Do action songs really help children worship?

Posted at 14:47pm on 17th December 2013
As an advocate for ‘action songs’ and the use of movement in worship (particularly children’s worship) and having just read this article by Sam Donoghue (Editor of Childrenswork Magazine), I wanted to write an immediate response. I'll be honest in saying I had to take a deep breath to try and use some thought-out ideas rather than a spur of the moment response. I should also say that I love what the magazine is trying to do in creating a resource for Children's workers. So here goes...
The article can be found here
  • "Do action songs really help children worship?"
Yes, I believe they do (that was an easy starting point for me).
  • "Action songs are not to be confused with worship."
Since worship is about us ‘giving worth’ to our awesome creator God through anything good we can do, no song (as an entity), be that an action song or not, should be confused with worship. Attributing worth to our awesome God is something anyone can do, in a huge variety of ways. So, although action songs are definitely not the only way children can worship God, they are most certainly a great way of helping children to engage in worship through music and movement. 
  • "Often in the ‘children’s church’ action songs are used to mirror the bit of the service where adults engage with God through singing."
Music and singing are a brilliant God-given gift, helping children and adults to engage with, and relate to, God. Music is a powerful tool, this is seen clearly through the wide use of music therapy to help children deal with all sorts of things and re-engage in a world from which they may well be shut-off.
Joseph Gelineau (in his article in ‘Creative Chords.’ Jeff Astley (ed)) has gone so far as to suggest that ‘the Father gave us music because without it we could not begin to express our gratitude for so wondrous a gift [of Jesus].’
It is wrong to imply that children’s worship is just a (poor) reflection of adult worship where adults engage with God and children just copy it. Yes, children can learn from ‘copying/ mirroring’ older people in church, but their worship, albeit in ways that others might not like or choose, is equally as valid in it’s own right and important to God.
Children are very genuine. If they are not engaging with what is happening, we will know about it. They have not learnt the art of ‘looking engaged’ like us seasoned pro’s in the adult congregation. We can learn from them, perhaps in being more real during our worship times.
  • "The problem with action songs is that once the child is concentrating on getting the words and the actions right and in time with the music, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of room left for God."
I’d like to argue that God can be worshipped by anyone with just an action, regardless of whether there are words to accompany it.
The Bible is full (especially in the Psalms) of people using their whole bodies to worship God—kneeling; raising their hands; lying prostrate; bowing down, to name but a few. Sometimes this is alongside singing, other times it is just a physical action.
I think we are treading on dangerous ground here if we are suggesting that concentrating on moving is not a worshipful experience. It is not really up to us how people worship, or whether they are genuinely doing so. It is also not really of prime importance whether the worshipper understands every word they are singing or the meaning of the entire song. The Biblical framework of worship focuses around attitude of heart (Matthew 15:7-9) and an outworking of faith.
The God that I believe in loves to see His children (of every age) doing their best to praise Him whatever that looks or sounds like, and whether they have a theology degree or not!
It may be the case that for Sam (and others), standing completely still to worship God is the most effective means of engagement, but many others find some sort of act of creativity, or even simple physical involvement by way of movement (like a sway/clap or even a subtle toe-tapping so as not to give away the fact that you’re moving), helps us to engage.
I believe that movement and music are perhaps so inseparable for children that to stop their movement while singing might actually hinder their worship and engagement with God.
Most children's workers are very aware of the many different learning styles we share, and the length of a child’s attention span, as well as how important it is for some children to actually be doing two things at once to enable their concentration. (Hence the rise in variety of ‘Fidget toys’ - - and the success of these for many children). See also my short article in our last BIG News on this -
I conducted some research about music and movement a few years ago. When asked what they thought about actions/ movement in worship, the children (aged between 4 and 15) gave these responses:
  • ‘shows expressions to God;’
  • ‘make it more realistic;’
  • ‘they mean what we sing;’
  • ‘they’re fun when we do them all together;’ ‘
  • ‘praises God better;’
  • ‘makes you understand the words better;’ and
  • ‘you can use your body for worship without being a dancer.’
Movement is incredibly natural for most children. They can pick up actions, follow a leader, sing and dance all at the same time. They haven’t all developed the constraints of self-consciousness we adults often pick up, and it is wrong for us to project our own inhibitions onto their uninhibited expression of worship through music.
  • "Action songs are primarily an educational tool. It strikes me that the way lots of children’s worship songs are written is to help children remember stuff rather than engage with God. This often misses a key point about Christian nurture: you cannot educate a child into faith. When life is tough and God feels distant there needs to be something more than a catchy tune for children to fall back on. Children gain this [faith] by finding meaning themselves through their own thought, and not through us giving them all the answers."
Some action songs are written with the aim to teach, but actually the majority of songs are not written with such an intention in mind, even though they may do so rather effectively!   
I like to use the example of 'playing' when training on children's worship. Worship (in this case, action songs) is like the play of the church. A child will play, just to play. Although in so doing s/he is learning new things inadvertently.
We worship God, just to worship Him. Although in so doing we are inadvertently learning new things about God and each other through the words that we sing. Play embraces the whole child all at once, and I'd like to argue that worship (in this case through action songs) should do the same - embrace and engage the whole person.
  • "When life is tough and God feels distant there needs to be something more than a catchy tune for children to fall back on."
Absolutely. However, songs and catchy tunes are a powerful communicator and memory aid. How many songs from your life can you remember the words to? I bet it's lots. Lets use this as a tool to give children a foundation of good stuff about our awesome God to fall back on in the tough times. (Just like the old hymn writers did - they used their hymns of worship to explain and teach theology in an accessible and memorable way...).
A bigger concern for me is that we make sure the songs we use for worship are packed full of truth because the children will remember the words! I think often we use songs because we like the tune without considering the theology of them.

  • "Action songs are fun and it’s good to have fun, and they do prepare children for joining the ‘adult’ bit of the church by including them in corporate singing."
Well, I guess this is true aside from the fact that adult corporate singing isn't half as much 'fun' as children's corporate singing. This shouldn't be our primary focus though. Action songs are about worship, about attributing worth to God...
  • "For some children, they may become something more meaningful as their particular style of spirituality chimes with it. So I’m not saying scrap them, I’m saying handle with care and think about what you’re doing."
I find the sentiment here tough to take because it infers that action songs are not meaningful for a child right now. I have led a room of children in a lively 'action song' called F.R.O.G. (Fully Rely On God) as a response to a call to follow God. It was electric... the children were jumping around singing at the top of their lungs (whilst doing actions) that they were going to Fully Rely On God - and they meant it! I have also led a room of children in a quieter song 'Walk with You' with actions based on British Sign Language (which you could call a 'teaching song' - it explains the reason for God having to send Jesus into the world and it leads us to worship Him for everything He has done) where you could have heard a pin drop at the end as these children literally stood there silently 'AMAZED' as they considered Jesus and all He had done for them.
Action songs are meaningful to children, I have no doubt. We must not underestimate the spirituality of children here and now, and also perhaps how much they can teach us about being uninhibited in worship and free to express ourselves.
Some concluding thoughts...
So much of this issue we have here seems more about the person leading rather than the action song in and of itself. Leading children is about sacrificing our personal preferences to facilitate the worship of the children with whom we work. As well as not projecting our own thoughts, needs or desires onto them as what we think they should think, need or want.
Consider also how much a child sits through in church that makes little sense to them and, next time you see them struggling, do something spectacular to make them feel like they’re a part.
Yes, we should handle 'action songs' with care, and think about what we are doing (particularly in a setting where all-ages are present). We should never just do something because we think it’s what we’re supposed to do...
I think perhaps our priorities should be to look at the songs we sing and think more along these lines:
  1. Are the words good? Do they communicate good theology?
  2. Is the style current and therefore are the children going to engage with this easily? 
  3. Is the tune memorable?
  4. Are the actions good/ fun and age-appropriate?
  5. Can I lead it well? (If not - find someone who can!)
Action songs can be a great tool for us, and yes, they do really help children in their worship. (Even if they don't help Sam!)


[Blog written by: Jo Squires]