I remember the day clearly. It was a warm December one — as they almost always are in Central Florida. It was Christmas break. My sisters and I were all home from school spending time with our parents, and I could hear them all chattering in the background. I was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, staring at my computer screen in frustration. I was writing a children’s assembly liturgy, and I struggled to find the right words to begin the call to worship.
Then, my sister’s fiancé, who ironically is studying worship leadership, jolted me out of my internal wrestling with a question. “How do you even write liturgy for kids?” he asked. I chuckled. “Great question. I’m trying to figure that out myself.” I was learning that writing liturgy for kids isn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be when I volunteered for the job.
Writing for children is hard work.
Writing for children is hard work. You must spend time wrestling with God’s Word, distilling big gospel truths into pieces that will capture kids’ imaginations and invite them to sing to our great God. At the same time, I’ve found that it’s simple. Simply put, our job is to make the truths of the Bible as clear as possible and then invite children to respond to what God has spoken. The more time I spend writing for children, leading them in worship, and watching children engage the truth, the more I experience the paradox Charles Hodge described two centuries ago: “The gospel is so simple that small children can understand it, and it is so profound that studies by the wisest theologians will never exhaust its riches.”
My goal in this post is to summarize the process we’ve used when writing liturgy and selecting songs for children’s assemblies at Sojourn Community Church — Midtown. I understand that the details will need to be modified to fit each congregation’s needs, but I’m also confident that the overarching principles here can be applied wherever you serve kids. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but as a result we’ve seen firsthand some things that work and others that don’t. Some Sunday gatherings haven’t gone so well, but others have been gloriously sweet. My prayer is that you’ll be able to learn from our failings and that the Holy Spirit helps you create space where children grow to love and worship God.
Here are four key things I’m thinking about when writing a liturgy:
1) Follow the curriculum.
At Sojourn, our children’s worship services follow the teaching materials we use with our kids. Usually the units we teach (from Lifeway’s Gospel Project curriculum) are one month in length, but they vary and can be up to six weeks long. We repeat the same songs, the same Scripture memory passage, and the same catechism question (Lifeway calls this the “Big Picture Question”) each week for the duration of the unit, so that by the fourth week, the kids (and musicians) know it all really well.
2) Be consistent with your order of service.
We have a skeleton outline for each assembly that we follow consistently.
- Call to Worship — a spoken greeting that introduces the monthly theme. Usually we include a passage from a psalm or epistle. We’re careful to make this time doxological. Before the kids even begin to sing, we want to remind them of why we sing and to whom we’re singing. We remind children that God is worthy of worship and invite them to lift their voices in praise to him.
- Song 1 — Usually a song of praise that relates to the lesson theme. In song introductions, we’re careful to define words that may be unfamiliar or abstract in simple, understandable terms.
- Scripture memory — Our leaders read the month’s memory verse to the kids, and then help them memorize the verse with a call-and-response method, breaking the verse down phrase by phrase. We also include hand motions the leader can use when teaching. As silly as they seem, hand motions work — for me too! I don’t forget the kids’ memory verses as often as I forget Scripture I’ve memorized on my own with traditional methods. The kinesthetic connection makes our memory verses sticky. Repeating the memory work a couple of times helps make it sticky too.
- Song 2 — Sometimes this is a Scripture memory song that matches the memory work verse.
- Giving — During this time we remind the kids that everything we have is a gift from God, and that we have the privilege of responding to God’s grace with gratitude by giving back some of what he’s given to us. We invite the kids to bring their offering to a giving box at the front of the room.
- Song 3 — With the last song, we take time to explain to the children of how it connects to a lesson they’ve already learned in the unit or will be learning that day.
- Catechism — The catechism time serves as a time to transition from singing to teaching. Using repetition and hand motions, our children memorize doctrines that connect to the Scripture lesson focus for each unit. We always include a silly instrumental riff before the catechism time that kids can dance to. At Sojourn Midtown, we use the “Tequila” riff by the Champs (1958) except that the kids shout “Catechism!” at the end. Our kids love it!
3) Don’t ask open-ended questions in the large group.
We try to create space in the liturgy for children to think and reflect on the Bible truths we’re teaching, but we’ve learned that asking open-ended questions and calling on individual students in the large group has been unhelpful. This is particularly distracting when leading a broad range of ages. Silly answers or theologically shaky responses require gentle correction, and they are difficult to handle on the fly in front of lots of other kids. It’s better to reserve question times for a more relational context such as an elementary small group or an age-grouped preschool classroom. It keeps the assembly focused when leaders simply tell children what we want to take away from a particular verse or song and then move on.
4) Choose excellent children’s songs that are singable for young children.
In my opinion, this is the most difficult part about writing a kids’ liturgy, but this essay by Jared Kennedy and Chandi Plummer is a big help. As I stated above, we generally choose one Scripture memory song (like the ones written by Seeds Family Worship or The Rizers), one children’s worship song that relates to the unit theme (We usually pick from songs by Rain for Roots, Sojourn Music, Sovereign Grace Kids, or Village Kids,), and a “big church” song.
Here’s what I mean by a “big church” song. We like to include songs that the adults are singing so the kids can learn some of the same songs their parents sing during worship. Be careful. Most “big church” songs are too long, wordy, or melodically complex for kids. We try to choose songs that have a manageable melodic range (usually an octave) and that have lots of repetitive phrases. Some that have worked well for our kids are “When I Think About the Lord” (Hillsong), “10,000 Reasons” (Matt Redman), and “Sing and Shout” (also Matt Redman). Even with these songs, we’ve found it’s helpful to teach choruses first and add verses later. One “big church” song that didn’t work well with kids was “Grace Alone” (Dustin Kensrue). We love this song, and we want to teach children songs with rich theological truths, but this song was too lyrically heavy for the children to learn and understand. Repetitive, call and response style songs are the easiest for children to learn quickly. Sovereign Grace Kids’ “Jesus Came to Earth” is one of the songs that has worked best for our kids worship time.
One last thing...
When we include songs that were not written specifically for children’s voices, we change the key to be more comfortable for the kids. This is typically more of a problem if the song was written for a male to lead. Most children are able to sing comfortably in a female’s range (from a middle C to the C an octave above).
In summary, we want worship to be accessible for kids. We want to choose songs that are simple yet encompass great truth. We want children to hear about God’s beauty and majesty, his grace and kindness, his love and care, and we want to provide opportunities for them to respond to him.
Written by Christina Gonzalez. Originally from Miami, Florida, Christina arrived in Louisville in 2015 to study at Southern Seminary and quickly fell in love with Sojourn Community Church. She teaches music classes at Sayers Classical Academy, previously lived in Serbia, where she tutored missionary children, and studied music and elementary education at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.