By Paul Baloche
Many of the most prolific worship songwriters are worship leaders. But you don’t have to be a lead worshiper to write good worship songs, you just need to be a worshiper. The best worship songs usually are not crafted for commercial purposes. Some of them, or at least the beginning “nuggets,” come when you’re not even trying to write a song. Many of the best are born in church. Here are five suggestions for kickstarting your worship songwriting.
1. Be Open to the Spirit
The presence of the Holy Spirit is like oil, lubricating our spirits, causing music to flow. Maybe something in the worship—a word, a phrase, a line—sparks off something in you, and you continue singing your own worship phrases in your heart, spinning off into your own melody. When that happens, write it down! Write it down! Write it down! No, you won’t remember it, so use the back of the bulletin or your smartphone or the trusty notepad that you always carry for such occasions. Later, you can take your inspired idea out and worship with it until more of it falls into place. Or sometimes the sermon sparks an idea. You think, “We need a song that says that. Even the title would make a good hook!” It’s rare that you get more than about 15% of a song that way, but you may have enough for a great start. Thank the Lord for the nugget, save it and put it away for later.
2. Write It Down
Always have your antennae up. A large part of a songwriter’s job is to find and retrieve inspiration. Notice the way words are put together, how they sound, how they will sing. Capture little phrases that will become hooks. You hear a good one and say to yourself, “Hey. That could make a good song.” Then be a doodler; remember, write it down. Get the heart, the human emotion from the nugget; that’s what makes the song work. Listen to what the people of God are saying when they pray or praise. It shows you what they need and how they feel. Try to incorporate these into your songs. Go ahead and open your eyes and jot down what somebody is praying. If you feel odd about doing that, be at peace. Somebody wrote down what Moses prayed and Hannah prophesied.
3. Keep a Record of your Journey
Songwriting is a way of journaling your journey. King David wrote out of his life experiences, even his bad ones: when he fled from Absalom, his son (Psalm 3); when the Lord delivered him from the hand of Saul (Psalm 18); when he pretended to be insane before Abimelech (Psalm 34 ); when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had sinned with Bathsheba (Psalm 51). (Also, check out Psalms 7, 30, 56, 57, 142.) See songwriting as another way to journal and record the story of your life. Each song you write represents another part of your life.
4. Write With Scriptures
Often your songs may spring out of the Word of God as you meditate on it in your quiet times. A passage touches something deep in you and begins to set itself to music. Here’s a good exercise to try. Shut yourself in a quiet place where no one can hear you. It’s very important that you not feel self-conscious. If you don’t have a place of solitude, just find the most private place you can and sing under your breath, or at whatever level you feel comfortable. Open your Bible to a psalm and begin to sing it aloud, improvising in real time. Read slightly ahead, making up the melody as you go. Maybe it’s a psalm where the psalmist pours out his heart to the Lord. Feel all the emotions and express them spontaneously with the words. At times you’ll find yourself singing ringing high tones on words of high praise, at other times almost whispering anguished cries of the psalmist’s heart, possibly in minor modes. What this sounds like will differ from person to person, depending on one’s musical background. It probably won’t have any form but will be more like “stream of consciousness,” or like a recitative from an opera or oratorio. Don’t worry about that—it’s because there is probably no metrical form in the passage you’re singing. If you’re a good improvising instrumentalist, you may want to accompany yourself with appropriate chords. Even if you tape this for your own amazement, don’t consider it a song. No one else is likely to sing it. It’s very private. You may however, as a byproduct, come up with a line or two worth developing into a real song. Whether or not you do, you will be practicing valuable lessons of engaging with the Word and setting emotions to music.
5. Sing Your Prayers
If you’re one of those who are immersed in music and find yourself singing much of the time, try singing your prayers to the Lord, as well. King David did. A good time to do this is when you’re driving in your car, alone. You’ll find your music taking on the feeling of the burdens or praises of your heart. It can intensify your prayer life. Caution: Do not attempt to accompany yourself on your guitar while driving.
Your assignment this month is to start writing. Write now, right now!
Paul Baloche is a regular columnist for Worship Leader magazine. Paul’s songs include, “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Hosanna,” “Your Name,” “Today Is the Day,” and “Above All,” among many others. He’s also an author, teacher, worship pastor, and recording artist. Find out more here. And find out about his new Christmas album releasing this October here.