How does one become a “worship songwriter?” On the one hand, groups like the Enter The Worship Circle musicians, say “Anyone can write a worship song.” They encourage a “just do it” method that begins with studying the Psalms, asking the Lord to show you His heart as you meditate on the passages, then playing chords as you sing the words of psalms. You keep repeating them until new thoughts come to you. You then sing these new thoughts and phrases and “let your worship carry you” into a new song.Then there are those in modern hymnody who advocate for extensive training and awareness in poetry, music and theology, such as Timothy Dudley-Smith, who tells Paul Westermeyer in Tongues of Fire: Profiles in 20th Century Hymn Writing, that what he finds alarming in modern worship songwriting is “The apparent belief that anyone with a guitar can dash off a ‘worship song’ fit to be sung by a congregation to almighty God, without effort, consultation, or revision – and often without grammar, syntax, meter, or rhythm either!”
Now, the sides are not polar opposites – no one would accuse the artists in the Enter The Worship Circle series of composing without effort or rhythm, for instance. But they do point to different ways of going about the business of “singing a new song” to the Lord, just as you see differences in the methodologies of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend as opposed to Matt Redman, or Caedmon’s Call as opposed to many songs that have come from the Passion movement.
There is plenty of room for differences in style as long as we keep in mind that worship songs are in part exercises at spiritual formation – what we sing is what we believe, and as such, worship songwriting should be about revelation and response: God’s revelation of Himself to us through Jesus Christ and the Bible, and our response to this revelation of His justice, grace and mercy in light of our fallen condition.
Many have said that hymns often lean towards “objective truth” whereas modern worship songs and praise choruses are nearly all “response,” with little clue as to why we are responding. In other words, little clue as to who God is, what He’s done, and why He is more worthy to be praised than your seventh grade crush or a tasty pizza.
We could discuss many songs that fit these profiles. We could discuss antiquated hymns that no one understands, filled with lines that are now unintentionally funny or obscure (hymnists in the 18th century would often write about the “bowels of God,” which, to them, meant something like what we would mean by singing “the heart of God”). We could then discuss modern 7-11 praise songs (seven words repeated eleven times) or “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.
But modern hymns like Getty and Townend’s “In Christ Alone,” and praise songs like Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” show that truth and response work hand-in-hand regardless of the structural design the writers used to compose their songs. This then is the first order of business for a songwriter – to immerse yourself in the objective truth of scripture, the gospel message that God is holy, we are sinners, and Jesus is our salvation, and to respond to this message in song just as we must respond in every area of our lives: with thankfulness, praise and desire to serve alongside our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
When this foundation is in place, questions of style and structure will not loom larger than they should (and can thus be explored in proper context) and we are free to use the artistic strengths that God has blessed us with to compose the kinds of songs that we are uniquely suited to compose. We are passionate in our responses but we are careful to present the objective truth of scripture in a way that neither adds to – nor takes away from – God’s Word.
How do we do this?
1. Be a student of scripture. Just like a preacher, a songwriter is involved in gospel proclamation. So know what you’re talking about. Read the Bible daily. Take notes during sermons. Attend bible studies offered through your church, maybe even take a survey course at a good Bible college or seminary.
2. Pray. Meditate on God’s goodness, agree with Him on your sinfulness and His justice in punishing that sin. Praise Him for the cross, where Jesus took your punishment upon Himself and died in your place. Ask Him to keep this reality foremost in Your mind — this is your reason for singing. As the old hymn goes “This is my story, this is my song/ praising my savior all the day long.”
3. Work on your craft. Study the best poets, tunesmiths and songwriters. Read well-written books, listen to well-written music. Look at the songs in the Bible. We all know about Psalms, which is an excellent place to start. There are many other songs in the Bible, including quite a few hymn fragments in the New Testament. You can read about them in my five-part series of blog posts concerning New Testament songs at sojournmusic.com.
4. Start a songwriting group in your church. You might be surprised at who will show up for a songwriting workshop if you offer one. If you’ve got one songwriter, one or two members who wrote poetry in college and have always wondered if they could write a song, three or four members who played in garage bands “back in the day” and would like to do something with music again, one or two worship leaders, deacons or pastors who see a need in your assembly for songs that speak on certain topics but can’t find any out there, then you’ve got the beginning of a pretty good group. Invite them to your home, brew a pot of coffee, work on goals and start sharing.
5. The internet is your buddy. Opportunities abound for peer review. This website is a great place to start. Start hanging out in the forums, chatting on topics that interest you and making friends. From there, click on the “songwriters and songwriting for worship” tab. Comment on some of the songs you find and participate on some threads. Then post your own lyrics, and link to sound demos if you have them. Invite critique.
Does any of this seem daunting? Have you had trouble getting a group started in the past? Feel free to comment below, and we’ll talk.