Like most people, my first songs were pretty awful. Every now and again, I’d write something that was good enough for people to say “hey, that’s good” – but for the most part, I could be honest enough to admit that my songs weren’t quite as good as what I heard on the radio. So I came up with a system. It was a very simple system, but effective.
At the time, I was delivering pizzas as my full-time job and I had the freedom for probably 70% of any given shift to be in my car listening to music. I carried around a yellow legal pad and a bevy of pens (people always steal pizza delivery guys’ pens!) and anytime I came across a song form I’d never written, I’d make a note of the song and I’d make a note of the form. So… what do I mean by form?
Most songs are A (verse) – B (usually chorus) – A – B – C (bridge) – B. Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus – that’s the normal pop song form. There might be a twist to that that is A – B(pre-chorus) – C (chorus) – A – B – C – D (bridge) – C. Right? But really the basic form is still A/B/A/B/C/B.
So, if I came across a song form different than the normal pop form, I would note it and then, later, force myself to create a song in that form. Most songs I wrote during this period were nothing more than exercises… but they helped me understand the theory and art of songwriting.
And ultimately the work paid off.
In 2002 & 2003, I won GMA’s International Songwriting Competition (2nd & 1st place respectively). I’ve written songs for pop artists; I’ve written songs for my own CCM career; for other Christian artists; and I had a #1 Country song (and top 20 AC hit) with Rascal Flatts. In 2009, while touring full-time (160 shows), I had 80 co-writing sessions with writers around Nashvile, L.A. and NY and I turned in 122 songs to my publishing company (on a deal that required me to turn in 14/year).
This does NOT mean that I’m a great songwriter. That’s 100% subjective. But I think what is objective is that I have worked very hard to understand the theory and art of songwriting and I have done a great deal of professional co-writing and writing.
Why does that matter?
Because, from my experience, writing songs for the church is absolutely the hardest kind of songwriting there is. No doubt about it… at least to me.
Writing a love song is easy. You have nearly every word in the dictionary to work from. You can go for abstract concepts and it’s okay. You can create an entire metaphor for love and people will follow you to the depths of your poetic abilities and come away thinking “That’s awesome”
In CCM songs – still harder, in my opinion, than love songs – you have the entire breadth of the human experience to find God in. You can talk about your love relationships as a mirror to what God has done. You can talk about struggles. You can talk about most anything, as long as you are able to have some redeeming aspect to the lyric.
But church songs…
First, let me define what I mean by church songs. Notice I did NOT say worship songs. I’d contend that many of the songs I wrote and recorded over the years were worship songs… but they would never be confused for church songs. Church songs – by my definition – are songs that speak of the human experience through the lens of corporate/communal worship through music, in a form that the person of average intelligence and average theological background can grasp and wrap their hearts and minds around. Most of these songs will be vertical in nature and most songs will need to be structured in a song form that the average congregant with no musical ability doesn’t get lost or confused with where a song is going.
Church songs are THE hardest songs to write. There is SO much that rides on these songs. Whether you agree with the paradigm or not, the average church uses 3-5 songs at the open of the service to allow people to enter into worship and prepare their hearts for the worship through the message (and obviously, hopefully, the Word of God). In this paradigm, our responsibility as worship leaders is to choose songs that A) tie together in some sort of consistent theme; B) that will engage our congregations in worship (because studies show that when people are engaged in worship through music, they tend to be more open to the preaching); and C) that will push the theological ball forward a bit, so to speak.
In other words, church music needs to be excellent, easy to engage in, and theologically sound. Now, the obvious caveat must be made: every church is slightly different… this is a broad generalization of the overall contemporary church experience. But even the churches that take people deeper theologically or deeper into engagement, I believe, lose ground on one or more of the other aspects of the paradigm (in other words, deeper theological lyrics tend to limit engagement because the average person has a hard time digesting deep theological concepts in a 4-minute song that they’re supposed to be singing along with; on the other side, many times the easier something is to engage with – musically and lyrically – the less deep or challenging that thing likely is).
So… the art of writing church music is difficult. For every song like “One Thing Remains” that is easy to sing, easy to understand, easy to memorize (the chorus is “your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me”), we need the poetry of John Mark MacMillan’s “How He Loves” or “Future / Past” or even Hillsong United’s “Oceans” or “Beautiful Exchange”.
And if you are going to write church music, I believe you need to work to write both.
Here’s what we do as we write songs that may be helpful for you:
1) Discipline your inspiration
at Shoreline, we write nearly every Wednesday morning. We gather together, pray and then I give a basic idea of the types of songs we need, while giving them the freedom to chase down inspiration… then we write. We are disciplined in how often we do it (once a week for 4 hours) and in the type of songs we set out to write (even if we end up straying from that in the end).
2) Worship in Spirit AND truth
Right brains tend to be more spiritual/ethereal in nature; left brains more physical. They are both good and both can be bad when out of balance. The balance for writing is, practically, having both. So… if all your songs end up being theological diatribes, write with someone who writes love songs to Jesus, then you both compromise and end up with something that is likely far more accessible. (and vice-versa, btw)
3) Cool is far less important than accessibility
Sometimes, cool is accessible. Sometimes cool can be a troll standing at the gate saying “you shall not pass”. Be willing to chase down your own motives: eschew pride; chase the humility of doing what’s best for your congregation, not yourself.
4) Write until it’s right
Finally, be willing to admit that sometimes inspiration lies to you. Keep re-writing until the song is what it should be. If you find yourself wondering if a chorus is strong enough, it probably isn’t. Rewrite it. If you wonder if that turn of phrase or metaphor doesn’t quite pay off, it doesn’t. Fix it. If you wonder if that word you forced in for the perfect rhyme sticks out, it probably does. Fix it. Rewrite until you can’t anymore.
Writing songs for church is hard. But worthwhile. I hope this series of articles can in some way challenge you in your work to write songs for your congregation and for the church universal.