Songwriting In Community
The following is a deleted chapter from Ascribing Worth. It was part of the book through the 4th draft (September 2017). However I took the chapter out. As the focus of the book was on leading worship, I felt like a chapter on songwriting might detract from that. I put a small portion of this chapter inside the chapter "The Worship Pastor". But here it is in its entirety as originally intended (including study questions by Joshua Neds-Fox!):
I love writing songs for my church community to sing. I believe God has gifted me in this way, and I find it lifegiving. Despite the pitfalls of taking it too far down the self-promotion trail in my earlier years, God has redeemed that part of my life. The gift originated from Him, and it's still good. I believe God loves it when we use our talents to create for His church. We are the body of Christ, and songwriting in our community becomes our collective voice to God.
That being said, I know that not all worship leaders are songwriters. And not all songwriters are worship leaders. The two are distinct gifts that may or may not overlap. However, even if you're a worship leader that can’t write songs, you can still help cultivate songwriting in your church. Likewise if you're a songwriter that doesn’t lead worship, you can still give your gifts and bless your church body.
For a long time I was pretty much the sole songwriter of original songs at my church. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that I had run that particular course and gone as far I could on my own steam. There was a time where it may have been necessary to do it alone, but that was no longer the case. Involving others required me to be intentional, and to purposefully invite criticism into my art for the sake of making it better. I was also convicted of my own selfishness and laziness in insisting on doing it alone for such a long time.
Remember that God is a creative being and loves creativity. The very first thing He communicated about Himself in Genesis 1:1 is that He is a creator. He spent significant time creating before he rested. He is invested in His creation and longs for complete restoration. He won’t abandon His creation; He loved it so much He entered into His creation as a human being. How crazy is that? It’s so unbelievable, I can’t fully fathom or understand it. He is our Father, our Savior, our Redeemer, but first and foremost, He is a creative being. The entire universe is His creation, and His creation brings Him glory and worship.
Psalm 19 says:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
Ephesians 2:10 says:
..We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So just as important as creation is to God, I firmly believe God is extremely interested in us also being creative in His church. Following God’s example in Genesis, creation in its purest form is bringing order to chaos. There are songwriters and artists within your church already who have something to create brewing within them that will bless the church, but may not know it yet. You may end up discovering that you have something to offer even if you’ve never tried to combine lyrics and melody before.
Songwriting in community is also a great way to reinforce the vision and values of your church in worship. I had not considered doing so until several years ago a dear friend of our church, Dave Nixon (director of Sustainable Faith) wrote a prayer for our church:
Open my mouth to speak to you
Open my heart to love others
Open my eyes to see and engage suffering.
I want to lose my life and find it again in You
Whatever the cost, through Christ, Amen.
This is right in line with our mission statement: We are a neighborhood church endeavoring to live like Jesus by gathering a community of prayer that engages suffering. Dave presented his prayer for us during a sermon one Sunday. Immediately I thought I could learn it better if it was a song, and I adapted the words into a simple melody that we began singing the following Sunday. It’s a great example of two pieces of the puzzle coming together to make something better than the sum of its parts. Since then, other adaptations have taken place. We’ve adapted previous written prayers from all sorts of sources into songs. We’ve taken large parts of the Book of Common Prayer and made it musical so that it would be easier to learn, including the Confession, Communion, and The Great Litany. We’ve adapted prayers by St. Ignatius, The Jesus Prayer, Mary’s Magnificat and The Apostle’s Creed. When you’re able to tap into a church tradition that’s been going on for hundreds or thousands of years, the proof is already in the power of the words that have long stood the test of time. You can weave your little piece into the great tapestry that already exists. By adding simple, memorable melodies to timeless truths, you can help infiltrate hearts and minds using the power of music.
While it’s possible to work with and adapt ancient texts, there’s a very good chance God also wants to work within the people of your congregation. Artists may tend to be protective—their creations can be very personal to them. It’s not uncommon to hear songwriters talk about their songs as if they were their children. So bear that in mind when working with songwriters: they may be a little fragile when they show off their work. Usually, songs are created in a state of vulnerability.
We started a songwriting collaborative a few years ago. It was tricky to get it going and it has taken on several forms since its inception, but ultimately we write songs together for our church to sing. We take the creative spark and create for God’s glory and to help others encounter Him. It takes a thick skin and a soft heart to be a part of it. It takes a willingness to accept that your song could be better than it is now, and to hear other people’s thoughts on how to improve it.
Any of us can bring an idea. Songs can begin all sorts of ways, but most songs brought into the group are nowhere near finished. Someone may bring in a verse and/or a chorus but not know where to take it next. Someone else may bring in something that is almost fully formed but needs a lot of work to make it better. There are many different ways for one person to write a song, and even more ways for a community to work on them together.
We look at every part in depth:
Does the musical range cover too much ground?
Are the high notes too high for most people to sing?
Are the low notes too low?
Is the melody confusing?
Is this theologically sound?
What could be said better?
What needs to be clearer?
When writing a song, it’s great to use your worship values of intimacy, accessibility, and authenticity as your guide. In order to gauge how a song will be received and responded to, you can imagine or anticipate how easy it will be for someone to learn it for the first time. I find it helpful, even if you feel like a song is finished, to let it sit for awhile, often as long as a few months and then revisit it. You’ll be more aware of any issues with the song if you come back to it with fresh eyes and ears.
We use our homegroups as our testing ground for all new songs, original or otherwise. If a song connects at a homegroup, then we can feel free to try it out at the Sunday service. It’s important to still be open to changing something even if it’s made it’s way into your Sunday service repertoire. As an example, we once introduced a new original song called “Beloved”. It had gone through several edits and rewrites over the course of about a year and half, and it seemed like it was finally ready to try it out. After a few months, I became concerned for a few reasons. I was the only worship leader using it, and I also felt like the verse melody was too low. I didn’t have enough power in my voice to sing the verse melody in worship and I felt the lyrics and message of the song were getting lost in the process. There was also an octave jump from the verse to the chorus that I thought would be difficult for most non-musicians to attempt. I was the principal songwriter so it required me to swallow my pride so that song could be better. Our songwriting team took another stab at it coming up with a new verse melody before putting it back into rotation. I think now after a two year process it’s finally ready and will live on much longer than if I had not been willing to continue to tweak it.
There are many benefits of writing together in community. One great benefit is you create a culture where people have a voice; where they feel free to use and develop their gifts and talents for the glory of God. U2’s singer Bono has said that the members of U2 don’t have much confidence in their individual abilities, but amongst the band there is a collective ego. The same thing is true about writing together - you create an atmosphere where everyone can buy in. There’s so much more that we’re able to do, and do better, when we do it together. Songs created within community have more of a unified force behind their creation and thus the lifespan will be much longer since it’s not just one worship leader leading his or her song.
We began this process several years ago. I’ve submitted myself to this process, and now I can’t imagine returning to the way I used to write. Even if I have a song mostly finished, I still want to be open to receiving an additional opinion from a trusted friend before I use it in worship. I believe God blesses our collaboration and often makes the outcome greater than the sum of its parts. I believe our collaboration process reflects the perfect community of the trinity as each person looks out for and loves each other, hoping to bring out the best for the whole. Some of my closest friendships have formed as a result of this group. I welcome criticism of a song I’ve been working on because I know my friends love me and have my best interests at heart. We all want each song to be the best it can be. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.
I’ve discovered that all my years of songwriting have made me a pretty good editor as well, able to find the one golden nugget within the mire and help make something great out of it. I love being creative in writing, but even more than that, I love helping others be creative in their writing. Take time to explore creativity in your own setting. You may be surprised at how God uses your creativity to bring Him glory.
Take a moment and list the themes you feel are absent in your current worship repertoire (either as a leader or a congregant), things you long to sing but can't because the song isn't there.
What would your church community need--resource, people, support--in order to begin writing its own worship songs?
Ascribing Worth is available here.