Systematic Hymnology

Today I’d like to share with you an idea I’ve been developing for over six months. I’m writing a new curriculum for the children’s choirs at Stevens Street, which will focus on using the treasure trove of Christian hymns — both old and new — to train the children both musically and doctrinally. Here are a few of the reasons I wanted to write this, and some of the things that have given shape to my vision for this curriculum:

Lack of Quality Literature Published

We have had difficulty finding already-published children’s choir music that has both musical and theological value, particularly for the older kids. While there is some truly great stuff out there, it seems the vast majority of children’s choir music sacrifices doctrinally sound lyrics for the sake of a catchy tune, or vice-versa. We want to train our students to be excellent musicians while also singing true things to and about God.

Our directors found themselves frequently searching through entire (expensive) song collections to find one or two redeemable songs. Most of the music that came with accompaniment tracks sounded as if it was geared toward younger children, which was a big turnoff to our 5th and 6th graders. Many of the lyrics were trite, sometimes compromising Scriptural integrity in order to rhyme. It was a lot of work to think of new lyrics to go with the songs that we liked musically. I began to realize that it would be much easier to begin with good lyrics and write age-appropriate arrangements that fit whatever musical style we wanted than to work in the other direction.

Teaching Big Truths to Young Hearts

Toward the end of last year I learned of a recent book by Bruce Ware (professor of systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) called Big Truths for Young Hearts (read my review here), billed as a systematic theology book written on a children’s level. As I was reading it and being reminded of Truths that are simultaneously simple and profound, Bible songs and hymns that I learned as a child came rushing back to me. I realized that — for all my reading and studying — most of my personal theology had actually come from these hymns and songs. Those truths and Scripture passages I’d sung so long ago had been cemented in my heart and mind through the medium of music!

A question formed in my mind: What if I could harness the power of music to systematically teach kids these great theological truths? I began making a list of hymns and songs that came to mind as I read, and categorized them based on the doctrines taught in their lyrics. Over the last several months, I’ve gone through several hymnals searching for more songs that teach specific doctrines. Every time I hear a song on the radio or on a CD that has great, doctrinally sound lyrics, I add it to the list (which now has well over 400 songs). Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was also very helpful, as he includes a hymn at the end of each chapter.

Innovative Music Education

Something else that had caught my eye a while back was the PS22 Chorus, which became a YouTube sensation a while back. This is a public elementary school in an economically-challenged school district in New York City. About ten years ago, a young, ambitious music teacher saw a group of kids who hated music, and who had no ambitions to succeed in music (and no middle or high school band or choir to look forward to for those who did), and committed himself to instilling in them a love for music and musical excellence.

With no budget and no resources — not even a classroom! — “Mr. B” had the idea to inspire the children to love music by teaching them using songs with which they were familiar. He brought tunes by Journey, Lady Gaga, and Jay-Z into the classroom, but arranged them in such a way that they had great educational value. The music teachers among us can see in his videos that he is teaching his students the “national standards for music education,” even though he’s using popular music to do it. His kids sing alone and with others. They read and write music. He teaches them to not only evaluate and analyze the music they sing, but to truly understand the meaning of the lyrics and sing expressively. Here’s a short clip that shows a bit of how this works… and I encourage you to spend some time on YouTube watching several of the PS22 clips!

When I saw this, I started thinking about what I could learn from his teaching methods, and how they might be applied here. If he can get this much out of 4th and 5th graders using the music of their culture and heritage, why not attempt the same thing using music from our Christian culture and heritage? Why not make fun and educationally-valuable arrangements of songs that are (or ought to be) familiar to our students? Why not teach them to critically analyze and evaluate the lyrics of the songs we sing, and to sing them with expression and understanding?

Putting It All Together

After much thought and prayer, I developed a plan to write a comprehensive curriculum. Each semester, our children’s choirs (for now just the 1st-6th grade choirs, though we may add our Pre-K and Kindergartners eventually) will have a “focus doctrine”. Over the course of four months, they will learn several hymns (the number will vary some by grade level) that all focus on the same doctrine. I’m aiming for a balance of “old” and “new” hymns (preemptively circumventing the next generation of “worship wars”?), though we’ll likely do a lot of contemporary arrangements even of the older songs. There will be different songs for the older and younger choirs, though each semester will have a “theme song” that all the choirs will learn and sing together.

For each song in the curriculum, I’m writing a “Song Story”, with biographical information about the composer/lyricist and the historical context and significance of the hymn. There will also be a devotion accompanying each hymn, with a lyric analysis that will teach elements of the focus doctrine and show where in the Scriptures we find support for the words we’re singing… if not the words themselves! Each hymn will be presented in a simple 2- or 3-part harmonization, and the kids will learn to sing them by looking at the notes on a page, rather than by rote. Hymnals are one of the best tools available for learning to read music!

Over the course of their 6+ years in our children’s choir program, the kids will hit each focus doctrine at least twice, helping to instill in them a foundation of good theology. Here are the doctrines on which we’ll focus, not necessarily in this order:

  • Theology proper — The person and work of God the Father, and the Doctrine of the Trinity
  • Christology — The person and work of Jesus
  • Pneumatology — The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  • Creation/Fall
  • Bibliology — The doctrine of Scripture
  • Soteriology — The doctrine of Salvation
  • Ecclesiology — The doctrine of the Church
  • Eschatology — The doctrine of the Future

I’m super excited about writing this curriculum! It’s been a ton of fun so far, and I’m sure it will only get better. It’s tentatively titled “Systematic Hymnology”. In the next couple days I’ll share a sample of what a lesson plan might look like, and tell you about the exciting way we’re going to introduce this concept to our congregation. Here’s a hint: Mark your calendars for October 3, and make sure you’re here at Stevens Street Baptist Church that day!

One comment on “Systematic Hymnology

  1. John Gardner says:

    I would talk to someone about copyrighting your ideas and your writings so that YOU can publish them when you finish. Sounds like a great SYSTEMATIC approach.

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