Nine Foundational Pillars of Worship Songwriters
- The call and responsibility of a worship songwriter is a lofty one. No matter the genre of music you write, it requires discipline and skill. However, writing songs for your church carries a weight like no other.
Today, more than ever, there is a steady flow of worship songs being released to the world. Every Friday, the day that most new music is released in the music community, we are given new musical offerings from some of the most influential churches and ministries, as well as from congregations that do not have record deals or massive followings. Regardless, there is a responsibility that comes with songwriting for the Church. With this responsibility comes great influence. That said, while there are not any certain rules for songwriting, there are some foundational pillars to consider when writing for the most powerful voice on the planet.
01. Focus On Writing for YOUR Church, and Not “THE Church”
Perspective is everything in writing worship songs. If you are a worship pastor, your main objective is to shepherd the people that you stand in front of week after week. You are tasked with giving your people songs that declare the truths of God. As a worship pastor who writes worship songs, your job is to write for your people. That is part of the shepherding assignment of a worship pastor.
Next time you are up on your stage leading, ask yourself the question, “What do these people need to be singing?” The beauty of the Church is that there are not two congregations alike. Every church is unique in its makeup. So why do we think that as worship songwriters we need to write with a certain style or with a certain language like other churches do? Write for your people! Write songs of hope for the family in your church who is walking through the loss of their mom and wife. Write songs of faithfulness for the man who has been jobless for months, yet, God is still providing. Write songs about the cross for the skeptic who keeps coming on Sunday but is holding out on embracing the love of Jesus. All of these are real situations from my church and what I push myself and our team to write towards.
The primary goal of writing worship songs is not for other churches to sing your songs. It is not to make the top 10 CCLI chart or get the latest worship band to cut your song on their record. The goal of your songwriting is to give the church you lead week after week a unique and personal voice of worship. It is another tool used to shepherd, teach, and encourage your people. If God chooses to breathe on your song and take it to national or global arenas – GREAT! That is a bonus! However, if only your church sings them and is able to encounter God through them, it is still a win.
02. Write Singable Songs
Have you ever wondered why sometimes your congregation is not singing? There could be many reasons that attribute to this. However, one reason is that we are failing to write singable songs. As mentioned above, part of your job as a worship pastor is to shepherd your people through the songs you lead. But if you are not writing songs they actually can sing, then you are defeating the purpose.
Practically speaking, when writing worship songs both lyrics and melody have to be taken into consideration. There is always some debate on whether the lyrics or melody should be of the highest importance when writing worship songs. I would offer that both equally hold weight. Lyrics are the lifeblood of every worship song. Lyrics in a worship song hold a higher value than lyrics in a general market pop song.
In addition to lyrics, the melody is just as important when writing songs for your church. If the songs we write are melodically challenging, then our people will have a difficult time engaging in singing. Remember, the vast majority of your congregation is not trained musicians or singers. If you bring a song to a Sunday service that is all over the scale melodically, it can be intimidating and will cause your people to shut down. Again, worship songwriters should reach to find a balance between breaking new ground with melody and rhythm while still making it accessible for the average person to sing.
A great example of both lyrics and melody working well in this area is the song, “Living Hope” by Brian Johnson and Phil Wickham. Lyrically, this song marries together some great familiar imagery with new lyrical landscapes. For instance, they write in one of the verses:
Then came the morning that sealed the promise
Your buried body began to breathe
Out of the silence, the Roaring Lion
Declared the grave has no claim on me
“Living Hope” by Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson
©2017 Phil Wickham Music (BMI) / Seems Like Music (BMI) / Sing My Songs (BMI)
(admin. at EssentialMusicPublishing.com) Bethel Music Publishing (ASCAP).
All Rights Reserved.
Melodically, “Living Hope” is well crafted. While it brings fresh melodic lifts and hooks, it feels comfortable and familiar. It brings a very hymn-like feel to the modern worship landscape which allows it to reach a wide audience of worshippers. It has proven to be a song that the church can easily sing along with and will engage in worship for years to come.
Overall, as worship songwriters, we should seek to write songs that are singable by our people. We should pursue new territory both lyrically and melodically. The best worship songwriters know how to meld together the new and familiar in both areas.
03. The Value of Co-writing
Brian Johnson from Bethel Music once said, “Co-writing changed my life.”1 I personally can relate. When I first started writing songs, I would agonize over lyrics and melody and oftentimes feel like I was in a “songwriting rut.” I remember my first real co-writing experience with my now friend, Tony Wood. Just as it changed Brian’s life, it changed mine too. It opened my eyes to what my strengths and weaknesses were in songwriting. It revealed what I needed to work on in my craft. Most of all, it gave me the freedom to not feel like I had to carry the complete weight of the song.
It has been said that two heads are better than one. But did you actually know that the popular phrase comes from God’s Word? Ecclesiastes 4:9 says,
Two are better than one because they have
a good return for their work.
This is extremely applicable to writing songs. Is co-writing the only way songs can be written? Not at all. But, take a look at the most influential worship songs in the last ten years and the vast majority of them have been written by two or more songwriters. For instance, the song “This Is Amazing Grace” was written by three songwriters (Jeremy Riddle, Phil Wickham, and Josh Farro). “How Great is Our God” was also written by three songwriters (Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, and Jesse Reeves).
One of the many benefits of co-writing is that it allows the potential for a good song idea to evolve into a great masterpiece. In 2018, I was in Sydney, Australia at the Hillsong Conference and I picked up an incredible book entitled, Songs of Heaven by Amanda Fergusson. In this book, she discusses the idea of co-writing. She says, “There is such a fine line between a good song and a song that has a touch of greatness about it. A co-writer who refuses to allow or settle for an ordinary lyric or an average melody can make that difference.”2 This is why there is value in co-writing songs.
04. Hold On Loosely to Your Songs
One of the most unique places in the world is the songwriting room. It can be a room that is full of creativity and excitement. At the same time, it can be a place of insecurity and tension. Songwriting as a whole is an extremely personal exercise and it requires the songwriter to be vulnerable no matter the genre being written.
Songs are often equated as precious jewels mined out of the depths of the earth. A writer can spend anywhere from minutes to hours coming up with an idea to bring into the room to then only have that idea dismantled or even disregarded. The beauty of co-writing is that it exposes a lot of our ideas. That’s the point. It is meant to stretch us, grow us, and take us to new heights as songwriters. Thus, we must hold on loosely to the ideas and songs we have. Jason Ingram, acclaimed worship songwriter once said, “Collaboration teaches us to hold loosely to our ideas and let others speak into our songs. Songs for the corporate body aren’t about us anyway. They are for us, but they are just as much for everyone else who walks into the back door of a church desperately needing to connect with God and know his presence.”3
Finally, it is important to remember that people are the precious ones in this equation. Songs will come and go, but the community you build with other songwriters should always trump the songs. Songs are important to the body of Christ, but relationships with other co-writers are the most precious commodity.
05. Choose One Theme and Stick To It
One of the telltale signs of new worship songwriters is the desire to “overwrite.” They try and fit way too many themes and concepts into one single song. By the time the song is “finished,” they have included a single concept from all sixty-six books of the Bible. I write that tongue-in-cheek. However, most seasoned writers know that a song should contain one idea or concept.
Tony Wood, who has over thirty #1 songs to his credit once said, “Every great song tells one truth.”4 One of the things that Tony taught me early in my journey as a songwriter was the idea of the “north star.” Tony quotes songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, who once said, “You ought to be able to write in the top left-hand margin of the page, in one sentence, what is the truth in this song?” If you cannot find the single theme in the song then you have overwritten the song.
So why just one theme? Remember, songs are written to convey a message. In the case of worship songs, they are designed to point to a singular attribute or truth of who God is that people can sing about. As songwriters this requires focus. Writing about one truth allows songwriters the ability to fully unpack every nuance of that truth in all sections of the songs. If a song contains multiple ideas and themes, it can confuse the listener/worshipper. Again, the idea of worship songwriting is to use it as a tool to shepherd people and not confuse them.
06. Exercise your songwriting “muscle”
Songwriting is a lifestyle. For some of us, it is our occupation. Regardless of whether you are a signed or independent writer, it is an art to which you must dedicate yourself to. Songwriters must consistently immerse themselves in the culture and discipline of crafting songs. I once heard Jason Ingram say, “Your calendar will tell me if you’re a songwriter.”5 There is not a more accurate statement on the discipline of songwriting. Aodhan King from Hillsong Worship once said, “Once, I did not write for around two months and it was the worst thing I ever did because it took so long for me to get back in the rhythm of things.”6 Crafting songs is an art that must constantly be cultivated. Most professional songwriting friends tell me they average between seventy-five and one hundred songs in a year. While the vast majority will never get cut on a record or even see the light of day, every professional songwriter knows that with each song they get better at their craft. I often tell young songwriters to think of Chris Tomlin’s biggest songs for the church. Songs like “How Great Is Our God,” “Our God,” and “Jesus Messiah” are some top songs we know of Tomlin’s. But what we have to remember are the hundreds and hundreds of songs written by Chris to get to those top songs. So, the takeaway is to always be working out the songwriting muscle within you. Keep honing the craft. Your best song is always your next song.
07. The Rewrite
So, you have spent hours working with a co-writer on what you feel is an incredible worship song. In your mind, the lyrics are spot on, the melody lifts and falls in the write places, and the music feels angelic. At this point, seasoned songwriters lean into the feedback process. This is often the step that gets overlooked by novice songwriters. But honestly, the feedback process is the most important step in authoring a well-crafted song.
The key is to find people who will offer you honest and detailed feedback. Find other songwriters and ask them to listen to and critique your songs. Play your songs for other musicians to get feedback on melodies and chord structures. Visit websites such as mysongassist.com and submit your song to get an in-depth critique from a pro worship songwriter. All of these are valuable places to get honest thoughts on where your song stands.
The next phase is just as important. Take the feedback on your songs and get back in the room to rewrite the song. Sometimes this constitutes a complete implosion of the song, while other times it may just be touching up a few lines or a melody. Either way, this step in the journey is designed to take the song from good to great. Phil Wickham once told the story of the song “Living Hope” that he and Brian Johnson rewrote the third verse five or six times (all over text message by the way) before landing on the final version that we know today.7 A great song is not written; it is rewritten.
08. Always Be Listening
I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” Some may disagree, but here is why. Whether you realize it or not, song ideas are always around us. Specifically, in writing for the Church, ideas are in our prayers, our sermons, conversations within life groups or Sunday School classes, and even out in the hall between services. They are in all aspects of daily life like a conversation with your spouse or friend, a book or movie or even overhearing something in a store. The key is training our ears to be aware of those moments. In other words, start to listen like a songwriter.
More than anything, worship songwriters need to learn to decipher the voice of the Holy Spirit. It most likely will not be in an audible form (though, all things are possible) but He tends to speak in what we may call the most inopportune times. It is in those moments that we have to learn to pause, reflect and capture the spark that He is giving us. Don Moen once said, “I am convinced that those times…when you are sitting in a quiet time and you hear something. Just a thought comes to you. I think that is the Holy Spirit gives you a seed, a hook, a starting place.”8
Practically, what do you do in these moments of inspiration? You may not always be able to run to a piano or guitar to start writing the song. First, you need to capture that spark that got dropped in your heart. I tend to always grab my phone and begin to sing or hum the idea into my iPhone’s voice memo app. Next, I will type any lyrics, titles, or themes into my Notes app as well. Most people always have their phones with them; thus, it becomes a great songwriting tool. Overall, the key is to train your ear to decipher the world around you and learn how to funnel it into an amazing song.
09. Error On the Side of Sound Theology
Lastly, the most important pillar is to never lose sight of correct theology in worship songwriting. J. I. Packer said, “Theology is for the purpose of doxology.”9 For worship songwriters, this simply means that we are tasked with the incredible call of being top-tier theologians. We are to know the Word of God so that we can impart the Word of God through our songs.
Years ago, I heard the term, “Portable Theology.” “Portable Theology” is simply music that carries the truths of God within them. I often tease my pastor that people will remember songs more than his sermons. Given culture’s attention span, oftentimes a thirty to forty-minute sermon does not always anchor into a person as much as a three to four-minute song. If people are more apt to remember songs, it is of the utmost importance that we are writing worship songs that reflect the accurate truth of the Word of God. Music shapes the beliefs of five-year kids as they learn the song, “Jesus Loves Me,” and it sustains the eighty-year-old grieving widows who declare “It Is Well.” The call is for all worship songwriters to be a student of the Bible so that we never have to second guess whether what we write is accurate.
The call and responsibility of a worship songwriter is a lofty one. No matter the genre of music you write, it requires discipline and skill. However, writing songs for your church carries a weight like no other. As my friend Jennie Lee Riddle (writer of the song, “Revelation Song”) constantly reminds songwriters that you are putting words on the lips of the most powerful entity on the planet—the Church. What a privilege to be used by the King!
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Chris Clayton is an award-nominated Worship/CCM producer and songwriter based in Franklin, TN (a suburb of Nashville, TN). He has worked on projects with a variety of artists and churches including Big Daddy Weave, Josh Baldwin (Bethel Music), Phillips, Craig, and Dean, Shane and Shane, Christine D'Clario, Kristene DiMarco (Bethel Music) and Prestonwood Worship just to name a few. As a songwriter, his songs have been featured by many artists, churches, and organizations including The Belonging Co., Here Be Lions, CHURCHOUSE, Valley Creek Worship, Worship Leader Magazine, LifeWay Worship, Curb/Word Music, and Integrity Music. “Burn Bright,” co-written and produced by Clayton, and recorded by Will Walker, was nominated for the 2018 GMA Canada Covenant Award for Pop Song of the Year.