How to Write Music for a Congregation

While crafting is important for most songwriting expressions across genres, it is particularly important for congregational music. The songs we sing in our churches don’t just express our theology; they help form it. When we write songs for people to sing as a spiritual act of worship, those songs soak into people’s souls. The words we ask them to sing help shape their view of God, the universe and themselves.

So, why is it then that a lot of congregational music often seems to be some of the least crafted music out there?

I know for me, I used to craft my songs less than I do now precisely because music intended for worship felt so important or holy. It was like I just wanted my raw heart to come out and not all sorts of fancy, scripted language. It felt to me like taking too much time to craft was more about me trying to be artistically sophisticated than about actually worshiping God. So I’d let my songs come out like my teenaged prayers: full of heart, full of cliché and lacking in theological substance.

The problem is songs like this never translate to other hearts as much as we’d like them to. In the moment of their creation, these songs feel so emotional and anointed to the person writing the song. But this feeling does not automatically translate to other people. In fact, the sentimentality of these songs often creates the opposite effect in others.

This is why I believe it is important to separate the raw materials from the crafting process. The formation process of the raw materials are where you need the journal and the Kleenex. This is often the most emotional (and often most fun) part of the songwriting process. There’s no judgment in this stage. Just raw creativity. And every now and then, the raw materials will actually be good enough to survive the crafting chopping block. But not normally. Normally, you sing this phrase to God in your emotional frenzy, and then you wake up the next morning, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize it’s just recycled, clichéd sentimentality. This doesn’t take anything away from the experience you had with it—it just means you need to do some work on that raw material before it’s worth anything to anyone else.

So for the congregational songwriter who struggles with the balance between sentimentality and craft, let me give you a question to ask yourself that will really help you. Ask yourself, “What is this song about?”

That’s it. That’s the big question.

It sounds so ridiculously simple that it seems not worth saying. But if we’re honest, many of our congregational songs aren’t actually about anything.

Jesus I love you

I want to feel your embrace

The skies, they sing for you

How I need your grace

What is that about? You loving Jesus? You wanting to feel his embrace? What does that mean? Why is the line about the skies in there? And why are we now singing about grace? The reality is, a lyric like that is sentimental gushing that may feel nice to write in the moment, but it doesn’t really help the Church. This kind of writing leads people to shut their minds off while singing. I think a good congregational song is one that engages both the heart and the mind. (You know, the whole “spirit and truth” thing?)

So if we want our songs to engage the mind, they should actually have some sort of coherent thought in them. They should actually be about something. More specifically: one thing.

If you want the song to be about loving Jesus, then write the song about that. Dive into that. What is it, exactly, you want to say about loving Jesus? Experiment with different ways of playing with that idea. But don’t let ideas in that aren’t about that. Save the “skies” or the “grace” ideas for other songs—unless, of course, you can find a way to make those lines cohere with the one idea you are trying to communicate.

Do you write for your congregation? What have you found that works?  

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Michael Gungor is a singer/song writer living in Denver, Colorado United States. He leads a musical collective called Gungor that tours around the world performing and leading worship music in both mainstream and religious venues. Aside from his work with the band, he has written and produced music for other artists as well as help start a church in Denver called "Bloom".