I led worship at Mars Hill Fellowship in Seattle for over six years and have written a number of worship songs. The Lord tells us to sing new songs to Him, and it is a good thing to write new worship songs, especially if the church is new or going through a season of change. Worship is our response to the Lord, and writing songs relevant to the season and to the congregation is extremely powerful. This is not a “how to” on songwriting, but rather on how to write a worship song. Obviously, basic songwriting talent is required to write a good worship song, and musical ability does not hurt either. Know your audience, play your instrument well, these are good pointers, but out of the scope of this article. The focus here will be on how to write a worship song people want to sing.
Any how to article about art is difficult. How to write a book, how to paint a masterpiece – these are not as straightforward as how to change your oil or how to put together a boy band. By definition, art is not formulaic, so take this not as a recipe for song craftsmanship, but as a set of filters that I use to determine whether a song I have written meets the quality bar. These are my opinions, and therefore, may not prove relevant, but hopefully, they will be of some assistance to aspiring worship leaders about how to write a worship song.
The “how to” part I keep talking about:
1. A good worship song is singable.
If no one sings, it’s not worship. Worship songs are different then other songs in one distinct category; there are way more singers than musicians. Everyone in the congregation should be able to (and want to) sing along to the song.
How do you know if a song is singable? The “yeah, duh” answer is if people sing to it. Though this doesn’t always tell, you should see some songs that people consistently sing along with, and others that they consistently don’t. Ask yourself the difference between these two songs, and I think you’ll see some of the things in this article.
Why does a song have to be singable? The congregation is not the audience, and the leaders are not performers. When worshipping, we are all one body lifting up our voices to the Lord. As singers and instrument players, our whole job as worship leaders is to encourage as many people as possible to worship, and this is usually manifested through singing.
A singable song is in a good key. If a song is too low or too high, less people will sing along. The same goes for a song with a wide range. Sometimes, it is hard to remember that most members of your church are probably not musicians or singers, and if the song is all over the place, it can be intimidating to sing along with.
A good worship song should be fun to sing. If a song is not fun to sing along with, less people will. The most important test here is the shower test – would you sing the song in the shower? Similar test – if the power went out in the church on Sunday, and you had to lead the congregation in a cappella worship, would the song fly? A strong melody is the backbone of a good worship song.
How to write a worship song? Clumsy phrasing should also be avoided. Putting too many words in a song or having awkward pauses or drawn out syllables can make it more difficult to sing along with.
2. A good worship song is captivating.
If everyone’s minds are wandering, it’s not worship.
Worship happens when people recognize the awesome majesty of God and respond. This happens all the time, and mostly without music – hiking, driving, washing dishes – all can be worship. Additionally, it is not your job as a worship leader to “make” people worship or to convince them enter in. I always start with the assumption that the congregation wants to and knows how to worship. It is my job to capture their attention and direct it to God.
The problem: worship hypnotism. Even if you’ve done the first part right and made a singable song so that people are standing, singing, smiling, it does not mean that they are worshipping. If a song has been played too often or is too familiar, often the lyrics can wash right over the worshippers, and they never contemplate the meaning or meditate on how it applies to them. Repetition is the constant enemy and companion of the worship leader. A worship band that plays regularly needs 20-40 songs that they can play at the drop of a hat and about twice that many in reserve – ready to go after a touchup. Playing a song repeatedly, especially right after it is written, can be very helpful in generating familiarity and comfort. However, if you play the same song every week for three months, it will become harder and harder to worship with.