Musician Justin Graves reveals the secrets to getting kids “all in” when it comes to worship.
Kids worship seems like a no-brainer, right? Just throw a few songs together, get kids to bounce around a little bit, and bingo, you can move on to the next activity.
Well…not quite. Worship with kids is much more than just singing silly songs and getting them to shake out their wiggles. The music we select for worship serves as a valuable tool for teaching God’s Word and truth to kids. It’s also a way for them to experience the awesomeness of God’s presence. This is why it’s so important for us to ensure that all kids gain from—and are engaged in—the experience of worship.
Time Is Ticking
Today, if a family shows up at church once per month, they’re considered regular attendees. This means we may see some kids only 12 times per year. That reality also means each week is a unique, important opportunity to teach, train, and encourage this new generation of followers of Jesus.
It shines a bright spotlight on the importance of the worship in our ministries. I’ve spent years traveling the country and working with children’s ministers to bring worship experiences to kids and adults.
Over the years, I’ve learned there are practical, proven ways to make the most of your worship time with kids. I’ve gleaned insights on engaging kids (yes, even those fifth- and sixth-graders) and tips for reaching kids and families—even if they don’t come every week. Read on to discover concrete ways to engage kids in worship.
Sounds Like Worship
The Bible tells us worship isn’t just music, but a lifestyle. Worship is an action, not a place or event. We live lives of worship. And while music can be a part of worship, it alone isn’t worship. But for the purpose of this discussion on how worship music relates to children’s ministry, I’m going to let “worship” be synonymous with “music.”
Keys to Engage Kids in Worship
When it comes to truly engaging kids in worship, follow these 11 simple keys to make the most of your time with your kids.
1. Plan ahead.
In years of conversations with children’s ministers, I’ve discovered that many wait until the last minute to plan which songs they’ll use for worship, while others don’t put specific thought into it. Some use the same music they’ve always used, others choose songs on the fly, and some leave it to kids to decide. But waiting to select worship music can result in a sense of disjointedness and an experience that isn’t as powerful as it could be.
Your curriculum likely has a monthly topic or verse. In your regular preparation each week, spend a few extra moments finding songs that correspond with the weekly or monthly verse the curriculum focuses on. Place the same value on finding the right music as you would in finding the right craft or game for the lesson.
2. Step into kids’ shoes.
As you choose your songs, think about the kids who’ll be there. Children have a kid-size view of God. Depending on your kids, that might range from the preschool concept of “Jesus loves me” to a sixth-grade understanding of “God is my Savior and friend.” Children’s understandings of faith and love grow as they get older and experience more of life. The Chronicles of Narnia series demonstrated this when the child character Lucy asks Aslan (the lion who represents Jesus) if he’s gotten bigger. Aslan answers, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
If you plan to use songs that might be above kids’ understanding, spend time teaching them what a concept or phrase means or where it comes from before you play the music. Don’t assume kids understand what they’re singing or what the song means. Tell them what Bible verse the song comes from or what a particular phrase in the song means. When you do this, kids’ view and understanding of God will grow. It also connects your teaching points. And when kids hear the song or phrase again later, they’ll remember what you taught them.
Listen Up: There are lots of fun, silly songs kids love to sing at church, and there’s a time and place for those. However, when it comes to worship, consider using music that teaches God’s Word and reinforces biblical truths coinciding with what kids are learning. Music is a valuable tool that can enhance and reinforce what we’re teaching kids. Use fun, silly songs as gathering music for when kids arrive or for after the service as kids wait for parents.
Technology can be your friend or foe. Smooth technology transitions help keep kids focused on worship, whereas bumpy technology delays interrupt the flow and are a distraction. Help make technology your friend by not leaving anything to chance. Once you’ve selected your music, ensure the songs are loaded, ready, and functioning so the music portion of your service runs smoothly.
4. Remember: Repetition is key.
Kids love repetition. Just think— how many times have you heard that same knock-knock joke? Exactly. Choose three or four songs that tie in with your theme and use them for one month. You don’t have to do them in the same order each week. But if kids come to church only about once a month, you’ll ensure they hear the music at least once. If they come more than that, they’ll hear familiar songs that reinforce the point.
5. Send it home.
A great way to connect with kids and families even when they aren’t at church is to provide resources they can use at home. Share the worship music you’ve selected legally by sending parents an email each month with artists’ official links to the songs you’re using. That way, kids can sing the songs with their families, and parents get a glimpse of what kids are learning.
Listen Up: An important reminder: Even though you may find great songs and lyric videos online, you must use them legally in your services. Downloading songs or streaming them directly from YouTube in your service is illegal. Purchase the music and videos from approved vendors, and have the license needed to use them in your services. Go to Christian Copyright Licensing International.
6. Use motions.
When kids do motions along with music, the physical movement reinforces what the song teaches. And for many kids, the kinesthetic movement of matching actions to words helps them internalize the message.
7. Engage older kids.
You may be thinking, My preteen boys will never do motions—I can’t even get them to participate in worship! While worship may seem like a hard sell to older kids, there’s a simple solution. That’s because music is an activity in which everyone participates—often in different ways. An effective approach to engaging older kids is to ask them to be leaders. Invite your older kids to assist with teaching motions, help with the music setup, or be on the tech crew. Help older kids understand that the younger ones look up to them. Encourage them to help lead by doing motions for younger kids to follow even when they’re not up front. When you empower older kids as leaders and give them a role in your ministry, you’ll find their engagement goes up, which has a positive impact on everyone.
You may be thinking, What about those boys in the back who just stand there and look like they want to be anywhere but here? Even though some kids may not be actively participating, they, too, are involved. You see, unlike playing a game where a child can sit out and actively not play, music is a passive activity. We listen to music while engaging in other activities like driving, doing homework, or working out. Even though we’re not actively focusing attention on the music, we’re still affected by it. In the same way, even though the kids in the back look like they couldn’t care less, they’re still hearing the music and absorbing what it’s teaching. So don’t despair. I’ve had parents of kids who I thought weren’t paying attention at all tell me their child sings songs from their church at home or in the car during the week. Now that’s success!
8. Set a positive example.
Getting your older kids to participate means that the adults are also singing and doing motions. When grown-ups are standing in the back talking and not paying attention, kids think it’s acceptable behavior. Model the behavior you desire from kids.
9. Be still sometimes.
Motions with music are great. Also remember, though, that it’s valuable to teach kids that sometimes we worship by standing still and singing. If we teach our kids that we can worship God by singing and dancing as well as by sitting still and praying, we’ll help develop lifelong worshippers.
10. Search for the good stuff.
You may be wondering where you’re supposed to find all this awesome music for worship. Thanks to the great gifts of many incredible music artists and the endless Rolodex of the information superhighway, we have access to more music than we could ever need. Take a few moments during the week and search Google or YouTube. There’s so much wonderful music available today in just about every genre that simply searching for a specific verse or topic will deliver a long list of suggestions. It may take some time to search through results, and you may end up getting lost down the rabbit hole of YouTube suggestions, but there are many great resources at your fingertips to preview.
11. Stay flexible.
You know what will and won’t work with your kids. Remember, you don’t have to use music that comes with the curriculum. You don’t have to choose any music for any reason other than you know it’ll connect with your kids and reinforce your point.
The Three P’s
I’ll leave you with what I call the “Three P’s” for successful kids worship.
Have a plan.
A plan is vital to every ministry. Make sure you know what songs you’re using, and have everything loaded and ready to go ahead of time.
Have a purpose.
Music teaches Scripture and biblical truths to our kids. Use the time you have with your kids to teach and encourage a love for God and others.
Have a posse.
Yes, that’s a silly word, but it conveys my point (and it starts with P). Having a team in place to help lead, sing, and model the behavior and actions you desire will help your service run smoothly and limit distractions.
Kids worship is an important piece of every children’s ministry. Whether it’s one song per week or a whole hour of music, the time we have with the kids is important and valuable. Music is one of the most powerful teaching tools we have, and the songs children learn in our ministries will stick with them for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t matter how often we get to serve kids, we can take each opportunity to fill them with Scripture, truth, and love. And we can do all that through music.
Justin Graves (justingravesband.com) is a worship leader and songwriter with over 25 years of experience. Also known as the Worship Barista, he trains worship leaders around the world.
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