The songs we sing have the power to shape us in important ways. They run through our minds when we’re not paying attention, subtly shaping our thoughts and guiding our imaginations.
And recently there’s been a rise in awareness about how important this is for the corporate worship of God’s people. After all, if we’re going to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18), it’s probably a good idea to make sure we’re doing it well. So there’s a lot of talk about how worship shapes us, how important it is for worship leaders to be theologically aware, and how we need to pay attention to the lyrics of our worship songs.
But I wonder if we’re paying as much attention to the songs our kids sing.
I recently ran across a quote from Karl Barth on the powerful and influential role that children’s music played in his own development. According to him, they were “the textbook from which I received my first theological instruction…in a form appropriate for my immature years” (from Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts [Wipf and Stock, 2005], p. 8).
How often do we think of our children’s songs as a theological textbook for young minds?
And Barth also pointed out how these songs stuck with him over the years as he wrestled with a broad range of theological debates and controversies. These children’s songs are what “carry a man over whole oceans of historicism and anti-historicism, mysticism and rationalism, orthodoxy, liberalism and existentialism. He certainly will not be spared trial and temptation, but in the end he will be brought back relatively unscathed to firm ground” (Busch, p. 9). He’s probably overstating it a bit here, but it’s still worth considering. Is there enough in today’s children’s music to ground our kids in the way Barth describes?
And he doesn’t have anything terribly complex in mind: remember, these songs are supposed to be “appropriate for my immature years.” That’s why Barth famously pointed to “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” as a profound summary of his entire theology. You can pack some deep theology into fairly simple lyrics.
But are we?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I’m not involved in children’s ministry, so I don’t know what questions are being asked about kids’ music in church. But I know what I’ve heard my daughters sing, and it’s not always that encouraging. (Please tell me we can do better than “Oh you can’t get to heaven in roller skates.”) Even many of the songs that have “biblical” lyrics are complete gibberish unless someone takes time to explain them. (What exactly is the “fountain” that flows “deep and wide”? My girls had no idea.) And for some reason we insist on having kids sing songs that talk about how happy they are all the time. Have we forgotten how difficult it can be to be a kid at times?
The point of this post, though, isn’t to pick on kids music. I’m sure there are quite a few great songs out there. Personally, I take great delight in singing “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory” to my daughters loudly when they wake up in the morning. I’m not sure that it’s helping them develop much theological depth, but it’s fun.
The point is to encourage us to stop and ask some questions. Are we thinking about the songs our kids sing in church at least as carefully as our own? Do we really think of those songs as a kind of theological textbook, a substantial piece of their Christian formation, something that can shape their theological imaginations for the rest of their lives? Are we giving them something solid, something they can stand on when life looms, something they can return to again and again over the years when things get confusing and painful?
I hope so.