Developing A Songwriting Community Through Your Church, part one


“I had tried to visit Woody (Guthrie) regularly… I would usually take the bus there from the Port Authority terminal, make the hour-and-a-half ride and then walk the rest of the half mile up the hill to the hospital, a gloomy and threatening granite building…. Usually I’d play him his songs during the afternoon. Sometimes he’d ask for specific ones–“Rangers Command,” “Do Re Me,” “Dust Bowl Blues,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Tom Joad,”… I knew all those songs and many more.”— Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1

What an image: a young, pre-celebrity Bob Dylan traveling 90 minutes one way to trudge up a hill and play a few songs for his dying hero. Many hold Dylan as the archetype for the modern model of the artist: a reclusive rebel, peerless and owing nothing to artists who have come before. The truth is that not only did Dylan feel a heavy gratitude toward his musical forebears and mentors, but he constantly surrounded himself with others in his set, trading notes, swapping tales, helping with gigs.

Examples are plentiful in his memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1, like his account of dinner at Johnny Cash’s house with Johnny and June, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson and other notable songwriters: “After dinner, everybody sat around in the rustic living room with high wooden beams… We sat in a circle and each songwriter would play a song and pass the guitar to the next player. Usually, there’d be comments made like, ‘You really nailed that one.’ ” And yet songwriters, painters and artists of all stripes have come to believe that creativity is a solitary pursuit. Not only does this contradict lessons we could learn from Dylan and artists tracing back to Michelangelo and beyond, but it is also an unbiblical model.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re probably at least intrigued by the idea of having a songwriters’ circle at your church. But maybe you need to convince some people in your circle of its value: your pastor, minister of music or songwriters who have always worked alone or perhaps bristle at the thought of criticism.  So, before outlining steps to establish a songwriting group in your church, let’s present the case for such a group.

Michael Card writes about the importance of developing communities of artists within the church in his Scribbling In The Sand: Christ and Creativity. He stresses the Biblical basis and model for community.

In fact, he points out that we can start with the Trinity — perfect community, perfect delight in the presence of one another. From there we can look to creation, when God said “It is not good that man be alone” and created woman. God himself is community and he created us to function in community.

There is biblical evidence of artistic community as well. We can look to the “sons of Asaph,” poets and musicians mentioned in 1 Chronicles 25, 2 Chronicles 20, Ezra 2 and elsewhere. We see a wonderful picture of large numbers of music-makers working together in 1 Chronicles 25:7-8: “Along with their relatives — all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord — they numbered 288. Young and old alike, teacher as well as student, cast lots for their duties.”

The New Testament is packed with examples of godly men and women working hand-in-hand as the body of Christ. As Paul clearly teaches, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Even in the visions of Revelation, no one ever “sings a new song” by himself — it’s the elders, the living creatures, the 144,000, the community of the saints, singing a new song to the Lamb in one accord (Revelation 5:9 and 14:3).

Getting back to Card: he also outlines a historically-proven structure based on constructive criticism, apprenticeship, aesthetic accountability, freedom to experiment, and unqualified acceptance:

Historically, the greatest periods of creativity have been the result of community. The Renaissance, that great flowering of creativity, faith, and imagination, was largely the result of the coming together of communities or schools of artists. Da Vinci, Michelangelo and practically every other artist of name was a product of a creative community or “school.” In the context of such a “school,” which usually centered around a single “master,” the young artist would be apprenticed for a period of months or years.

In such early schools creative input was given within the context of community, that is, within a context of respect and trust. The community encouraged excellence and an aesthetic accountability. The freedom to experiment and even to fail was a vital part of the experience of every young apprentice. The image of the lonely, tormented artist came largely with the modern era.

It’s interesting to note that many of these areas have a faux counterpart in the world of commercial artistry. For instance, artistic criticism in the world usually comes after the fact, when it can’t do much good. And it’s usually provided by someone who doesn’t know or care about the artist. The criticism isn’t designed to be constructive, it’s designed to tell a consumer which product to buy. Card points us back to “constructive” criticism — which truly helps shape a work of art in development.

These are the kinds of things I meditated on from the time I joined my church until the creation of our songwriting group. These are the kinds of things I’d been thinking about for many years previous, too.  So had the few songwriters already at Sojourn when I arrived, including our worship arts pastor, and the ones that God so graciously sent our way soon afterwards.

We have a diverse crew — folkies, rockers, theologians, poets. Everyone brings something different to the table. We also have varying degrees of experience –“masters” and “pupils,” you might say; but I’d argue that everyone acts in both capacities on occasion. We have writers who have been at this for years, and some who are just starting, but there is a good level of respect across the board. I have learned a lot from the others. In turn, many of them have asked me to help them with various compositions, and no doubt I have provided good food for thought on occasion.

In the next part of this series, we’ll start to look at some of the practical steps we can take in putting this type of community in place and in motion. In the meantime, don’t forget the reason this site exists. Join the forums, participate in the threads. Ask for advice and give some of your own. If you’re a songwriter and you’re thinking, “Right now, no one else at my church has or wants this gift,” remember there are plenty of songwriters visiting this site every day. Get to know them, visit their blogs, respond to their posts on the forums.

Two heads are better than one.

Or as Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”