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Preparing Students for a Lifetime of Worship

An article encouraging teachers to introduce their students to a lifetime of worship through healthy, thoughtful worship practices in the classroom.

Cindy Holtrop

It’s five minutes before your school day starts. Your lesson plans are finished, and your handouts are neatly stacked, so what are you going to do for worship time? It’s tempting to grab a short psalm and fill in the extra time with a few of the students’ favorite songs. But will this teach students to worship?

Within the first month of school, you and your students will develop patterns and practices in your worship that will carry through the school year. Some of these may be planned with the purpose and meaning of worship in mind. But some practices of worship may creep in that do not encourage healthy worship for classrooms.

Parents, teachers, and church leaders play an important role in educating children about the different acts of worship and the connection between worship and offering one’s whole life as an act of worship to God. But education is not enough. We also need to engage children in worship so that they desire to worship as much as they would long for a breath if they were denied oxygen.

Educating Students about Worship

When people gather for a time of worship, God reminds them of his promises and his commitment to live in redemptive relationship with them, and the people respond by renewing their promises to love and serve God. That dialogue between God and his people can happen in the classroom, church, and home. These specific worship times fuel a second kind of worship we offer to God—our whole lives (Romans 12:1). The fruit of worship as a gathered community will empower students to see their whole lives as an act of praise and dedication because of the great gifts God has given them.

With the goals of worship inspiring our learning and working, where should we begin? Invite staff members, parents, and students to engage in a conversation that will shape the year’s worship. First, discuss what habits of worship you want to instill in students. The central habits (or acts) of worship might be praying, confessing, praising, hearing God’s Word, and dedicating our lives to serving God. Second, discuss how these habits might be practiced in different ways. This might include coordination, sequencing, and brainstorming among staff members and making habits intentional and age appropriate.

The challenges we face in planning schoolwide and daily classroom worship are to be fresh and intentional, to look at the big picture of the school year, to plan worship that is true to the whole gospel, and to include in worship the members of the Trinity in ways that are age appropriate. Our goal should be to develop meaningful practices that shape deep, lifelong habits of worship.

Good worship habits and practices will sustain students in times of joy, struggle, and doubt as their faith matures. The songs, prayers, and Scripture verses that we teach our students at different stages in their faith journey should be chosen carefully because they have the potential to provide spiritual nourishment and encouragement over a lifetime. Studies show that even Alzheimer’s patients remember best what they learned as children.

A Place to Begin

Prayer is a central habit in the Christian life. One teacher, working with 10–12 year-olds who had never prayed before, introduced prayer as conversation with God. Then he asked each student a different question. He asked one student what had happened in school that day that made him happy? The boy had made the honor roll, so the teacher suggested that he thank God for the gift of making the honor roll. He asked another student what made her afraid. She said that she was afraid of dying, so the teacher told her to honestly express her fear to God. This first experience in prayer taught these children that they could bring any concern or joy to God. The teacher modeled honesty and encouraged openness.

Many children (and adults) struggle with the practice of sharing prayer requests that go beyond safe and surface petitions. Knowing the needs of students and fellow teachers helps us to care for one another as a community and to pray more knowledgeably for one another. Yet when prayer requests in the classroom are limited to petitions for sick grandparents and thanks for new puppies, students develop an anemic understanding of the purpose of prayer and the breadth that should characterize our prayers.

Students should be asked to look beyond their own needs and to glean items for prayer from news reports, perhaps about a place in the world that you are studying. Items for praise might include thanksgiving for rain or the safe arrival of adopted children from Guatemala. Students might ask God to provide jobs for people who have been laid off and homes for people who lost them to flooding. Parents may also be enlisted to suggest prayer items.

Students need to be confident that God hears and answers the prayers of even children and young people. Have students share the answers to their prayers so that petitions may be transformed to praise. During this time, have students sing the first line of “Now Thank We All Our God” or “Amen, We Praise Your Name, O God,” a jubilant South African song from Sing! A New Creation. You might also have students say, “Thanks be to God” in response to each answered prayer. These practices will frame students’ worship and become part of the rhythm of the classroom.

Engaging Students in Worship

Even though physical education was my least favorite subject in high school, the sincere devotions that my teachers in those classes led made an impact on my faith then and have continued to influence me today. No matter what age your students are, they will be able to sense the pulse of your faith and your connection with God. If you wish to engage your students in worship, you must be engaged in worship on a daily basis as well. Your wonder and awe of God’s love or the beauty of his creation will spill over to your students. Ask students to help you plan your classroom devotions. As you involve them in planning, they will emulate your thoughtfulness and your practices when they lead worship.

Much of Christian faith has been compressed into abstract concepts and doctrines, but God first comes to us through a story—a narrative that begins in a garden and ends in a heavenly city. Instead of approaching the stories of Scripture during worship in the same way that you teach them in a Bible lesson, try asking thought-provoking questions that you don’t answer—questions to stir the theological imaginations of students and stretch their faith. Students might tune out your commentary on a story, but a good question is more difficult to throw away. Students might respond to the question later at their desks through a paragraph, a drawing, or a prayer. Consider using fewer words around the reading of Scripture. Allow the Spirit to work through Scripture, prayer, and song in the hearts and minds of students.

Habits of worship (such as praise, prayer, and song) may be practiced in many different ways, but students appreciate consistent patterns that become the standard way of doing things in a classroom. For example, how do you greet your class each morning? One teacher begins each day by signing to her class, “The Lord be with you.” The students respond, “And also with you.” On the first day of school she explained that this greeting is her prayer that God will be with them in everything they do each day. The students’ response is their prayer that God will bless her. The first key is educating students about the meaning of this greeting habit. The second key is meaningfully engaging them in the practice of it.

You might also wish to end your day with one of the many blessings found in Scripture (for example, Numbers 6:24–26; 2 Peter 3:18; 1 Timothy 6:21; Romans 15:13) or simply say (or sign) “Go in peace.” This rhythm of greeting and saying farewell in the name of Christ will deepen students’ sense of Christ’s presence in your classroom.

Music plays a significant role in worship, but what if we saw singing as more than a collection of songs before or after Scripture reading and prayer? A song may voice our praise, prayers, confession, love for God, and desire to serve God and others. For example, “Anytime and Anywhere” (in Songs for LiFE, a children’s songbook and part of LiFE curriculum, Faith Alive Christian ) is a simple and poignant song written by a seven-year-old Japanese girl who had cancer. The text expresses her trust that God would be with her in all circumstances. Learning and memorizing this song over the course of a month and pairing it with meaningful Bible verses or stories will prepare students for times of pain and difficulty. This song can frame the beginning and ending of your prayers for one another and the world, or perhaps be the closing prayer for the day. When students long for God’s presence or encounter troubles in life, the words and melody of this song will be in their memory banks.

The daily interactions that you have with students—a comment at their desk, an affirming smile, or a corrective word—all find their meaning and purpose in the context of classroom and school worship. Worship fuels our desire to learn about God’s world and to be servants in it, and that is pleasing and acceptable to God.

* Cindy Holtrop is a resource specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has also taught high school English and served as a church staff member, which included directing a church-sponsored pre-school. Schools interested in exploring a Worship Renewal Grant for their worship program may see the Worship Renewal Grants Program.