Developing a song-writing culture
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to meet with some people from churches in Mexico and Brazil, to talk about developing a songwriting culture in their churches. Here are some of the things we talked about.
We can choose the best songs from around the world to sing in our churches. Why is it also important to develop a culture of writing our own songs?
Every local church is a unique community and there will be things God is doing among you specifically at different times. Writing about those things, and even referencing prophetic words or phrases you have received can really help to anchor these things in the hearts of the people.
You might have also noticed that it’s been some years now since you heard an uptempo song on all the ‘big albums’! I’m not sure who decided the church was too cool to dance and celebrate any more, and I feel we have lost something. While there are lots of great songs being written, I do feel the emotional range of our worship has become reduced to ‘mid-tempo anthem’. If your culture celebrates in a different way, and the songs aren’t out there, start writing your own!
So you don’t currently have a songwriting culture – where do you start?
People who are just starting out in songwriting will hesitate to call themselves ‘songwriters’. But if you feel any kind of excitement at the thought of words, melodies and chord progressions, just tap into that – God has wired you that way! You may feel stronger in one area – words or music – so you might find it helpful to collaborate with someone who has the other strength.
It may be easiest to start with a ‘sound’. What sound is missing from your church right now? Is it the sound of celebration? Is it a sound that inspires people to dance? Or is it a sound that inspires people to fall to their knees in prayer, or rest in the presence of the Lord?
Melodies should have high points. I don’t mean really high notes, I mean, it’s going on a journey to this mountain top. Choruses should be memorable. It should be enjoyable to sing. Phrases may come to you in this process – hang on to those. Melody and lyrics should be a happy marriage – they work together seamlessly. Try to tap into what that sound is inspiring in you to sing out, and into what God is doing in you as a people.
Consider range when you are writing. You want both men and women to be able to sing a song comfortably. I think it’s time to let go of the ‘guys jumping the octave’ thing because that only really works for guys who sing tenor and the church is bigger than that! Work out a range that is comfortable for everyone. I try not to go lower than A below middle C or higher than the D above.
In starting out, focus on serving your local church community. Songs may be with you just for a season, they may have a role to do just for a specific time, especially if you are writing about what God is doing among you at a specific time. Songs that you open a meeting with tend to have a higher turnover than other songs. So why not start your writing journey with those because these are the ones you need most of? And if there is a sound of praise that you’re currently missing, this is the opportunity to find it.
A few thoughts about lyrics
We’ve already said that melody and lyrics need to be a happy marriage, a good fit. That means:
- Places where music and lyrics are emphasised fall in natural places. We say PRAIS-ing, not prais-ING. Always follow the natural emphasis
- You’re not trying to cram more words in than want to be there. In verse 1, if line 1 has 8 syllables, but in verse 2 it has 10 syllables then the congregation won’t be expecting that. You need consistency. Take the time to keep re-thinking that line until it works!
- Don’t try to cover the whole Bible in every song. Good questions to ask are ‘what is this song about?’ and ‘what does this song do?’ For example. is this song a ‘call to worship’? The more specific you can make the purpose of your song, the more successfully it will do its job
- Look at your church songlist – what is missing? We need a song about… what? Perhaps it’s a time to sing about perseverance; about what it is to be church; about reaching out to your community
- Lyrics must always be in line with Scripture. Work in partnership with your pastor/Bible teacher. Before you release a song to the church, make sure the key person responsible for Bible teaching has read the lyrics. Get their seal of approval and share the excitement of this journey together. Sometimes we can slip something in there that is ambiguous or vague. It’s a great responsibility to put words into people’s mouths for them to express their worship to God. One of my personal mottos is ‘Make every word count’
- I heard Matt Redman say recently that he aims for every song he writes to be both ‘a classroom and a chapel’. In other words, you learn something which you can then express in worship back to God. A hymn like ‘Before the throne of God above’, for example, doesn’t quote Scripture word for word, but it reveals such a deep understanding of Scripture, and such insight into our identity in Christ. That’s what we’re aiming for.
Some final thoughts
Editing is a really important part of the process. Sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes a better song. But don’t throw away the bits you take out – you might be able to put them in another song!
Write regularly, and don’t expect every song to be ‘a hit’. Some are going work better than others, but there’s something to be learned from every writing experience.
Get some honest feedback from someone who knows about songwriting. Your Mum/husband/best friend is always going to say it’s amazing. Try to be objective, which I know is hard with something that is so close to your heart, but try and honestly ask, does it work?
Write for your local church. If it’s a good song, then it will be used in your group of churches. Trust God to take it wider. Good songs grow legs. But start with a motivation to help your local church worship.
If a few of you are excited about developing a worshipping culture (including your pastor?) then why not get together and pray into it and worship together and ask God for songs to come out of the heart of your church. I recently read this: “When you see the Levitical priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, move out from your positions and follow them. Since you have never travelled this way before, they will guide you.” (Joshua 3:3-4). Now, under the New Covenant we believe in the priesthood of all believers. But there is an opportunity here for your churches to travel a road they have not travelled before, and it is you as songwriters, together with your pastors, who can take the lead. Ask God to guide you and use you, and I pray He will bless you greatly in it.
© Kate Simmonds 2021