Your Kid is a Theologian.

I have three kids.

Joseph is 6. Carston is 4. Hannah is 2.

They blow me away. Every day.

Not just in the what they say (as in “those-kids-say-the-darndest-things” sentiment), but in how they perceive themselves and their world. Children have an honesty that – for some reason – continually thrills and bewilders adults.

Although he never married and was never a father, Isaac Watts understood the power of theological education for children. His own theological imagination was stirred early on. His father, a deacon in a dissenting church, encouraged his son to process his world through the lens of biblical theology.

And the result was incredible.

At age 7, Watts used his name as a acrostic for the story of grace:

I – I am vile, polluted lump of earth
S – So I’ve continued ever since my birth
A – Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
A – As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
C – Come therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me

W – Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
A – And grace divine impart
T – Then search and try the corners of my heart
T – That I in all things may be fit to do
S – Service to Thee, and Thy praise too

Partly owing to the diligence of his own father, and partly as a result of his experiences in the church, Watts created an entire hymnal specifically for children in 1715: Divine Songs for Children.

Most notably, this was the first faith-based song book made exclusively for children.

Watts included some heavy theology in his collection – drawing on the book of Psalms for most of his texts. In the preface (addressed to children’s workers), Watts writes:

“MY FRIENDS – It is an awful and important charge that is committed to you. The wisdom and welfare of the succeeding generation are intrusted with you before hand, and depend much on your conduct.

The seeds of misery or happiness in this world, and that to come, are oftentimes sown very early; and, therefore, whatever may conduce to give the minds of children a relish for virtue and religion ought in the first place, to be proposed to you.”

Heavy stuff. I love it.

FOR PASTORS:  Sometimes I’m that Dad in the front row of the school play with the camcorder.  But cute stuff in church doesn’t stick. Trotting the kids out to sing a special number with Aunt Bea is all well and good, but kids are capable of far more than we give them space (and time) for.  Here are a few thoughts:

1.  A love for children is a good first step. But please, please, please hire people who are capable of teaching. Being a part of a church that supports what I’m teaching my kids is one of the biggest blessings parents can have.

2.  Create space for kids to lead. I’m serious. In appropriate ways, give kids a platform. How cool would it have been if young Watts’ pastor would have encouraged the rest of his congregation to make an acrostic for their names?

3.  Integrate your ministry. Don’t make your sanctuary, auditorium, worship center (whatever you call it) the dominate expression of your church. Instead, pump resources, space, and people into your children’s ministry.

4.  Don’t be afraid of parents. Sure, Watts was a brilliant kid. But let’s not forget: he had a devoted father. Give the parents in your congregation a vision for theologically deep children.

The Creative Church

John Newton

John Newton was a pastor’s pastor.

He preached. He mentored. He wrote.

For sixteen years (1764-1780), Newton served as the curate of Olney parish. Olney (pronounced “all-knee.” ) was a rural area of only 2000 people. The congregation was poor and largely uneducated, most making their living as laborers in the lace industry.

William Cowper – a young man plagued with frequent bouts of depression – moved to Olney in 1767. Once a candidate for a finance career in London (a position arranged through the influence of a domineering and loveless father) Cowper’s life was marked with loneliness and pain. Despite his reclusive and emotionally devastating story, Cowper’s years in Olney were the happiest and most stable of his otherwise tragic life.

Newton (who, like Cowper lost his mother when he was 6 years old) seemed to love Cowper out of a bottomless empathy and compassion. They would walk together, write frequently, and share their thoughts about their church. Throughout their friendship, Newton was a trusted confidant, loving friend, and an incredible pastor.

Cowper wrote of Newton: “A sincerer or more affectionate friend, no man ever had.”

Picking up on Cowper’s poetic gift, Newton asked his young friend to consider the idea of collaborating on a hymnal together. The hymns were to be used especially in their small church.

The result: Olney Hymns. 348 hymns (incidentally, with no musical arrangement) including Amazing Grace, and There is a Fountain. Newton wrote over 200. Cowper wrote 68.

Here’s the point: for a church to truly create, it must be alive. Put another way: When God is moving in the life of a local church, that church will then be free to express itself in a tangible way.

For worship leaders: In the preface of the hymnal, Newton wrote: “they should be hymns – not odes, if designed for public worship, and for plain people.” That’s pretty good criteria. If you’re asking your church to engage in worship that doesn’t resonate with who they are, then you’re simply not serving them. Don’t ask them to fake it.

For pastors: Newton engaged Cowper with a great deal of intentionality. The Olney Hymns project was Newton’s way of developing Cowper’s melancholy and reflective personality.

Describing his reason for creating a hymnal (he was a busy pastor after all) Newton wrote in preface:

“…A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.”

Engage the melancholy. Actively love the down-spirited. Mentor the broken. Above all: Make sure you’ve got the time. That sounds incredibly Christlike, yes?

____________

If you’re interested, read the original preface to Olney Hymns here.

Creativity Costs: Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (Crowder-fied)

Isaac Watts was David Crowder before David Crowder was cool.

Watts (1674-1748) is typically referred to as “the father of English hymnody.” Over his life, he wrote over 600 hymns, including Joy to the World, Alas and Did my Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Here’s the thing:

Watts was a revolutionary.

Theology, literacy, and learning were important to the Watts family – and young Isaac displayed an exceptional ability for learning: He had learned Latin (by age 5), Greek (by age 9), French (by age 11), and Hebrew (by age 13). As a boy, he had the annoying – although charming – habit of echoing his parents’ commands in rhyming couplets: “O father do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”

Yep – Isaac was one of those kids.

In the 18th century, the state church in England was growing stale. Church – and therefore corporate worship – was profoundly boring. Most churches sang slow, ponderous, march-like tunes that sounded more like freshman biology notes than a personal encounter with God. Consider this lyrical gem:

“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep
your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye coddling peep,
and wag your tails about.”

Yikes. It occurred to young Watts that something had to change.

Isaac continually pressed his father (a respected deacon in a dissenting Congregationalist church) to initiate change, saying: “the singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven, but its performance among us is among the worst on earth.” Half out of patronizing sarcasm and half out curiosity (knowing his son’s abilities), his father charged him: “Why don’t you give us something better, young man?

Before the evening service began, Isaac had composed his first hymn. Sadly, the identity of this hymn is lost to history. But here’s the kicker: Watts wrote a hymn every Sunday for the next two years.

But Watts’ innovation and creativity came at a cost. Because he chose to write hymns that centered on personal feelings and reflections, he was regarded as “too outside the box” for “normal” church – some even considered him a divisive radical.

Fortunately for us, Watts cared more about the art he was creating for God’s glory than the nay-sayers who would eventually lose worship war of the 18th century.

THE POINT:

For worship leaders: Find the Watts’ in your church – there’s probably more than a few – and give them a platform. Writers, poets, musicians, and storytellers are all over the place. There are budding graphic designers everywhere. Find them. Develop them. Encourage them. Host an art fair. Hold a poetry reading (include your surrounding community). Give painters, sculptors, and visual artists a place in your Sunday morning worship. Just please, please, please – don’t do this half-baked. Do it well.

For the rest of us: It’s easy to complain. Especially about church music. It really is. But few of us will take the initiative to create. Creativity takes courage. Complaining just takes an audience. Take Watts’ father’s words as directed to you: If you’re discontent do something.