Ed. Note: Audrey Seah attended this year’s Hymn Society conference and offers this reflection on one of the breakout presentations.
Over the past 25 years, Ken Wilson, music minister at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has fostered a culture of hymn singing amongst the entire congregation through a remarkable program of hymn memorization for children in grades 3 – 5. Through the program, children systematically memorize one or two stanzas of 20 hymns, carefully chosen to fit year A, B and C of the Revised Common Lectionary. The children are exposed to part-singing early as they learn to sing both soprano and alto parts. The basics of hymnody such as hymn forms and tune names are also taught. Children who successfully memorize 60 hymns are awarded with a place on the “hymns for a lifetime all-stars” board that is displayed in the church sanctuary.
This video gives you an idea of what has been accomplished:
As part of his presentation, Ken Wilson shared 10 reasons for developing a culture of hymn singing among children. A few that struck me:
- Children are prepared for a lifetime of service as church musicians – starting them young, and having them take on leadership roles in younger choirs, help the singers experience music as ministry.
- The children set the tone for learning and singing for the rest of the church – having a child sing a hymn by memory beside an adult during worship is incredibly inspiring.
- The memorization of 60 hymns equips the young with a repertoire of theological language to express themselves with through high and low moments of their life.
- A hymn-singing culture becomes a place where it is very easy for the transforming love Christ to become “indelibly engraved” on the hearts of all who sing.
The third point stands out to me, as a Roman Catholic. One of the intentions for introducing responsorial psalms into the post-Vatican II mass was to enable the faithful to learn the psalms and hopefully use them as a language for prayer. But has that worked? How many Catholics (non-liturgical musicians, especially) express themselves by quoting or singing the psalms?
Given that a “hymn-singing culture” in the Roman Catholic church is either non-existent or in its infancy in most places, what then, is our theological language outside of the mass? Is hymn singing something worth cultivating? How would such a program in a Catholic parish impact the lives of parishoners? Can/should a hymnody program be part of faith formation, and possibly integrated into all other ministries so that singing becomes a culture?
Audrey Seah is pursuing an MA in Theology (with a concentration in Liturgy) at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, MN.