As a marketplace artist and songwriter who came into the church and experienced worship music late in life, I began to notice something very curious that happens in the worship songwriting arena. To put it gently, one would call it “overuse” of lyrics, but if we are to call it like it is, it is outright plagiarism. Being a worship leader, I am constantly pulling sets together for our services. In doing so, what I have found is that out of the 70 or so songs that we keep in our repertoire, and especially the latest 20 that we keep in rotation, I can literally fill up a page with a list of lyrical phrases (be lifted high, you set me free, we exalt your name, I give you control, my heart is on fire … you get the idea), and I can begin to see how the songwriter has taken these general themes and is simply “plugging and playing” them without any thought to being original and creative. Seriously, I challenge you to look at the top charting worship songs, or even just one worship album by your favorite band, and count how many times they use a line that is in 50 other worship songs already.
Now, obviously there is going to be some overlap with lyrics, but the problem is getting out of hand to where not many true original songs are coming out of the church. This would never fly in the marketplace. If I played a gig, introducing a new song I just wrote whose lyrics contained “you’re my brown-eyed girl” or “you don’t know you’re beautiful,” I would get some puzzled looks from the audience and probably a lawsuit from Van Morrison and One Direction. Why is this not the case with worship music? Why can we keep rehashing the same lyrics and chord progressions over and over and over again and still call them original?
The simple answer … because it’s easy and we permit it to happen because working outside the box is not something the church is usually good at. Sunday morning has to go smoothly, no rocking the boat, we gotta keep things “church friendly.” It is easy because when it comes down to it, God is good, and He does amazing things. Really, anything we say that falls in line with that concept is OK in a worship song. While that is true, we are missing the big picture, the bigger calling. The Bible tells us to worship with all of our heart, mind and soul. I truly believe we are worshiping with all of our hearts, and our spirits are leading us. It is the mind part that we leave out … essentially “singing with our understanding.” Our worship cannot just leave off at the point of pretty words we sing to God. We have to craft our songs in a way that we can tell when a cliche line is being used as a filler instead of staying on topic. If you are singing a song about grace, then don’t put a bridge in there about how you are “on fire” for God—that’s a different song.
A good example of this is the song “Waiting Here For You.” It is a beautiful song and I have worshiped with it many times. It definitely speaks truth in a powerful way. But if you look into the lyrics, you will find that all references to waiting on God stop at the title line. The rest of the song is simply describing great things about who God is. There is, of course, a principle of waiting on the Lord with an understanding that He is already present, but if I am new to knowing Jesus, I could think that you are telling me that we have to wait for God to show up and question what I have to do to make that happen. Unless you give me something lyrically to help me understand the concept, I could have a mindset that is not accurately representing God. The other half of the song is simply singing “Hallelujah” over and over again. Time and time again, that word is used to fill up a bridge mostly because it is a beautiful word that works well with a lot of melodies. We need to start being intentional with that word, because “hallel” praise extols God in a particular way.