How do you create a natural flow and feeling of the lyrics without over-simplifying phrases and losing some of what you hope to communicate through the song?
Michaela, thanks so much for this—I love questions about the process of songwriting. It can be so powerful and profound to see the fruit of a song in people’s lives. But I also love the front end of the process too—the creating and crafting of the song.
The band U2 said that sometimes songwriting is like a playground, and at other times it’s more like a boxing ring. I can really relate to that. There are times when everything is so enjoyable, and the song is flowing so freely, that it just feels like “play.” And at other times— and this is maybe more often the case—it’s like a boxing ring; there’s a sense of contending and fighting for the song to come into being. It’s a wrestle. And I think what your question gets into is that “wrestle”—how to write a song that has substance and weight, but at the same time isn’t overly complicated.
There’s no way to cover this whole topic in length here, but I would answer your question by drawing on C.S. Lewis’ thoughts about the three kinds of language we use when we talk about faith: Theological, Poetic, and Ordinary. Essentially, when we write a worship song, there’s a dance between these three different types of language going on in our lyrics. You mention having songs feel “simple.” That’s the Ordinary category of language—putting ideas and themes into words that sit quickly and easily with people, so nothing about them feels alien. Then there’s the Theological category—the substance of the song, that as you rightly point out must never become lost, diluted, or oversimplified. And lastly there’s the Poetic category—for we’re not writing an essay, but we are singing about beautiful truth, so we always want to do so in a beautiful way.
I don’t know if I have much else to add for now, except to say that to find the balance between these three distinct ways of speaking will be part of the “wrestle” in the worship songwriting process. At times we’ll realize the song has become too cerebral and lacks emotion, punch, or poetry—and we’ll need to wrestle it back to a place where it still conveys heart. At other times—and perhaps this is more typical in our day—the song might convey some kind of passion, but somehow lacks substance and weight, and we will need to wrestle it back into a more theological place.
One of my favorite worship songs of all time is “The Servant King,” written by my friend Graham Kendrick. I have never met a lyric writer who contends so much for the words in his songs. He wants each line to matter. You can tell that from so much of his work—where there’s verse upon verse of biblical, inspiring, congregational lyrics, containing a brilliant balance of the Theological, the Poetic, and the Ordinary. I asked Graham one time how he came across a certain line he’d written within the song “The Servant King,” because to me it was one of the finest worship lyrics I’d ever come across: “Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered.”
I was expecting him to tell me it came to him in a vivid heavenly dream, or some such wonderfully spiritual moment. He told me quite the opposite—that actually this lyric was the last one in the song to arrive, and it came about after a lot of writing and re-writing. He told me some of the very best inspiration comes to him via perspiration, and that sometimes we have to dig through a whole lot of dirt before we get to the diamond. Those words have encouraged me to this day, and I encourage us all to get into that mindset—one where we don’t just catch song lyrics like butterflies in a net if they happen to come past us, but instead we contend for them by praying, perspiring and pouring out our hearts and minds in an act of worship.