Children’s brains and our hymnody…

Recently I had the crossful opportunity to be with my daughter (4 years old) in the Emergency Room after a massive seizure.  [She is alright now and back on medication, although more tests are coming in the next couple weeks at a Children’s Hospital.]  What humbled me and encouraged me is that while she was in the ER, unable to read (normally she can) while she was recovering from the seizure, she began to hum “A Mighty Fortress”  (LSB 656 not 657).  This comes from having heard it sung at church, but mainly from hearing it sung around our house and at bedtimes and so forth.  It has been a major focus of my wife and I to not hold back when exposing our children to our hymns of the Faith.

The next day while recovering at home she would often break out into singing the common doxology.  This too has been a standard “quick” bedtime song used by mom and dad when it is too late to do anything more (like tonight, staying in a motel outside of Des Moines, IA).

Something often taught in our churches is that these little ones need to sing the easier hymns (if hymns at all) and only be exposed to those things “age appropriate”.  My daughter’s experience shows the wisdom of the ages, that a child’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up things which it cannot yet understand, but will nonetheless absorb and repeat.  Sometimes that is the very model of faith too – not being able to understand things at first, but simply taking them in and confessing them back in a childlike way (liturgy anyone?).  Learn the words first, Luther would say, the meanings take a lifetime.

In your homes, don’t be afraid to share those things of our Faith with even the littlest ones, you can know that their minds are absorbing it, and someday, even when the times seem dark and the crosses hard to bear, they may end up being great reminders of Christ that lighten the heavy load.

About Pastor Joshua Scheer

Pastor Joshua Scheer is the Senior Pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He is also the Editor-in-chief of Brothers of John the Steadfast. He oversees all of the work done by Steadfast Lutherans. He is a regular host of Concord Matters on KFUO. Pastor Scheer and his lovely wife Holly (who writes and manages the Katie Luther Sisters) have four children and enjoy living in Wyoming.


Children’s brains and our hymnody… — 38 Comments

  1. first off, prayers that your daughter continues to recover.

    secondly, i find myself humming hymns as well as liturgy when i’m at work. when i am balancing cash registers at the end of a night’s business (i work for the last big box bookstore standing) i find myself humming hymns as i countdown the drawers and balance them. tonight, because of a particular thread of convo on a friend’s facebook page, i was humming TLH 342 (Chief of Sinners Though I Be). i find great comfort in singing/humming hymns that are based completely in the Gospel.

  2. ditto .. prayers for your daughter!

    My daughter said a large part of the liturgy when she was 3 — she stood on the pew between my wife and myself and followed along with us. Fifteen years later, there was a young man, also around 3-4, son of a friend of mine, who stood on the back of the pew in his dad’s arms saying the entire liturgy .. including the pastor’s parts.

    Nothing like the little children helping us see the value of the historic liturgy as they also show us how much their brains can pick up!

  3. A dear friend in the flock at my first call was soon to fall asleep in the Lord and suffered from dementia. Well into his 80s, Erich entertained a large portion of the hospital by belting out at the top of his lungs old favorite hymns of the faith he had learned as a child. I was moved with joy seeing him cling to the cross – and a little fear that someday I might be in a position like his, but belting out sea chanteys…

  4. Pastor Scheer – do you know of any good cd’s out there with popular hymns – I listen to some on YouTube with the kids but most are not good quality? Thanks

  5. Kantor Resch at Concordia Theological Seminary regularly tells this story. Though it sounds like a parable or a fable, it is, in fact, true:

    There once was a father and a son. One day the son did something very bad and his father had to punish him. But the father was quite angry and didn’t want to make any rash decisions, so he sent his son to his room while he cooled down. After a few minutes he went upstairs to speak with his son. As he stopped outside the door to his son’s room he paused because he heard his son singing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God….”

    In our home we cycle through the evening prayer offices (Vespers, Evening Prayer, Compline), changing each week. On top of that we have a hymn of the month that we sing every evening. Last month it was “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It.” This month it is “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.”

    Thanks for posting this. It’s a great reminder to people out there that it’s okay to give good things to children. They’ll pick it up very easily.

  6. @Nathan R. #4

    Here’s a start:

    And My Mouth Will Declare Your Praise]
    One In Christ-Hymn of the Month
    One In Christ-Hymn of the Month II
    Sing With All The Saints
    St. Paul Choir 3 CD Set
    With High Delight

    This is just right out of the CPH Online Catalog … other publishers may have other options as well.

    Keep an eye out for anything performed by the St. Paul school choirs of Fort Wayne — it is usually of excellent quality. Anything Kantors Resch and Hildebrand are involved with are nothing but the highest of quality.

  7. @Nathan R. #4

    Forgot one …
    Hymns of Faith

    Oh yes, and don’t forget …

    Sing the Faith

    … a fantastic tool for those who want to teach the Small Catechism early to their small children! We have used it here at our church with amazing results — we will have our Sunday School choirs singing the first and third parts of “Confession” for our Ash Wednesday Service this year, preceding Corporate Confession and Individual Absolution.

  8. Thank you for the prayers.

    CPH has a number of hymn CD’s out there now. The hymns of Luther and also “Heirs of the Reformation” are alright.

    For personal listening to the Psalms, the stuff by Gloria Dei Cantores is pretty good.

    I have asked CPH to produce a companion CD for “My First Hymnal” that would be helpful in homes. I think they may do it…

  9. Hope all is well with your daughter, as an epileptic myself & a parent, I empathize with what you and your daughter are going through with right now. Good neurologists are hard to come by & I’ve been blessed so far with several good ones.

    As for hymns, repetition and such, we played Bible cassettes at bedtime for our children when they were younger and years later in school, memory work was never an issue for them. Repetition & rote memorization and *hearing* the Word do work.

    I just started reading a book titled, “Ancient Christian Doctrine: We Believe in One God”. In the introductory part of the book it discusses how the Creed *had* to be memorized as both a matter of personal safety in an age of persecution and as a guard against heterodoxy. It was stressed that it was important to engrave it upon one’s heart (paraphrasing Cyril of Jerusalem).

    May all our children’s hearts be so engraved.

    God Bless,


  10. Brother Joshua,

    Thank you for this post. I am going to share it with my Bible class this Sunday. May the Lord continue to bless you and your wonderful family!

  11. I’ll echo all who keep your daughter in their prayers; may the Lord bless her with recovery.

    One of the fathers in our parish here remarked to me a couple of years back that he thought his very young twin children get little or nothing out of the Divine Service. I told him I was confident that they are soaking up far, far more than any of us can know. Now that his two (boy and a girl) are almost seven, I think he may tend to agree.

    Just after Christmas, we gathered his two along with six or seven other children (mostly younger than his) into a children’s choir after having gifted them with the recent CPH “My First Hymnal.” Good title! It implies that there will be OTHER hymnals that one should have. Their first hymn was “As With Gladness Men of Old” and they sang it both at our annual “Candlemas” program and at the Service this past Sunday, Epiphany V.

    We weren’t just impressed that they sang so well–they did–but that some of the kids without any prompting from us had memorized the stanzas. Their next hymn is “The Lamb,” and they start working on that this Sunday.

    I grew up on “Jesus Loves Me” and “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” and I still love them both, but we must not ignore and/or underestimate the abilities and understanding of our children. Thanks to the folks at St. Paul’s in Fort Wayne (see #8) who have come out with those CD’s to help us lead our children in solid and historic hymnody–children understand more than we think and we should never insult either their intelligence or the power of Holy Baptism among them…and us.

    Every night before I tucked him in, my son and I would sing “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” and he can even now, at 27, sing it for memory. I only wish I’d challenged him to learn even more hymns than he did.

    Again, may the Lord bless and keep your little girl.

    Pastor Bernie Schey

  12. I wholeheartedly agree. In December, before she was even 2 years old, my granddaughter enjoyed singing the response of the Litany, “Lord, have mercy,” at Advent Evening Prayer. She was mimicking the pastor making the sign of the cross long before this. She is often singing parts of songs and reciting snatches of prayers or quotes from Blues Clues, or Lion King, or Beauty and the Beast…You are entirely correct, Pastor Scheer, that they are sponges that will absorb everything they are exposed to. All the more reason to be sure the little ones are in church, absorbing goodness, light, and life!

  13. I am going to buy the My first Hymnal from CPH as well for my 3 yr old daughter. Right now she is still requesting Christmas hymns. I also was going to suggest a companion CD for that book– glad to hear it was already suggested. My children still learn hymns at the school and they sing them in chapel but unfortunately we don’t sing many of them in church. Kind of disappointing!

  14. I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter’s seizures Pastor Scheer. All the best to you and your family.

  15. The BLC Bookstore has two CDs produced by the Bethany Lutheran College Choirs. Join All The Glorious Names, and Ever Glad At Heart I Am. The latter is specifically recorded to teach children how to sing and includes a Lutheran version of Jesus Loves Me!!! 😀

  16. I agree wholeheartedly. We experienced the same with our five children. Also, while teaching 1st grade many years ago at Concordia, Kirkwood, I had my first grade class sing, a cappella, “O Sacred Head” for one of the lenten services. It was beautiful and many people said it brought tears to their eyes. The children painted a picture of Christ on the cross as they sang that hymn.

  17. To add another facet to the discussion: a secondary benefit to the singing of hymns is that the child may well begin to learn the beginnings of music theory and the rules of harmony. I learned how to sing bass lines by sitting next to my father in church, and hearing him sing the bass lines of hymns. (Which, of course, also brings up the other soapbox issue…namely, that
    many of the men of many congregations simply sitting in the pews and not singing causes a great deal of harm.)

  18. I’m saving your post, running a hard copy, and leaving it out for my Sunday School people to read this Sunday. (I don’t get to stay, since I’m on the road to the other of my two churches.) I included the Kantor Resch part, too.

    Pastor Scheer, the Lord be with your daughter and your whole family as you go through the diagnosis process. I have a purple ribbon (*NOT* lavender) on my winter jacket in honor of the young lady who would’ve been my daughter-in-law. When I see it now, I’ll think of your daughter and pray that this was a totally *singular* event, or, if not, that our dear Lord gives you all strength to find His joy even under the circumstances. If you are willing, please keep us posted. I thank God for your daughter’s confession of the faith.

    (For anyone who’s wondering, purple ribbons are for epilepsy awareness.)

  19. I also, like Christ Schelp in #19, learned to sing the bass lines of hymns & liturgy from sitting next to my Dad Sunday after Sunday as a boy. Since he and my mother both died this past April, I’ve thought quite a lot about the heritage of hymnody which they left to me and to my siblings.

    We have indeed become a nation of spectators in all facets of life. When’s the last time you were in a stadium full of people for a football/baseball game and had the privilege of singing (with 50, 000 of your closest friends) our national anthem? No, nowadays we get some Katy Perry-wannabe to sing it FOR us. What a waste… This translates into our attitudes in the Divine Service. As a parish pastor, I glance up from administering the Body and Blood of Christ from time to time and see folks staring blankly ahead during the distribution hymn(s) and at other times. Again, what a waste. We can definitely do better.

    To paraphrase Moses: LET (ALL) MY PEOPLE SING!!!

  20. Pastor Scheer, I give your article a harumph! That is such a good point about learning the words and letting the understanding come with time. I know from experience that learning good Lutheran hymns at a young age comes in handy when I am older and it seems that my burden is heavier. Your daughter is also in my prayers. And speaking of hymns, my favorite hymn to sing whenever I go through any trials and burdens is Paul Gerhardt’s hymn “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me.”

    Call me a relic, call me what you will. Say I’m old fashioned, say I’m over the hill. Today’s music ain’t going too well. Give me that old time Lutheran chorale!

  21. I was raised Orthodox and went to Lutheran schools. It was a weird mix of chants and hymns that stick with me to this day.

    Before my dad died, he gave an icon of the Resurrection to my son and sang to him in his weak trembling voice
    “Christ is risen from the dead,
    Trampling down death by death,
    And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

    My son sings Gloria in Excelsis, Sunday school songs and now one Orthodox hymn.

  22. I’ve talked with many people who say that teaching children such difficult hymns and making them memorize things like creeds is a waste of time because they don’t really understand what they are saying. To that I say, did you not learn to add before you multiplied? Did you not learn your letters before you read? It all must start somewhere. As my husband and I have taught our 3 little ones the hymns and creeds and commandments, it never fails to amaze me what they DO grasp. Even more wonderful is a few days down the road, or a month or a year, the opportunity always arises for a deeper understanding to be taught when questions arise. That opportunity to point them to the truths of God’s Word and its expression in our hymnody and the creeds is probably the highlight of my parenting experience thus far.

    Pastor Scheer, I will be praying for your family and your little girl and all the doctors and nurses who surround you, that you will find comfort and wisdom and sound guidance at every turn.

  23. One of my generous members at our little mission presented us with a large set of CDs. The entire Lutheran Service Book is recorded on the 3,000-pipe organ at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne. The mission was without an organist, but now we have the best playing in our little storefront!

  24. “Learn the words first, Luther would say, the meanings take a lifetime.”

    I’ve heard this idea attributed to Luther elsewhere, and I see hints of it in the prefaces to the catechisms, is there a good place to read him further on this idea?

  25. Pastor Scheer,

    First and most important, let me add my best wishes for the health of your daughter.

    I think your story brings up a point about our Lutheran Hymns and Liturgy that has to be reemphasized: The Hymns and liturgies that are in our authorized hymnals are FUNDAMENTALS. My main issue with the many churches who present “alternate” worship is that the membership in that congregation never really learns the fundamentals. I learned my liturgies and hymns as a child from the old TLH. Even before I could fully read, I had memorized the liturgies on page 5 and 15 of that old hymnal by sheer repitition of those services in my church.

    While the liturgies and hymns in our churches have changed as we have changed hymnals, there was always a “baseline” of the liturgy to build off of when we changed hymnals, because the new hymnal always had a basis in the old.

    Sports teams that are the best are that way because they always reemphasize the fundamentals, so that when something unexpected comes down and the pressure is on, they always have that base of fundamentals to fall back on. It should be that way in our church, but sadly, it is not.

    I hear stories of students showing up at our seminaries to study to become pastors who claim to NEVER have worshipped using a divine service in any of our hymnals because they always worshipped in churches that used only “alternate” worship. That is the rough equivalent of a person showing up at PGA Tour qualifying event having only used a baseball bat to hit a golf ball around a course.

    Even if you don’t want to become a pastor, I ask you: How can you stand up to the pressures of our outside world if you have never been properly versed in the fundamentals of our faith? Whether that pressure is a medical condition that leaves you bedridden, an ‘intellectual” who wants to “debate” your beliefs, or a door knocking from someone like a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon, how can you respond if you have never learned the fundamentals???

  26. This is one of my favorites. I sang this as a child. Do you remember singing Bible verses that were taken directly from the Psalms and put to music? I would like to see Rick Warren or Bill Hybels try that! Oh, I forgot. The “consultants” state that young people are turned off by the liturgy! (By the way, I hope your daughter gets well soon. God bless you and your family.)

    These powerful words make me want to fall flat on my face in awe.

    From TLH

    The Venite

    O come let us sing unto the Lord
    Let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.
    Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
    And make a joyful noise unto Him with psalms.
    For the Lord is a great God
    And a great King above all gods.
    In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
    The strength of the hills is His also
    The sea is His, and He made it;
    And His hands formed the dry land.
    Oh, come let us worship and bow down;
    Let us kneel before the Lord our maker
    For He is our God
    And we are the people of His pasture
    And the sheep of His hand.
    Glory be to the Father and to the Son
    And to the Holy Ghost
    As it was in the beginning, is now,
    And ever shall be; world without end. Amen.

  27. “repetition is the mother of learning”…or…it was until the postmodern world decided one cannot learn, but can only feel. ever since then we’ve been on something of a downhill slope.

    glad to hear about your daughter doing better!

  28. @Lumpenkönig #28
    From TLH

    The Venite

    The committee for LSB must not be memorizers! Because someone “just had to alt.”
    the Venite in little ways to confuse those of us who are. 🙁

    There are other such changes, which are not improvements, but stumbling blocks to those who learned things. After a few such changes, you don’t remember the hymn any way and it’s frustrating!

    This is not an argument against memorizing; it’s a plea to those who think they can do it better to leave their hands off the old hymns and liturgies! As the world gets more visibly anti-Christian, all we have of our faith may have to be “in our heads”.

    It can happen here, too.

  29. I wish we sang more hymns at my church but our pastor insists on praise/camp songs. My child recognizes only a few hymns as familiar. So sad.

  30. While the following statement was made about prayer, it applies also to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs:

    “Let it not be objected that the child cannot understand the prayer. The way of education is by practice to understanding, not by understanding to practice.” Luthardt, quoted in G. H. Gerberding, The Way of Salvation in the Lutheran Church, p. 50 (Lutheran Publication Society: Philadelhia 1887).

  31. Thank you all for your prayers and well-wishes and comments. Many of you have made excellent points.

    @Andrew Preus #22
    Andrew- Why should cross and trial grieve me is one of my favorite hymns (if not my favorite). I was once visiting a shut in who suffered from Alzheimer’s and started singing it, she picked right on up and started singing it too! I asked where she learned it, and she said that one of her former pastors really liked that one too.

    @Pr. Mark H. Hein #34
    Fine way to put it. Restore the family altar, especially if you have no Lutheran ones available. (not advocating home celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but regular family time of lessons, hymns, and prayer).

  32. My wife stays home with our children, 2 and 1. Every morning after breakfast they sing through tlh pg 15. Then they sing selected hymns. At night they sing a hymn or two. The result: the 2 year old can sing the liturgy every Sunday, and can sing the first two lines of several hymns. His favorites are Christ is arisen glorious word and lord keep us steadfast in thy word.

    Those who advocate for ‘variety’ in worship and worthless songs are not thinking of the least of these: the very young and the old/infirm.

    Good hymns and good liturgy teach the faith. Bad hymns (also found in our hymnals, unfortunately) do not. As someone said so well in an earlier post, these are fundamentals!

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