Practical Tips for Leading Children of All Ages in Worship
Published: February 4, 2020
Discover how to lead children in worship — from, dynamic children’s worship leader Yancy.
As she trains worship leaders throughout the country, Yancy Richmond often quotes this mind-boggling statistic: By the time children reach age 18, they have an estimated 10,000 songs in their heads. Richmond, known onstage as Yancy, wants to make sure they’re getting the right musical message.
“I want to talk about things that are important for kids to get into their brains,” says the 30-year-old singer, songwriter, and worship leader. “If I teach a song filled with God’s Word, and kids remember it years later, God’s Word doesn’t come back void.”
Crank up the volume on any Yancy CD, including her new release Stars, Guitars and Megaphone Dreams (Yancy Ministries), and it’s apparent why kids are drawn to her music. Her upbeat, pop-style tunes make children of all ages — and their parents — want to sing, dance, and shout. Best of all, her Bible-based lyrics make God’s truth come alive in cool, relevant, and Christ-centered ways.
In person, Yancy is as colorful and creative as her high-energy songs. While her clothing and hairstyle might be flamboyant, her message is grounded in God. As the daughter of children’s ministry veteran Jim Wideman, author of Children’s Ministry Leadership: The You-Can-Do-It-Guide (Group), Yancy grew up in the church. For the past eight years, she’s combined her musical gifts with her passion for connecting kids to Christ.
Yancy has a pitch-perfect strategy for creating worship that rocks for children of all ages and stages. “As children’s ministry and worship leaders, we need to send the message to all kids —especially the older ones — that Jesus is relevant yesterday, today, and forever.” But how we “package” that important message matters, Yancy notes. By packaging, she means “cutting the right bite-size piece for each person at a particular stage of life.”
Read on to discover more ideas for keeping children worship.
Rockin’ With Preschoolers
Through fun, upbeat, action-oriented songs, preschoolers learn that Jesus is their friend. “For preschoolers, worshipping God is singing to him out of love,” Yancy says. “It’s more than wiggling and jumping.”
Yancy offers these tips for staying in rhythm with kids this age.
Choose short songs with easily understandable lyrics and lots of repetition.
Ask yourself, “Is this being said in a way that fits a preschooler’s Monday through Saturday world?” Worship songs with one verse and a chorus that are sung repeatedly tend to work best with this age group. Yancy recommends songs ranging from one-and-a-half to two minutes long.
“Occasionally, it’s okay to use slower songs that are a little longer because the beat is longer,” she says. “But that’s the exception, not the rule.” For great preschool worship songs to add to your set list, check out Yancy’s Little Praise Party or Group’s Play-n-Worship for Preschoolers.
Teach the easiest parts first, explaining lyrics as needed.
Yancy suggests teaching the chorus first because it’s easiest for preschoolers to pick up. Break down the words for children, clarifying with images or motions when necessary. For example, preschoolers may not grasp that “Jesus is my Savior,” but they can understand that “Jesus is my friend.”
Make motions purposeful and meaningful.
Otherwise, all the random-seeming movements will just be distracting to preschoolers. Have children practice the motions a few times to get a tiny taste of what they’ll experience in the song.
At this point, let children sing the song, even though they haven’t learned the whole thing yet. It’ll seem awkward at first, but preschoolers catch on amazingly quickly. The second time through, they’ll know most of the words to simple, upbeat songs.
To teach slower worship songs, take a seat.
“When children sit down, it’s easier for them to focus,” Yancy says, “especially if you’ve just done a fast song.” Sitting redirects preschoolers, allowing them to show God they love him in a different way.
Mix it up and make it fun.
Most of Yancy’s preschool worship sets begin with a few upbeat songs, transition to a slower one, and then finish with another high-energy tune. This change in tempo and intensity taps into preschoolers’ short attention spans.
In “God Is for Me,” Yancy’s upbeat rendition of Romans 8:31, she makes the purpose of elementary worship clear: “God is for me, not against me / I have nothing to fear He makes me strong / This I know God is for me not against me / I have nothing to fear He loves me so / This I know.”
Elementary worship is about children responding to God’s goodness in their lives. Yancy describes worship for elementary kids as a journey with clear starting and ending points, with worship leaders acting as guides.
Use these age-appropriate tips to help elementary-age children get the most out of worship.
When choosing songs, consider the message, audience, and time frame.
Match each song’s message with the points you want to convey. Connecting the meaning of lyrics to the focus of your lesson helps reinforce learning.
Explore how easy a song is for children to learn.
Most songs that you can sing after one hearing are perfect for elementary kids. These songs usually have a simple melody and a memorable chorus.
Offer directions and guidance as children praise God.
Much like an aerobics instructor, your role is to encourage, champion, and help kids discover how to experience God through the music and lyrics. Help children understand the meaning of each song. “Talk kids through the lyrics to help them find meaning in the words,” Yancy says. For example, some elementary-age children may not know the definition of redeemed, but they do know what it means to rescue, restore, or pay off something.
Craft a purposeful, memorable time of worship.
A powerful experience for this age group typically begins with two or three fast songs and then transitions into slower ones, creating an environment for kids to experience God’s presence. Upbeat songs such as Yancy’s “Make It Loud” get hearts pumping and raise energy levels, while slower ones such as “I Love You” provide a more intimate time for kids to reflect and express their love and thanks to God. Combining a variety of tempos in each worship set helps all kids experience God in ways they learn best.
Use the pace of worship to connect to children.
Worship can’t be rushed, so allow enough time for kids to savor each song. When moving to a new one, provide streamlined transitions. During her concerts, Yancy uses specific strategies to move from one tempo to another. To switch from high-energy to slower songs, for example, she lowers the volume and intensity of her voice. “Change your energy, movements, and actions, and children will change theirs,” she says. In her segues, Yancy repeats key lines from a song, prays, or recites a few Scripture passages (“The Psalms are great!”). No matter what type of transition you choose, keep it short and remember your role as a guide.
Leaders attempting to be inclusive often program toward younger elementary children. Unfortunately, Yancy says, this often backfires and alienates the older kids, who “check out on the cheesiness.” They drift to the back of the room, start talking, or become disruptive. “We have to program ‘up,'” Yancy says, because older kids are much more likely than first graders to leave thinking that church is lame and meaningless. Target older kids by choosing songs they love and mixing them with a smaller section of songs for younger worshippers. Design a graphic to introduce this special part of the worship time and use a special song to accompany it. Involve older kids in these “younger” worship moments. Pull aside older kids who are passionate about leading worship and let them model what it means to praise God.
Preteens and Passion
Preteen worship is Yancy’s passion. “It’s important to me to communicate to preteens that God knows everything about them,” she says. “He does have the answer for everything they’ll ever face. He is relevant to their lives.”
To create preteen worship that rocks, follow these pointers:
Help preteens understand why we worship.
Yancy recommends starting with the Psalms, letting preteens dig into David’s words and apply them to how preteens can worship God today. “If preteens understand the importance of worship by the time they graduate from our kids’ programs,” she says, “they help set the example and raise the bar of worship as they move into middle school ministry and beyond.”
Choose relevant worship songs.
Yancy’s motto “No lame, no cheese” highlights the need to identify what’s musically “cool” to today’s preteens. She meets twice a year with a few kids in her ministry to review the current worship songs and preview new tunes to add to the roster. During get-togethers, kids reveal their favorite songs and identify tired ones.
“Anything that wears out its welcome weakens its impact,” Yancy says. She suggests shelving worn-out songs and bringing them out once or twice a year so kids can savor them again. For great preteen worship songs, check out Yancy’s Stars, Guitars and Megaphone Dreams.
Be a student of preteen culture.
Survey the kids in your ministry about their favorites in a wide range of categories (TV shows, music, cartoon characters, magazines, clothing, online hangouts, and more). Tabulate the results and use the data to inform your music choices. Just remember that what’s cool today may not be cool tomorrow, and your favorite songs and styles may not be theirs.
Let preteens see your heart in authentic ways.
Communicate that leading worship isn’t performing but rather responding to God’s love through music and movement. Make eye contact with kids and use their names. Encourage participation by asking preteens to sing along. When leading a new or unfamiliar song, Yancy guides kids by shouting “Repeat after me” and then singing line by line. Kids follow her lead, singing, swaying, and moving to the music. “It’s in these worshipful moments when God smiles,” Yancy says.
Leading preteens in powerful worship experiences requires leaders to step out of their comfort zones and into kids’ world. Leaders need the determination to try new things, the courage to fail, and the humility to evaluate what’s no longer relevant.
Know your audience.
Good preteen worship leaders can read cues that signal when kids are getting it and when they aren’t. Leaders also must know how to quickly respond with adjustments and redirection. To refocus a worship experience, Yancy asks a question, shares a Scripture, reminds kids about the purpose of worship, or gets kids interacting. These positive strategies allow preteens to make discoveries about faith, truth, and the God they serve.
As Yancy travels the globe performing concerts and leading worship for kids and families, she holds onto discoveries she made as a child. In her for-kids devotional Rock-n-Happy Heart, she writes:
“‘On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.’ Jesus, You are my Rock. My foundation. My hope is found in you. You heal the brokenhearted. You restore my joy and my strength. Your dreams for me are bigger than my own. Help me to love you more every day of my life so I can experience all that you have in store for me. The best is yet to come. I believe it.”
We can help kids discover that same hope, joy, and strength in God through intentional worship experiences designed specifically for them. What are we waiting for? Let’s get rockin’!
Patty Smith is the director of Children and Family Ministries in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
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