Advent. The season of the year in which singing resurges in religious and secular homes alike. Songs such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Joy to the World” (yes, it is an Advent hymn), and “O Holy Night” (okay, a Christmas hymn) are staples this season of the year. They are easily memorable tunes and verses. Additionally, these songs are chock-full of incarnational and Trinitarian theology that can be reflected upon while singing.
Singing hymns with the family is immensely more fun for young children than teaching the catechism (at least in my experience!) and results in quicker memorization. Granted, the deep riches of the verses of these songs and the meaning of the words may not be fully grasped by young children, but learning these songs will provide foundational doctrine that can be drawn upon at a moment’s notice. My own understanding the incarnation has been enriched through the verses of traditional Christian hymnody. Singing hymns can capture one’s heart in a manner that reading and listening to another simply cannot.
Teaching children classic hymns provides them songs directing them towards Christ and His work. It is a natural educational tool for younger kids to draw upon. My three year old daughter regularly belts out the classic African-American spiritual, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and is excited to sing from our family hymnal. It brings her such joy to sing hymns that she now asks to see the family hymnal and flip through its pages while singing what she thinks is on the page. Another added benefit is she now wants to participate more in Sunday worship as the pew hymnal is familiar to her.
Although she has not learned a whole hymn to sing by heart, she can join in at various portions of several songs. Additionally, during our evening devotion we discuss a verse and its meaning to explain the hymn. Discussing a hymn’s content quickly becomes a lesson on why the wise men traveled to see Jesus and present Him gifts or and why Christ is called Emmanuel.
On a similar note, I commend the Reformed Episcopal Church in their new hymnal, Common Praise, for including several annotated sections of the Book of Common Prayer. It would be wise for Anglican churches globally to sing portions of the prayerbook as families could teach the words of the BCP to their children through singing. Indeed, it is a long-term goal of mine to learn Anglican chant and to incorporate it in our devotions. REC’s Common Praise includes a short section on Anglican chant – a noteworthy addition that I greatly value and hope to utilize.
Practically speaking, I encourage families to begin with simple, short songs for their very young children. We began with “Jesus Loves Me” and eventually progressed to more familiar traditional hymns, typically Advent and Christmas themed due to my own familiarity. There is no right or wrong way to begin such a practice – just dive in!
Our custom is to sing one or two songs, share a Biblical story or parable of Christ, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer and/or Apostle’s Creed. As an Anglican, I use this pattern in order for my children to learn the requirements for confirmation: the Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and eventually the catechism. See 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Rubric at end of Office of Instruction. This pattern is easily amendable to Trinitarian Christians across the theological spectrum of Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic. Start early with your children and no matter their age, starting today is better than beginning tomorrow. Family devotionals are messy, but necessary to build up catechized and well-discipled members of the Church.