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Don't leave singalongs to the 1950s. Here's how we can recover family worship
Modern hymn writer Keith Getty explains why he wants to get families singing together again
With three young children in our home, Kristyn and I are no strangers to noise. Maybe you can relate. When a family fills a home, it brings with it a certain orchestrated chaos that permeates the very air you breathe. Sometimes joyful. Sometimes stressful. Sometimes just plain overwhelming. But always welcome – because this ‘noise’ is evidence of life.
You don’t have to be a parent or have a large family to appreciate the various noises that emanate from a full home: The laughter erupting from the most recent funny word uttered by a precious little one who is still learning to talk. The arguments arising over some disputed toy or the crying over the latest scraped knee. And, of course, there’s the general buzz caused by the endless footsteps, the endless closing of doors and often the endless background noise of televisions and smartphones.
But sadly, many homes today are missing one of the most beautiful and transformative noises that God has gifted to his people: the sound of our families singing together.
Kristyn once asked US preacher John MacArthur what he considered to be his most important piece of advice on parenting. His answer was that we should help our children sing in every room of our house. He said that when his children were young, they would have cassettes in every one of his family’s cars and in almost every room in their home.
There is something incredibly and divinely powerful about the whole family constantly singing about the Lord. When singing in the family becomes a common part of everyday life, it stirs our affection. It forges our thinking. It informs our memory. And it binds us together under a common, transformative message.
A lack of singing
Our goal for writing hymns has never been just about reaching one particular age group, but rather about bringing generations together under the transformative grace we experience in beautiful, biblical lyrics and reflections. But for many Christians today, singing is something reserved for a few minutes on Sunday mornings – and if we’re being honest, it is often not that highly valued there either. But regardless of the way people sing or don’t sing in their respective church services, there is at least an expectation or an acceptance that singing should be occurring there.
However, what we often fail to realise is that the reason people are not really singing together in their churches is that they are not really singing together in their homes. Singing at church often doesn’t feel ‘natural’ to people because it is not a familiar part of their daily family experience.
Something special happens when kids sing
Singing should be a family activity – an extension of what Christ is doing in each of our lives at every age. We believe the importance of singing together as a family is the main precursor to actually singing together as a congregation. If you’re not singing with your own family, you have absolutely no business coming to the congregation to sing. It’s like we treat what we do on Sundays as something separate from our normal lives – and that is where so many of our problems arise.
We believe that congregational singing is essential to our growth in Christian family and community – and that it is tragically missing in most people’s experiences.
There are legitimate challenges that might keep us from hearing these ‘beautiful noises’ ring out in our homes. Our new book Sing! (B&H Books) addresses questions such as:
“But my kids don’t want to hear my singing voice”, “I can’t play any instruments,” and “what would we sing?”.
While each of these hesitations possesses merit in its own right, let me invite you to look past these obstacles, even if you’re not sure how you’ll eventually overcome them. Trust me, it will be worth it.
5 practical steps to get your family singing together
1. Sing despite the chaos
It's all too easy to wait for perfect conditions, but they will never come. When the baby is crying, the dog is barking and life generally refuses to be simple, just sing anyway. You won’t regret it.
2. When no one else is singing, you sing
Even if all you get back are empty stares, expose your family to what it means to sing joyfully and freely. You are leading even when it seems no one is following. Stick with it for the long haul. It will eventually catch on.
3. Sing your way into new family traditions
From nightly singalongs before bedtime to unforgettably sacred moments around the piano when the extended family visits, be intentional to make moments that become second nature.
4. Sing songs that matter
Let your home be a place where sacred life meets daily life. Even if the lyrics seem too deep, use them as conversation starters. You’re laying foundations for generations to come.
5. Have fun
Pass out instruments, even if everyone is still learning to play. Smile and spin and sing together because you know that the gospel is joyfully enriching your family. Enjoy the process!
A gift from God
Singing in the home is a God-initiated gift to his people. We can see this gift reflected in the homes of ancient Israel, wherein parents were charged with ensuring that their children learned truths about God. One of the chief ways they ‘impressed’ these principles upon the ‘impressionable’ ones in their homes was through the songs they sang with them. One of these songs went something like this: “I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old – things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:2-4).
It’s all too easy to instinctively think that children can only be exposed to the simplest of songs – the ones that make the gospel unmistakably understandable, even if it means amending or leaving out key elements of the message. It is also easy to lead children to sing simple songs for the chief purpose of having fun, to the extent that they get whipped up in a frenzy of enjoyable emotion, which we teach them (even if only inadvertently so) is the mark of true worship.
While it should absolutely be fun to worship and there is most definitely a place for simple children’s songs, this doesn’t mean there isn’t also a place for historically significant, theologically rich songs. We must be careful not to underestimate a child’s intelligence and emotional capacity to internalise the beautiful complexities of deep, rich songs.
We shouldn't dare comment on church music unless we first fill our own homes with it
Something special happens when kids sing. Being unhindered and unburdened by self-awareness, there is a sincere expression that comes through when their young voices ring out with the melodies and lyrics reflecting the deepest mysteries of grace – mysteries they may not fully understand as they sing.
CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien certainly did not believe that children must understand every part of a story in order to be enriched by it. Do children understand everything Frodo says or the full significance of the power and danger of the ring? Do they understand Narnia or the full extent of the white witch’s deception or Edmund’s internal conflict against darkness?
By engaging in something fundamentally, and yet enjoyably, higher than their own life stage, children learn a key lesson: that life is deeper. That we have to think into things. That we grow into things. That faith is not comprised of mere, simplistic answers to difficult, complex questions.
We often think of our children’s learning processes as though information, like trains, moves from one station to the next, leaving the previous station behind. But CS Lewis believed that instead, knowledge and understanding grows within them in the same way various rings develop within a healthy, growing tree. Over time, even if a child doesn’t understand everything they are being exposed to, they still retain something valuable that becomes a part of their internal journey of thought, conviction and, ultimately, belief.
Cultivate a high view of music
So, what should you sing together? First of all, sing great songs that the whole family might still want to be singing when everyone becomes old someday! Music is a gift from God – an incredible reflection of his creative mastery. The one who has donned the universe with such splendid uniqueness and beauty is the giver of music to his people and to our families. Sadly, many Christians today have a very low view of music and the arts. They inadvertently miss or dismiss the passion for beauty that our God possesses. He is the one who delights in beauty, so the very culture in our homes should be one of beauty, celebration and warmth as we live imaginative, curious lives in the faith together. By pursuing a high view of music, we can actually set a spiritual tone in our families as a whole and in the respective lives of each member.
Growing up, we always sang in our home: ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow’ before grace. The ‘Doxology’ originated from the old Geneva Psalter in the 16th century. Early settlers brought this song to America originally from France, and then also from England. From centuries past and continents afar, we were singing around our table the same song of truth our ancestors had been singing around their tables. I didn’t realise it at the time, but singing songs like these together helped to foster something deep and meaningful in my life. It’s a spiritual connection to the heritage and faith of previous generations.
Today, we still sing in our home, but also want to teach our kids some of the history of these songs. Learning history and experiencing heritage through singing together may just be the progressive thing we’ve been missing in our families and churches. God will use lyrics you never dreamt your loved ones would embrace to draw you together as family and forge deep foundations that will last a lifetime.
Christian worship in the form of singing is a feast that is prepared during the week in our homes. Let none of us dare make a comment on church music unless we are first filling our own homes with it.
Amid all the noise that permeates our homes, giving evidence to the presence of life therein, the beautiful noise we should most long to hear, regardless of our age, is the sound of families singing the gospel together.
Keith Getty, together with his wife Kristyn, is globally recognised for modern hymn-writing including ‘In Christ alone’. Their latest book is Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church (B&H Books)