Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Why "dumbing down" is a bad idea.

"Children don't understand all these old-fashioned words.  We need to make the service more accessible."

This is a common suggestion from Children's Ministers and others concerned with making worship friendly to children.  And while it's true that liturgical leaders need to think about how to make worship understood by children, I worry that sometimes that impulse goes too far.

I'm thinking specifically of hymns and singing here, though the same can be applied to other aspects of the service.

It's important, when looking at "accessible" songs for children, to make sure that they are simple but not simplistic.  Is there an attempt to provide context for a story, or make connections between different stories?  Are the hard parts left in, or is the Bible sanitised to the point of banality?  Is there redemption or just a bland happiness around the figure of Jesus?  Is the imagery rich, and Biblical in origin?  The hymn "Peace is Flowing Like a River," for example, provides a great depth of theological understanding in very simple terms, using real Biblical language - "Peace is flowing like a river / flowing out of you and me / spreading out into the desert / setting all the captives free."  This can be repeated with Faith, Hope, Joy, Love, etc. and simple movements can be used to illustrate the words.  Compare that to the fairly bland lyrics of "God is so Good" - "God is so good / God is so good, / God is so good / He’s so good to me! / God cares for me / God cares for me / God cares for me / He's so good to me."  There's nothing wrong with the occasional simplistic song if the kids love it and sing it with joy, but it's not a rich enough diet, by itself, to feed their spirituality.

But I think there's also a place, in worship, for things that are neither simple nor simplistic - I think there's a place for things that kids don't understand.  I think it's worthwhile to start teaching them real hymns, at a young age.

If children understand everything immediately, there is no mystery.  There is no impulse to come back and go over the material again, to gain further understanding.  It's fine for some aspects of worship to be understood only partly by children - it's not like schoolwork, where they only get one crack at it and then move on to the next thing.  The Nicene Creed and the Lord's Prayer will be there for them, week after week, year after year, ready for them as they grow in understanding.  It would be a shame to sacrifice richness - of liturgy, of language, of music - for the sake of accessibility.

I think many Children's Ministers are concerned with bringing worship down to the children's level.  While this is admirable, it's also possible to raise children up to the level of the worship.  I was taught very clearly last Sunday that this is not only effective - in enabling children to understand what's going on, but desirable - in that children respond more deeply to the richness of mystery and growth in understanding than they do to more simplistic material.

We learn one hymn every half-term in our Sunday School.  Recently, Thomas joined us from the creche, where he'd spent most of this year.  But he was now five years old and clearly growing restless with the younger children, so his parents moved him into Sunday School.

Thomas is very clearly a kinaesthetic learner.  He's very physical and has a very active imagination.  During our activity time, he will often choose to play with the feltboard pieces rather than join in with the activity (we usually have two or three kids at the feltboard at any given time - it's one of the choices they have for the activity time, along with our structured activity, our reading corner, and our prayer corner).

This week, however, after he played with the feltboard for a little while, Thomas came over to the activity table where we were illustrating hymns and prayers to make a Sunday School Service Book for next year.  He chose the hymn that we've been learning this half-term and spent about twenty solid minutes completely absorbed in illustrating it.

Here's the result:

This is a difficult hymn, with many archaic words.  And at its heart, it is a metaphor of our life on earth as Christians.  Thomas - at the age of FIVE - has drawn a pilgrim with his staff, some mountains, a stony road, and, in the top left corner, the pilgrim's destination - the Celestial City.  At the top, the sun is peeking out from behind the mountains in the distance.
Thomas may not understand all the words, but he knows what this hymn is about.

Here's what we did:

1. Have the words to the hymn on the wall of the worship area, with illustrations.  I Googled "Pilgrim's Progress Christian Burden" "Christian's Fight With Apollyon" and "Christian Celestial City Bunyan" respectively to get illustrations for the three verses.

2. The first time you introduce a hymn, do just the first verse.  Go over and define some of the phrases, not just the words, translating them into modern speak.  Sing just the first verse, teaching it one or two lines at a time - you first, then the kids.  Finish it by singing the first verse all together.

3. The second time, briefly recap what the hymn means in modern language.  Sing the first verse and introduce the second verse.  Allow children to ask questions about the pictures and the words.  Where possible, turn these back on them - "what do you think that monster's doing?"

4. Then repeat it over and over, including the final verse.  If possible, use a CD to encourage children to sing.  We use the "No Organist, No Problem!" CD set, which has organ arrangements of many common hymns, so it's basically "hymnal karaoke" for the kids - they provide all the singing, but they're not doing it a cappella.

5. Finally, once they're relatively familiar with it, add movements.  This reinforces the imagery and the themes of the hymn, as well as helping kinaesthetic learners like Thomas connect with it.  Here are our movements, but feel free to come up with your own.

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,

Stand with arms raised and flexed, in "strong man" position.

Let him in constancy follow the Master.

Walk in place.

There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent

Shake finger and make frowning face, as if scolding.

His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Stand bravely with hands on hips, a la Superman.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories

Hands still on hips, lean forward, with wrinkled forehead and mean face.

Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is.

Strong man position again.

No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,

Fight with imaginary sword.

He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Hands on hips, Superman pose again.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,

Raise arms and stand in orans position.

We know we at the end, shall life inherit.

Hold imaginary crown between your hands, place it on your head.

Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,

Wiggling fingers, push arms away from yourself.

I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

Superman pose again.

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