Writing music is always a tricky subject in the church world. For many musicians there is barrier or stigma to the whole endeavor that often leaves the uninitiated at a loss for where to begin. For many musicians, this becomes insurmountable and they never try. For others, there are the beginnings of songs that never find completion, and never see the light of day. Writing music is an art form, and it takes loads of creativity and brain power.
That doesn’t mean those of us who feel stunted in these areas should not write. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. When we stretch our creativity, and painfully so at times, it stretches us in ways that go beyond just music. More than this, our personal expression of worship is important to our hearts. I believe writing music to God is an imperative exercise for the worship leader, and oftentimes for our local congregations. Here are a few things to think about when beginning the process of writing for your church.
Write as an outpouring of the heart.
We all have songs that mean a lot to us. These songs have a way of attaching themselves to our souls and they often reawaken in the most unexpected times. In my life these are the ones that always make me overly emotional when I sing them. But even if these songs attach themselves to us, they are not actually a part of us. When we write, I hope it is for good reason. The best songs are the ones that are clearly an outpouring of the artists heart. This is, I would suggest, the purest expression of a worship song we can offer.
David sings in one of his most famous Psalms “He has given me a new song to sing; a hymn of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40:3 NLT). He didn’t say God rescued him, and then sent the latest and greatest hymn writer to teach him this new song, which he then practiced, taught to the band, only after which he begins to sing. David’s worship springs forth from his gratefulness to God and his passion to see his name glorified. The utterings of David’s heart still echo in the church today. We all have this almost primitive songwriting urge. When we actively write, we tap into this and have truly pure moments of worship. It can be, and often is, beautiful.
Who else is going to do it?
Those who write the songs we sing most (in our church it is the great writers from Hillsong, Elevation, Passion etc.), are extraordinarily gifted. I do not take what they do for granted. But there is no guarantee they will continue to write great songs. Even if they do, we are all in different communities that have unique experiences and their writing will not always be fitting for our situations. Writing for our church context is powerful for those in the community. Whether in times of joy, triumph, celebration or tragedy, the individualized corporate expression is always a powerful experience. It makes the song all the more sweet when the congregation intimately feels what is being sung. Nowhere is this more evident than in a song that is born out of a common experience.
Writing forces deeper reflection on God…and changes us.
Some of the more powerful personal times of worship in my life have been while writing. As I already said, it is usually a hard endeavor. Artists will often go away on retreats or sequester themselves in quiet spaces to get songs written. This is because it is hard. You can write a lyric that sounds awesome, only to realize it is not theologically sound, or at best theologically inadequate. You can have a melody line that fits the song, but not give the sonic timbre of the subject matter. Whatever the reason a song gets worked and reworked, the process involves actively reflecting on God.
If you imagine the songs that have the greatest impact in our lives and then realize this impact is had by simply repeating or reading lyrics verses creating these lyrics from our hearts and brains in response to our relationship with God, it is easy to see how the latter can be even more life changing. When we reflect so completely on God, in such a focused manner, we cannot help but be changed people.
I can tell you from experience that it is a rare human being indeed who is great at songwriting the first time they try. My first songs were written when I was 16, and they sound like they were written when I was 16. Imagine all the weird teenage angst typical of a teenage boy that were made into a worship song by adding the name Jesus in place of the more common subject matter. They were simple songs, with simple melodies, with as much theological and sonic sophistication as a dry heave. I will not say I have arrived in my songwriting, but I have progressed to the point of presenting the songs for my local congregation without being fired, or kicked out of the church.
Also, spend time understanding the mechanics of a song. While most of us understand the basic format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, this wont help with crafting a singable melody. Remember, the basic goal is to craft a repeatable, catchy, meaningful melody with words people will resonate with enough to sing them from their hearts to God. Knowing the basics of poetry, catchy chord progressions and instrumentation are great starting points in putting a song together.
Write in community.
One of the most beneficial tools for a songwriter is another songwriter. Go look up the names attributed to the songs you sing on a Sunday morning. You will find a list of names most of the time. Transitioning from writing independently to writing with others is definitely a learning process. These are after all, oftentimes the outpouring of our hearts (read number one above). However, as the old adage goes, two head are better than one. God is big. He is unfathomable. In fact, even his attributes are unfathomable. When we get together to write, we can see things from multiple perspectives. While this will not ever capture all of the glory of God, we can at least get a little closer together than trying to go it alone.
In many cases, our music will not be sung by anyone outside of a few people. The songs we write may never be catchy enough to endear themselves even among our own congregations. This doesn’t mean we should not engage in writing. If we open our hearts and allow what is in to pour out, and then we spend the time to hone those expressions both independently and in community, we will be forced to spend time in the presence of God, renewing our hearts and minds as we reflect on him. Regardless of their destination, these songs are a sweet offering to God, and the most important we will ever sing.