teaching kids to worship :: full contact without pads

October 1, 2009


When I worked as Minister of Celebration (Worship and Arts Ministries) for 10 years at Emmaus Lutheran Church in Bloomington, MN (just up the road from the Mall of America), I had the privilege of serving alongside a genius Children’s Music Director.  Let me repeat… GENIUS.

Vergene Downs and I are great friends, and I have deep respect for her.  She can keep 700 children at a time alert, quiet, and smiling… and then lead them in celebratory music making that can rival a Broadway chorus.  (OK… 700 may be an exaggeration – but even leading 12 kids under age 10 at a time would freak me out, so work with me here.)

I used to love to press her buttons by repeatedly bringing up the age old children’s worship tune… “Father Abraham.”  Ah yes, that paragon of doctrinal wisdom.  Font of inspiration that has led generations of children to adore Jesus with fresh fervor…

It’s basically the “Hokey Pokey” for church kids.

“Father Abraham had seven sons.  And seven sons had Faaa-ther Abraham.  I am one of them.  And so are you.  So let’s just praise the Lord. RIGHT ARM!   Father Abraham…” 

Then you continue to repeat the refrain while waving your right arm like a chicken, continually adding body parts until the children become a giggling, writhing mass of silly.  Good times.  I can just feel their little hearts drawing close to the Lord as they shake their booty.

And here was my other school-aged favorite.  Sing along, you former young Lutherans…

Halla-lala-la-la-la-lale-lu-ya, Halla-lala-la-la-la-lale-lu!   Halla-lala-la-la-la-lale-lu-ya, Halla-lala-la-la-laaaaaa… lay-loo-yaaahhhhh!

Shake another hand, shake a hand next to ya, shake another hand as we sing this song!  Shake another hand, shake a hand next to ya!  Shake another hand as we sing… Sing this song! (Hala-lala-la…)

You were there.  You know what went down.  Bone-crushing grips between students trying to out cool each other – make the other guy give up first.  “Shake another hand” became “crush this poor dude’s bones, crunch a hand next to ya…”

And it only got worse when we got to Junior High.  With Chuck… our laid back college-aged volunteer sadistic Youth Leader from the dark side.  This was Chuck’s favorite song.  When Chuck led us in “worship” with his guitar, I would begin deep breathing exercises… steeling myself for the upcoming onslaught.  It was also important to strategically place yourself between, say, the captain of the 6th Grade chess team, and the 1985 Junior Great Books read-a-thon winner.  Avoid the hockey players.  Do not stand next to the football guys… or the wrestlers.  Bad.

Chuck:  “OK everyone.  Here we go!  Sing with me…  Pat another back, pat a back next to ya…

And it went downhill from there.  “Grab another knee, grab a knee next to ya…”  “Poke somebody’s ribs, poke the ribs next to ya…”  “Stomp another foot, stomp a foot…”

At least we had the “Hala-lala’s” to recuperate between the thirteen verses of full contact bodily damage we were inflicting on each other over the soulful strumming sounds emanating from Chuck’s guitar.  Can you just feel the love of Jesus?  I mean, beyond the dull ache of your crushed pinky toe and the hematoma on your right thigh?  I can feel it.  That was so awesome.

And this is where I would drive my genius friend Vergene crazy.  You see, when I was growing up, I never learned the difference between “Father Abraham” and “Father, I Adore You.”  To us kids, they were all just songs.  “Punch another thigh…” right along side “LEFT LEG! Father Abraham” right along side “I love You, Lord.”  Just songs.  Brainless songs.  They all blended together.

So when I came on staff at Emmaus, I banned “Father Abraham,” and all other songs of such frivolous ilk.  My thought was, “You know what?  These songs actually DAMAGED my spiritual growth.  They taught me nothing of value about my relationship to God, and they numbed my ability to think.”  I sh0uld have been told.  Someone in authority should have taught us that when we sing, “Father I adore You” we are singing to the King of Heaven.  That we should think, and feel, and mean what we say.  Someone should have taught us that we need to take it seriously when we sing “I love You, Lord… and I lift my voice to worship You…”

But nobody did.  I had a lot to UNlearn before I could learn what worship really looked like.  Father Abraham = BAD.  Strike it from the record.  May it never be sung under MY tenure in this hallowed hall of worship.

Enter Vergene.  “You know what Josh, you need to lighten up.”  She said this with such conviction that it caught me off guard.  “It’s OK for kids to have FUN.  They NEED that once in awhile.  Kids aren’t ready to be serious all the time.  You need to lighten up.”

So I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  And then I watched her.  Over the years we worked together, countless kids… having FUN.  In church.  And at the same time, knowing the ONE KING they were singing to in their times of worship.  Children’s choirs singing what their hearts believed.  And then taking an occasional break for some full contact play time set to music.  And it was all good.

The genius difference between Vergene and the children’s ministry leaders of my youth was that she simply paid attention to the PURPOSE and the AUDIENCE of the music she led, and she taught our kids to do the same.  “Father Abraham” is not a worship song.  Period.  Doesn’t make it bad.  It just makes it… not a worship song.

“…out of the overflow of the heart the lips speak…”  (Luke 7:45)

Pastors and Worship Directors and Children’s Music Directors and PARENTS:  teach your kids that God made everything, that He loves them like crazy, and that everything good in their life comes from Him.  Help fill their hearts to the brim with gratefulness to our Creator.  Then teach them to sing “Father I adore You” with reverence, and watch the power of an overflowing heart.

And if they need to burn off some energy, break out the dance remix of “Father Abraham” once in awhile.   It’s OK.  That’s what I learned from my genius friend Vergene. 


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“teaching kids to worship :: full contact without pads” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.


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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

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  1. Ah, this was good. Lutheran childhood memories of the vocal kind. Thanks, Josh – and thanks, Vergene!
    By the way – I LOVED “shake another hand…” 🙂

  2. I happened upon your post by accident, and it made me laugh–though I’m a Presbyterian–I sang all of the same songs, sometimes with the same kinds of childish or youth group zaniness added in. Thanks for your humor and insight, but also for sharing where you “grew” in thinking about what worship songs really are. Even if a song sung in worship has a completely worshipful text, or a contemplative style–whether it be a hymn, a “praise song”, or a song for children, the true worship comes from where our hearts are in the moment of singing it–not the song itself– As you already pointed out so well, and what your friend Vergene knew all along.

    • Oh man… I HATED that song. ‘Cause I was more of the debate team type than the jock type. Many a bruised shoulder, thanks to “punch another arm, punch an arm next to ya!” Those heady days made me the worship leader I am today. Good times.