Using Hymns to Teach the Faith
Remembering Hymns or Teaching Memory Work to Children through the Hymnal
Memory Work Needs to be Taught, Not Merely Assigned
Any kind of memory work assignment can strikes a note of terror in children. I know it did when I attended Lutheran school, and perhaps you have had your own moments of stress when reciting Bible passages, selections from Luther’s Catechism, or even lines in a school play or musical. Hymns, because they have meter and rhyme, are excellent ways for children to learn how to memorize anything. Here are some memorization principles and suggestions about teaching, not merely assigning, memory work.
Repetition is Essential, but Not Sufficient for Memorization
Question: When you recited a Bible passage to your teacher, did you ever repeat it over and over right before you had to recite it, recite it as quickly as you could to your teacher, heave a sigh of relief, and immediately forget the passage? If you did, you know that mere repetition is not sufficient to insure something will be remembered. While repetition is essential, it isn’t sufficient for long term memory. While repetition is considered the “mother of learning,” we also need to teach meaning and meaningfulness if we want children to internalize a Bible passage, hymn, play script, or the Pythagorean Theory.
Meaning and Meaningfulness is Essential for Memorization
For the Bible to be faithfully studied, we in Lutheran education, have been taught to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” the Scriptures. This quote directly applies to the memorization of Bible passages, the catechism, and, of course, hymns. Here’s a short list of how to “hear, teach, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” and memorize a hymn. Let’s use “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” (LSB #740) as an example.
- Read the first stanza of the hymn aloud to your students while projecting it or writing it on your board of choice. Have them read it together.
- Go over vocabulary and/or imagery found in the stanza: What does it mean to be “little lambs, and “glad at heart?” What are my “needs” and what does “well provides me” mean? Later you will do the same thing with “staff and stay,” and “angel host attended,” etc. Read the Bible passage(s) on which the hymn is based; in this case, Psalm 23.
- Project the stanza (or write it on the board) with some words missing and have children “fill in the blanks” as they call them out in unison.
- Have students recite to one another to help each other build their memorization skills.
- Sing the stanza with the children.
- Repeat steps 1–6 with each stanza as you explain it within the context of Psalm 23. At every opportunity discuss the Law and Gospel found in each stanza.
- Use memory games and other techniques such as: Chunking: breaking the hymn (or Bible passage, etc.) into small manageable parts. This is easy to do with hymns because there are natural phrase breaks in the poetry. Memory Scrabble: Have the children write each word of the stanza on 3” X 5” cards, then break them into small groups and have them lay out the words in correct order. If they sing the stanza as they do it, so much the better.
- Sing the entire hymn and tell the children to have stanza 1 memorized by the next day. On the next day, give the children time to explain what the stanza means to them and sing the stanza by memory. Quickly go over any trouble spots and review as necessary. Go over stanza 2 and have them memorize it for the next day. Sing both stanza the next day, and keep repeating the process until they hymn is “inwardly digested.” By the end of the week (or sooner), they’ll know it by heart.
Hymns are powerful proclaimers of scriptural stories, Bible passages, doctrine, and the Gospel of Christ through poetic rhythm and rhyme, and music that serves to amplify their texts. They bear witnesses to the Christian faith and have served the Church throughout the ages as a means through which the Good News is proclaimed to commoners and kings in language that stimulates our pious imagination and uplifts our souls. God’s blessings as you help children to learn and remember the Good News message contained the great songs of the Church.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,
singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:15 (ESV)
Next time: Student Written Hymns: Poetry Based on the Bible
 In 8th grade, I was assigned the part of Geppetto in our Lutheran school’s spring musical production of Pinocchio. I really didn’t want to do it, but there was no court of appeal. It’s one thing to memorize lines, but quite another to say them in public! I was terrified. However, it was a life changing moment in my education. I became hooked on drama, and my fear of memorization greatly abated. In my high school and college years, I found that memorization was something to be cultivated, and even cherished, as I went on to perform in as many plays and musicals as I could.
 The Romans said: “Repetitio est mater studiorum.” Translation: Repetition is the mother of studies/learning.
 The petition to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” was written by Thomas Cranmer and was part of the collect for the 2nd Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer (1549). See: https://chasingchurches.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/on-reading.pdf for an explanation of the quotation.
 See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0aK14YrQtU for a piano accompaniment and children’s choir video of “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” Almost every hymn can be found in a video/audio rendition on the internet. Just type the hymn title and go to videos.