Different Paradigms

Darren Philip reflects on our understanding of children's spirituality and the impact this has on "children's songs". 

Darren PhilipWhen planning worship, one of the things I find most difficult is selecting music which will engage children’s spirituality. There is no shortage of “children’s music” in the church’s repertoire, yet finding something that hits the spot is no mean feat. Perhaps this is to do with how our understanding of children’s spirituality has developed through different paradigms.

A blank slate

Philosopher John Locke coined the expression “blank slate” to describe the view held of children at the time following the reformation. Children were believed to come into the world as a blank slate to be written on, an empty vessel to be filled, wet clay to be moulded. Our role as adults in the church became that of teachers, imparting the knowledge of God that children required.

Within this paradigm, the requirement of music for children is that it is educational, teaching children something about God. When I think of the “children’s songs” from my childhood, they largely fit into this category.

A planted seed

The twentieth century saw the advent of theories of human development, recognising that as we live and grow we progress to increasingly complex levels of development and maturity. Children are viewed like seeds to be nurtured into fruition. Our role as adults in the church is to be like gardeners, ensuring the correct environment and conditions for the healthy spiritual growth of children.

In models of faith development, positive experience and a sense of belonging are important for progression to the next stage, so the requirement of music for children is that it is fun, enjoyable, energetic. When I glance through the children’s shelves of Christian music shops, much of what is currently on the market largely fits into this category.

Yet something seems missing. While children might enjoy a fun-filled song, and words that are educational can be no bad thing, neither recognises the relationship God has with children and children have with God. What is needed is a different paradigm…

A fellow pilgrim

Over the last two decades, a new model emerged which sees a child as a pilgrim on a journey. Our role as adults in the church is that of a fellow pilgrim, both nurturing and being nurtured by the children we walk with.

Taking seriously this model of child spirituality requires music that goes beyond the instructional or engaging. It requires music which recognises that children have something to say to God, that just like adults, children need to be able to process and make meaning of their experiences of life and faith. Music needs to provide a space for children to be with and experience the sacred, and music is needed which allows adults and children to do this together on their journey.

The language used in children’s songs needs to be simple enough to be understood yet sufficiently profound to engage a child’s natural ability to wonder. Simple signs or actions associated with key words in the song can help achieve this, though children need to be free to express their own creativity. The tenor of the music needs to be in accord with the emotion expressed in the words, and space for reflection and the opportunity to bring thoughts and feelings before God are key.

It is this kind of children’s music which is in short supply: music which is more than educational or enjoyable but which allows adults and children together to connect with God.

Darren Philip, an escapee mathematician, is Youth & Children’s Worker at Livingston United Parish Church and writes worship and learning resources for use with children and all ages together.