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Train Your Child's Heart Before His Head

Children learn to worship God primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship.

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Any concerned, Christian parent is committed to training his or her child to be obedient to the Lord and His Word. From the earliest of ages we inundate our children with Bible verses, we make sure that they faithfully attend church, and we seek to instill in them Bible truths that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

I wonder, however, whether Christian parents are really training their children fully. Do we realize how, exactly, our children are influenced and what is influencing them?

It is my fear that most Christian parents do not recognize that before a child can even comprehend facts, his affections and imagination are already being shaped. In fact, I would suggest that most Christian parents never really even consider the moral imaginations of their children. Sure, we say we are targeting their hearts, and by teaching them biblical truth their hearts are certainly influenced.

But do we realize that a child’s heart is shaped far before he or she has the capacity to comprehend truth?

In other words, far before a child can comprehend his need to love the one true and living God, far before he or she can comprehend the concept of a god at all, the child learns how to love.

Far before a child can comprehend his need to fear and reverence God, the child learns how to fear and reverence.

Far before a child can comprehend his purpose to worship God, the child learns how to worship.

What happens with most parents, though, who see only the need to teach their child’s head, is that in order to teach such truths, they are willing to use almost whatever means necessary to do so.

So they use puppets to teach Bible stories, never realizing that their children are learning to view biblical truth as something light and trivial.

Or they use cartoons to teach moral lessons, never realizing that their children are learning to view morality as something silly or “adventurous.”

This problem is seen most acutely with children’s music. Christian parents, educators, and publishers have the noble goal of teaching their children about God, his Word, and how to obey him rightly, but they set such truth to irreverent, trivial, or even downright banal music, forgetting that far before their children learn these truths, they must learn how to express themselves rightly toward those truths.

I do not question the noble motives of these people for an instant. But I do question their understanding of how children are taught to worship.

Children learn to worship God primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship.

Children learn to love God by first learning how to love.

Children learn to reverence God by first learning how to reverence.

Children learn to fear God by first learning how to fear.

Allow me to give a few examples from personal experience, not because I have any special insights or great success, but because this is something I was taught very recently and have fervently tried to implement with my children.

From the time our first son, Caleb, was born, I began to sing hymns to him (We have begun these things with our daughter, now, by the way). Not children’s sacred songs, mind you, but hymns that we regularly sing in gathered worship. Among other times, each night before bed I sing him the same five hymns:

  • All Praise To Thee, My God, This Night
  • God Moves in a Mysterious Way
  • Holy, Holy, Holy
  • I Sing the Mighty Power of God
  • Come, Christians, Join to Sing

Each afternoon before naps, I sing to him the same three hymns:

  • Sun of My Soul
  • O Thou In Whose Presence
  • How Sweet and Awful

And each evening during our time of family worship, we sing various hymns together, usually of Caleb’s choosing.

At about 9 months of age, Caleb could sing the tunes to several hymns. Did he comprehend the words of the hymns? Not at all. Was his mind being affected at that point? Hardly.

But he was learning to love right expressions of ordinate affections. He was learning how to love, how to reverence, how to worship.

Today (Caleb is almost 2 1/2), Caleb can sing about 25 hymns, mumbling through most of the words. Even still, I am certain that he does not comprehend most of the words let alone the truths beneath them. But I am not concerned about that at this point. What I do know is that he is learning to distinguish between kinds of emotions and when certain emotions are appropriate.

I know this is the case because Caleb enjoys singing other songs as well. Fun, children’s songs like “Ring Round the Rosie,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and other similar children’s folk tunes (which, by the way, I also believe are expressions of noble affection, although not appropriate for worship).

Yet when he is asked what he would like to sing after our time of Bible reading, he has never chosen one of those songs. Not because we have limited his choices, and not because we have explicitly taught him which songs are about God.

He just knows.

I remember several years ago when I eliminated all of the “fun” children’s songs from the children’s meetings in our church and began teaching the children “adult” hymns and how to use a hymnal, some of the parents initially objected. They wanted their children to have fun, to “enjoy” coming to church. But I, as their pastor, stood firm.

A few months later, as the children grew to really love singing hymns, enthusiastically belted them out in our worship services, and chose them as favorites in our congregational favorites services, one of the fathers who had initially objected said to me, “My children sing hymns now in the car and at home. They love singing hymns. I realized that now, when they get older, they will chose a church that sings these same hymns.”


Also from the time Caleb was born, I have prayed regularly with him. Each night before bed, I pray The Lord’s Prayer. Not because there is something magical about praying this prayer, but because I am using it as a teaching tool just as our Lord did. Does Caleb (even today) understand all of the words or the concepts of the prayer? Hardly. But he is learning how to pray.

At other times during the day, I pray with Caleb as well. I do not water down my prayers, although I do sometimes choose a bit simpler vocabulary (some times). I do not speak in a silly voice or a child’s voice or any differently than how I would pray in any other circumstance.

Why? Because I am not, at this stage in his life, concerned about what Caleb understands in terms of vocabulary or truth content (although I certainly trust that he will come into that understanding soon).

I am concerned that Caleb learns how to pray.

And I know that it is working. About 3 or 4 months ago, Caleb began asking if he could pray before meals, during our family worship, etc. And so we have let him pray.

He begins with the word, “Fader” (Father), the way his Daddy always begins. He bows his head and speaks in a soft, slow tone of voice. He mumbles through words that we can hardly understand; it’s mostly gibberish, but it is becoming more clear as of late. He is beginning to throw phrases in like “Thank you,” and we hear words like “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “Kate,” “Caleb,” “God,” and “Jesus.” His prayers are never short, never silly, never loud. He closes his prayers with “In Jesus’ [something], Amen.”

Is Caleb praying intelligible sentiments? No. Does he really comprehend to whom he is attempting to speak or even what he is doing at all? I don’t think so.

But I am not concerned about that at this stage in his life. What I am encouraged by is that Caleb seems to understand that prayer should be characterized by reverence and awe, not because I have taught him what those concepts are, but because he has witnessed them repeatedly in the 2+ years of his life.

Just about a month ago we began bringing Caleb into the Sunday morning corporate worship service in our church. We began by bringing him in just for the music portion (and having to take him out during prayers and lengthy Scripture readings), and after a few weeks he now sits in the entire service (not perfectly at all; it’s a lot of work to keep him quiet; but he does).

“But he would comprehend so much more truth in a Junior Church service at his level,” some may object. Likely so (although our church doesn’t even offer a Junior Church service).

Yet what he might gain in terms of intelligibility of intellectual truths does not justify what he would lose by being in a room of his peers, by being separated from the corporate worship of the adults of the Church.

At 2 1/2 years of age, my son cannot really benefit from very much intellectual teaching, no matter the level.

At this stage in his life, he is learning how God is to be approached, how he is to be reverenced, and how he is to be loved.

And let me tell you, there is nothing – nothing – more joyous than to hold your 2 1/2 year old son in your arms in a corporate worship gathering, and have him enthusiastically sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” right along with everyone else in the congregation; to have him bow his head with the rest of the congregation for a lengthy intercessory prayer; to have him sit quietly as two full chapters of the Bible are read publicly before the congregation.

Does he misbehave? O, yes! Do I still have to take him out once in a while? There is a reason we sit in the back!

But my son is learning how to worship by worshiping.

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.