Serving the Local Church with Songwriting – an Interview with Gary Gale Norris

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Thanks to Mark Snyder of TreeHillCollective.com for sharing this interview with The Worship Community.

I recently had the opportunity to meet and interview Gary Gale Norris. Gary is a worship pastor at Discovery Church in Hickory, North Carolina, and shared a powerful testimony online about the difference a program of songwriting directed at his congregation had made in their worship. Gary graciously agreed to answer a few interview questions for TWC (Mark’s questions are in bold, Gary’s responses are in italics).

What is the name of your church and where it is located. Can you share demographic information about your congregation?

We are called Discovery Church, located in Hickory NC (www.discoverycfc.org). We are approximately 3 yrs old, and we are a mobile congregation meeting at a local community college with property and plans to build. Our average attendance is 240+, and we are starting 2 services on Easter Sunday 2012 due to lack of room and the call to minister to all who will come.

What did you find as shortcomings, if any, in the worship song offerings you did as a ‘cover band’, as you put it?

We did not really find any shortcomings. There was an subtle missing connection occasionally due to our inability to “recreate” a song in the way it was originally experienced (radio, cd, or different church) or possibly a distraction from worship to make the song sound like its original version. It became somewhat frustrating at times working with volunteers who have families, careers, and responsibilities to recreate the sound or “feel” of a song. All worship musicians are on different levels of skill and ability yet all are gifted. This created another hurdle in the capturing the spirit of a song from another congregation or the radio.

Did you find any good online ways to do topical searches to find songs targeted at your congregation’s needs?

Our congregation is given the freedom to be vocal with me. This creates a constant inflow of suggestions of songs that are currently ministering to them where they are. This is very important to me for the simple reason that if a worship song is ministering healing to a single mom in the third row, it most likely has something to say to an ill grandpa in the back visiting for the 2nd time.

Having said that, I don’t do a lot of online searches for music. I truly seek God each quarter for the songs that have come to my attention through a member of our church or that has impacted me in some way through my own personal walk. I listen to Christian radio, worship cd’s, and worship radio online consistently. This exposes me to the opportunity to hear the Spirits leading and places me in a position to be ministered to. If the song doesn’t become the hands of feet of Christ to me or someone in our church, we probably wont choose the song, no matter how catchy the licks are. This in no way is a reflection on whether the song is good or bad, but rather the song has not had a season of ministry with our church where we are.

What led you to begin introducing your own songs targeted specifically at your congregation into your worship?

3 years ago, I began to seek God regarding the concerns and questions I was wrestling with as a worship leader. The frustration and seeming “yoke” I felt to recreate the songs in order for the congregation to recognize and be able to participate in the worship. I truly felt a deeper calling to discover what God really wanted from US. I could hear what he was saying to other congregations through the worship music they were producing. Such intimacy, such personal worship.

So, I began to ask God, “what are you saying to us”? “What is your heart to our church”? If your Holy Spirit is in us, singing through us, playing instruments through our hands, then it must be specific to our needs? If we are still enough, surrendered to your heart, willing to hear, then you will sing over us the very thing we need as a church. So, what are you saying to us God? What song would make you smile to hear us sing to you? What worship would be for our greatest good and your highest glory? Then God answered. The result has been amazing. Words cannot express the change in my personal life and ministry as a result of waiting before God to hear what HE has to say to our church and then sharing that very thing. It has every time hit the mark like and arrow shot from a skilled archer bow…bringing healing, encouragement, restoration, and redemption.

How do you apply the song craft, individually and as a worship ministry, in order to make the best possible songs to introduce at your church? How do you improve your craft or train your craft collectively?

Great questions. The answer is quite simple. I am convinced that for us this must be a purposeful and deliberate activity. We are very sensitive to our people’s needs. We stay connected to the pulse of our congregation as staff and as a ministry. My pastor, Smith Sharpe, is adamant about us loving people where they are. This really puts us in a position to hear the needs of people, see the hurts and scars, rejoice in the victories. This alone has forged how and when we apply the ‘craft” of seeking Christ in songwriting.

Can you talk about how your songwriting activity operates in terms of process – deciding when songs are done, co-writing, presenting songs for consideration, including new writers, etc?

The activity really has become one of the highlights of the ministry here. I work very closely with 3 vocalist here. We are very deliberate about our time together and specific about its purpose. The process would probably look like a prayer meeting to most. We pray for each other, share testimonies from the congregation about struggles or victories, and rejoice together. Many times I will have ideas for songs, a lyric line or two, maybe a melody on my guitar, and we will pray over it and listen to what God may be saying to us.

When the song is done, we just know. There is a confirmation in our spirits and unity about it. Once it is done, we begin to seek God as to when is right to introduce the song to our church. At Discovery, we introduce one new song every other week for a quarter. Then we build on the songs for the next quarter. So far, I have had people come up to me and say “Gary, I have this song I am writing and I want you to listen and help me finish it”. I always welcome this. Its not always something I can help them with but it always tells me where they are at in their walk and this is very helpful.

What percentage of songs in your set lists are homegrown ones written specifically for your congregation?

Typically in a 4 song set at least 1 or 2 will be originals.

How do you handle teaching this amount of new material and how does your congregation do at learning it?

I introduce the background of the song to our people first. Then I teach the chorus only to them with just my guitar twice. Then we play the whole song. We will do this the following week again to create a level of familiarity with the song. Our congregation is amazing at learning new songs fast. By the second acoustic teaching of the chorus, they are singing out loud and pretty much have it. This “new song” of the psalmist is very precious to me and our church. They look forward now to the unveiling of our songs…and they have taken ownership of them. This has created a new unity in our church.

Can you give us specific anecdotes from your experience, where God ministered directly to people in your congregation through your homegrown songs?

One powerful example is from a song I wrote called “The Potter”s Wheel” which is a testimony of my life. A young man came up to me after a service one Sunday and said “you sang that potters wheel song last week. I was at the end of myself this past week and as I was contemplating taking my own life, God brought that song to my heart and I could not escape it.”

Another example is from a song I wrote called “I Won’t be Backing Down”. After a week of constant attack from the enemy, a dear lady on the verge of a breakdown and relapse into addiction, had this song on an mp3 player. God reminded her about the words of this song and she began to play it and sing it. She got victory that day and shared her story with me the following Sunday and remains victorious today. She calls this her theme song.

There are many many more. Each week someone comes up to me and shares how the worship has impacted them that day or the week prior.

What are some topical elements centered around worship that you target in your songs? How do you tie your songs into the pastoral teaching of your church and the particular expression of a worship service or liturgy in your meetings?

The topical elements are the majesty of Christ mostly. Some of the titles are “Run to You”, “The Potter’s Wheel”, “You Are”, “I wont be backing down”, “There is power in your name”, “Forgiven”, “Abandon”, “Finish what you started”, “Rend the Sky”, and “We will never know” to name a few.

Pastor Sharpe and I do not typically discuss the tying of the music to the message yet it always does. We often are amazed at how accurately the music weaves in with the messages. Its truly a God thing.

Do you write congregational songs only or other music such as special music for Holy days, children’s music, etc?

I would say the songs are exclusively worship. It really is the overflow of my intimacy with Christ and the fellowship of the saints. We don’t set out to write specifically for a day or topic. We are really focused on letting God write in us what is most needed for the hour and season at our church.

Have you shared songs outside your body with a church network or online? Have you worked inter-congregationally to develop or share songs in your town/city?

Sure. There are Christian high schools here whose worship bands have taken our songs as they have impacted their students lives and made them part of their chapel services. Also, some college ministries locally have adopted our songs for their worship. Many churches have taken our songs from YouTube (which we don’t have at this time) and taught them to their congregations. We actually released “You Are” in the UK and it was listed in the top 20 within 48 hours.

God is truly amazing. His word in song is far reaching and powerful. I always tell worship leaders and anyone for that matter who ask me if they can teach our songs that they must make sure the season is right through prayer….and I give them the liberty to express the song how they see fit. While they are copyrighted, they also have to be personal and relevant.

Can our readers hear any of your songs?

We are working on bringing up another YouTube channel where our worship services can be viewed. I will keep you posted. We get requests every week to do this. I have some mp3’s of some of the songs from our live worship experience I would be glad to share. Just have your readers send the requests to gary@discoverycfc.org and I will have our AV Ministry forward the mp3’s to them.

What would be your words of encouragement to worship leaders and pastors considering church-focused songwriting?

I am very passionate about the worship leaders responsibility to seek out God’s heart for their congregation as He speaks His heart to the congregations and psalmists who write the worship songs we all love and enjoy. He has something specific He is longing to speak to us, in our season, in our healing, if we will listen, and He is doing it through our worship. The decision has been the most important turning point in my ministry both personally and corporately. I hope our experience encourages worship leaders to seek, be still, hear, and receive the healing, restoration, and passion He longs to pour out on His Bride.

Mark Snyder is a longtime worship leader, software engineer, and lead songwriter for the Tree Hill Collective (www.treehillcollective.com). functioning as a resource to provide songs for the church from new songwriters, focusing on the art of the worship song as it applies to the worshiping church of all ages. Mark has a wife and two grown sons and resides in Glendale, AZ, with his wife of 27 years Roseanne.



is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at HighestPraise.com.

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