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Learning to Worship is Like Learning a Foreign Language

My four-year-old son has been learning French recently. Well, sort of.

We’ve checked out some children’s French DVDs from our local library, and each day he watches the DVD. It’s a silly little story that is spoken entirely in French. It comes with a little book that has screen shots of the different scenes and the translation into English (for the parents).

The other day Caleb sat down on our couch with the book and began reciting the entire story in French from memory as he looked at the screen shots of the scenes he had been watching.

Now, Caleb doesn’t understand what he is saying for the most part; he does know what some of the words mean either from their context in the story or if we’ve told him what they mean. But what he is learning is (a) pronunciation and (b) the flow of basic French phrases.

What’s very interesting is his accent; Caleb can make sounds that are unique to the French language that I certainly can’t make. His vocal mechanisms are not completely developed yet so that he can reproduce with his mouth what his ears hear from the DVD. “They” say that the ability to learn to pronounce such unique sounds ends around age 9 so that even if someone learns a new language after that, he will always have an accent.

At this point, I’m not so concerned that he understand what he’s saying. Rather, he is learning more how to speak French at this stage than what exactly he is doing. He’ll eventually pick up what some of the phrases mean, and then some day, if he studies French more thoroughly, these skills will be natural to him.

As I’ve thought about this, and marveled at a four-year-old’s ability to learn how to speak a foreign language, I’ve come to realize how similar this is to learning to worship. I see several important parallels:

  1. The language of worship is something best learned at an early age. Before a child is shaped by other influences, and before his sensibilities are hardened, he should be taught to worship. The earlier this happens, the more natural right worship will be.
  2. Worship is learned best through immersion. Just like with learning a language, more is “caught” than “taught” with worship. A child learns to worship best by participating in the gathered worship of the Church.
  3. A child will learn how to worship rightly before he will necessarily learn why or what he is doing. But that’s OK. The main point is that if you wait to teach a child how to worship until he has the capacity to understand what and why he is worshiping, his sensibilities will already be shaped by something else. He will worship with an accent. It is important, of course, to teach children why and what they are worshiping, but the how is most important in the early years.

Many people assume that worship comes naturally–that people should just worship with whatever language is most comfortable to them. But this is simply not the case. If the Scriptures and church history reveal anything to us about worship, it is that left to themselves, even God’s people will worship poorly.

People must be taught to worship, and what better time to do so than when a child’s heart is free from so many influences that will give his worship an accent–when his heart is ready to be shaped.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.