Songwriting as Spiritual Discipline
(This article was originally published in the 2010 March/April Song Discovery digital magazine.)
When you think of a spiritual discipline you probably think of the ones mentioned in Richard Foster’s writings, or, to reach much further back, the Rule of St. Benedict. But have you ever considered songwriting as a spiritual discipline?
There are two broad categories of spiritual disciplines: those that lead us to disengage from our normal routines—disciplines like fasting, silence, solitude, etc.—and those that lead us to intentionally engage God—disciplines like meditation on Scripture, contemplation of the life of Christ, prayer, and study. Good songwriting has a sort of symbiotic relationship with the spiritual disciplines: practicing the spiritual disciplines helps our songwriting and our songwriting itself can help us practice the disciplines. Worship songwriting can be both a discipline of disengagement and a discipline of engagement. Here are some thoughts on how—the first two dealing with disengagement, the second two with engagement.
1. Turn off the noise
If you’re like me, your idea of relaxing is sitting in front of the TV with your laptop open and your cell phone on the end table. But when was the last time you sat in silence—no music, no outside stimuli, no noise. It was when Jacob sent his servants, animals, family, and all his possession across the Jabbok that he was finally alone. And it was when he was alone that he wrestled with God, owning up to his real name (read: identity) for the first time and then being renamed (read: reshaped). Jesus’ first words about prayer have to do with place, specifically that we be alone. If we are going to be attentive to God’s work in our hearts, if we are going to be honest about our frailty and faith-filled about Christ’s all-sufficiency, we must be willing to regularly shut out the noise. Only then can our song creations be rooted in God and His work and not our fleeting thoughts and pop-culture sentiments.
2. Ignore the Charts
It’s no secret that you can make a living by writing worship songs, but it has become more than an occupational option; it can be an idolatrous preoccupation. Martin Luther wrote that it is “a great hindrance to a preacher if he looks around and worries about what people like or do not like to hear, or what might make him unpopular or bring harm or danger upon him… He should look at neither the pleasure nor the anger of lords and squires, neither money nor riches, neither popularity nor power, neither disgrace nor poverty nor harm.”
In the same way, if you’re trying to write the next chart-topping CCLI song, you’re in the wrong field. To keep your writing flowing from a pure heart, unfettered by selfish ambition and the long-forgotten sin of avarice, ignore the charts. It’s not wrong to get paid for writing, but you must guard against writing to get paid.
3. Immerse Yourself in Historic Liturgies
I have a friend who is a self-described recovering atheist. On his slow journey back to faith it is the ancient prayers, creeds, confessions, and the canonical office that has been a light. He recently observed that much of contemporary worship writing focuses on a singular hero figure that remains nameless and ambiguous enough for those songs to be happily at home on the Lion King soundtrack. His point is simply that our worship expression doesn’t adequately reflect our theology, specifically our Trinitarian theology.
We are largely ignorant of historic liturgies. For almost 1700 years the Nicene Creed—which affirms the Trinity, the full deity and full humanity of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the certainty of judgment, and the unity of the Church—was said in the context of Christian worship. Today, in many churches, we’ve traded it for pop songs with theologically thin lyrics. We tell ourselves that people believe more than what our songs say—that even though we don’t sing about the Trinity or the Incarnation people know how to think correctly about it—but I wonder if that’s true. How long until the theology of our people is solely the theology of our songs? And if that happens, what kind of shape will we be in?
Be a student of what the Church for centuries prayed and sang and said. After all, we owe the survival of orthodoxy largely to those ancient prayers and songs.
4. Build a Memorial
Keep a journal. Write frequently what you sense God saying and doing in your life, in your family, in your church. The people of Israel set up monuments after each miraculous victory or event in their journey. It helped them to remember. This is the chief reason we write worship songs: we write to provide our congregation with a musical milestone of God’s faithfulness. The practice of journaling and songwriting is the practice of paying attention to God and His work and giving it expression so that it becomes a means of calling others to pay attention too.
There is more to be added to this list, but this should give us a good start in the right direction.