally or physically? Actions or sign language don’t have to be embarrassing for adults. Repeated sung responses and short choruses allow children who don’t yet read fluently to get involved too.
  5. What is the song’s purpose – to create a mood or atmosphere? Emphasise a point of learning? Help the flow of the liturgy? (Pick a song that fits the moment rather than throwing in ‘Our God is a Great Big God’ again because everyone knows it).

Recommended Resources

Fischy Music – various albums

A series of albums featuring catchy and well-crafted songs, widely used across the UK in schools and churches to promote emotional and spiritual wellbeing. The Down to Earth CD aims to connect God with everyday life, and has been written with mixed age groups in mind. Most songs feature actions or sign language – teaching notes, sheet music, video clips also available.

Ian White – Children’s Collection

You can get the complete collection of all Ian’s children’s songs on one double CD – lots of good stuff that adults can relate to as well. Particularly good for reinforcing Biblical stories and concepts, and helping children remember Scripture.

Bernadette Farrell – Share the Light (search for the CD once you are on the Decani site)

Bernadette Farrell is widely respected for her huge output of well-loved songs such as ‘Christ be our light’. This set of songs is simply performed yet full of meaning, and is accompanied by a CD-Rom featuring sign language for another ‘layer’ of inclusiveness. Recommended as a tranquil contrast to the driving rock/pop of much modern children’s praise music. Good for liturgical use.

Colin Buchanan – various albums (go to Colin’s Shop /Aussie Praise once on the site)

If you are looking for well-written songs with a wacky sense of humour, Colin Buchanan is your man. The songs are evangelical in style and based on Bible texts, so will be most appreciated by those who are firmly committed to a Christian lifestyle and Biblical teaching. He is extremely prolific in his output for children and for adults, and there is also lots of support material for teaching. My personal favourite is his children’s album ‘I want my mummy’ – not in the Christian section, but extremely funny for all ages.