Yesterday I had the privilege of teaching a seminar at the National Worship Leader Conference held in Centerville, Va. The title given to my seminar was “You CAN Write a Worship Song.” Obviously, with my reputation as the writer of such well-known songs as “Be Thou My Vision,” “It Is Well With My Soul” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was the perfect person for this seminar.
I had to laugh when I got the email asking me to teach this seminar. It came on the very day I had been working on a song I was trying to write, and literally saying to myself (and my wife) “I can’t write a worship song.” God has a sense of humor.
I’ve written a few songs that have seemed to work well in a congregational setting. I’ve written far more songs that have never seen the light of day. So I share the following song writing advice as encouragement first and foremost to MYSELF, and then hopefully it can be helpful to you too.
The most important thing in a discussion about writing songs for worship is to agree on the fundamentals of worship leading. Why? Because songs are the tip of the worship spear. I suggest that the fundamentals of worship leading can be summed up with the “three Cs”: Christ centered, congregationally accessible and consistent.
If our heart is for Christ to be exalted, for people to be singing along and magnifying the Lord together, and for our congregations to experience this kind of focus on a consistent basis (even from song to song, much less Sunday to Sunday), then that will impact not only our worship leading, but also our song writing. If the soil of our hearts is conditioned rightly, then the songs that sprout up will be fruitful.
The second most important thing in a discussion about writing songs for worship is to distinguish between the KIND of song we’re writing. I suggest there are three types: personal, presentational and congregational. The first two types are not meant for the congregation to sing along. In the “personal” category, you can write whatever you want. It’s for your own personal devotional life. In the “presentational” category, you are writing songs to be sung FOR your people, almost like a message is preached over them. There’s nothing wrong with personal or presentational songs. But we go off track as worship leaders when we expect our congregations to sing along with them.
Writing congregational worship songs is tricky. It’s not as easy as it looks, there are a lot of competing pressures and temptations pulling on us, we struggle with cliches and overused chord progressions, and we always have the nagging desire for our desire to get picked up by Chris Tomlin. So how do we proceed with writing congregational worship songs?
Ten quick tips:
1. Write for your people
• Picture them in your mind.
• Don’t write for an arena if you’re not in an arena, or for a big band if you don’t use a big band. Write for your people who stand in front of you.
2. Write for a specific purpose/season
• Ask “What is our congregation’s SONG during this season?” Or “Where am I unable to find an existing song to serve this particular purpose?”
• The Psalms are always tied to an event…are your songs?
3. Write a lot
• I once heard Keith and Kristyn say that they may write hundreds of songs per year. They might only harvest five to 10 usable ones out of that lot. And this is the Gettys we’re talking about! If we only try to write a song once every few months, it’s no wonder that perfect songs aren’t just flowing from our fingertips.
• Exercise your muscles or they atrophy! Write more than you’re writing now and you’ll improve as a writer.
4. Write with focus
• What is this song about? It should be about one thing. Can the title of your song fit into any verse or bridge?
• Stay focused.
5. Write enjoyable melodies
• Lyrics matter most. But melodies make those lyrics memorable! Oh the power of an enjoyable, memorable melody. Can people remember the melody, or the main melodic hook, of your song after hearing it once, or at most, twice? If not, you have work to do.
6. Regurgitate biblical truth
• Scripture is the sword of the Spirit!
• What are you listening to? What are you reading?
• Experiencing writer’s block? The problem (I guarantee it) is a problem FIRST of diet.
7. Remove filler
• “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.”
• Get to the point.
• I like to ask myself a strange question when I write: “What would I want to sing if I stood up in the middle of international arrivals at Dulles Airport?” I would need to say what I wanted to say pretty clearly. I would want to get to the meat of who God is pretty quickly.
8. Request and receive feedback
• Record it. Send it out. Get feedback. Make changes.
• Every good song writer in the world does this.
• Bob Kauflin did this with me (and the filler point too) with my song “Come You Sinners.” My first draft had a chorus full of “oh oh ohs” and cliches. He said I could do better. He was right. I went back to the drawing board, which is when the Augustine quote came to mind, and a more interesting melody came out of nowhere. I’m glad he gave me his honest critique.
9. Resist the urge to pursue fame
• The odds of getting attacked by an elephant hiding in the trunk of your car are probably greater than you making it big with your worship song.
• Wanting your worship songs to get famous will seriously impede your ability to write for YOUR PEOPLE.
• We need more faithful, pastoral worship leaders, who SHUN the spotlight. The worship world has enough celebrities. Serve your people, and write for them.
10. Repeat as needed
• Don’t get discouraged
• Even if no one else ever hears or sings your song, you should still write
• Why? Because you’ve been raised from death to life.