When you stop to think about it, writing songs to “lead people in worship” can seem pretty ridiculous. I mean, people either choose to worship God or they don’t, right? Can people even be led into it and can a song really do it?
As in all things theological, we have to turn to Scriptures for some clear answers.
On top of that, people have bitterly disagreed over what kind of songs are the right kind of songs to use in worship since the first songs were written. Hymns only? Choruses from the 1970’s only or Scripture songs only? What about all the “modern worship” songs out there these days?
The “worship wars” are nothing new and will be with us to the end because of this one fact: we all like the kind of music that we like. How can anyone navigate through it all, much less write the kind of songs that could stand out from the seeming millions already written and circulating?
What’s a writer to do?
Obviously, I believe God uses all kinds of songs to help lead people into a sense of His presence and I’ve written and published hundreds of them to accomplish this very thing. Seems to me the deciding factor is almost always music style when it comes to worship song preferences (even more than content/lyrics), but the actual decision to worship God at all is completely up to the individual.
This is an important distinction for songwriters trying to write the next big “Holy Spirit” (Torwalts). When we’re asking ourselves, “What will make people worship with my song like they do with that one?” we’ve suddenly moved from serving with our gifts to the very seductively evil attitude of comparing ourselves with others. The result is never good.
Again… what’s a writer to do?
The “worship wars” are nothing new and will be with us to the end because of this one fact: we all like the kind of music that we like.
I believe there are two very important things to think about doing as you write worship songs. The first one is to really be filled with the Holy Spirit we sing about instead of just singing about it. The second is to write out of overflow rather than write to get people to sing your songs in worship.
Be Filled with the Spirit
People have long argued over what Paul meant by “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the following passage, but I think the main point is that there’s a connection between speaking to ourselves and to one another and being filled with (or even immersed in) the Spirit. At the very least, I think the result of being filled with the life, attitudes, and words of Jesus makes us want to speak to each other in very encouraging, life-giving ways, reminding each other of the promises Jesus has given us.
“… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Ephesians 5:18 – 20
For most people, the constant negative inner chatter condemning themselves for past sins and mistakes has long since drowned out any encouraging voice. They’re so completely filled with negativity about themselves, politics, money, relationships, and even life itself that they’re in no shape to encourage themselves, much less anyone else.
I deal with writers all the time who just want to write about their pain. While there is a time and place for lament and the literal “grieving out” of life’s losses, we shouldn’t have to be condemned to live in grief the rest of our lives. Grief should be an intermittent experience and not the constant. Grief should be processed in a healthy manner and then be finished, but many writers center their entire lives and ministry on the pain instead of the process of grieving it and moving on.
This is a problem.
It’s a problem because not only are you stuck in a negative loop in your emotional life, but you’ll never exceed it in your songwriting. I say it this way: you bring all you are to the songwriting process. If you’re happy, you’ll write happy songs. If you’re filled with faith, you’ll write songs to build up others in theirs. But if you’re filled with sadness and grief, you’ll be pouring it into your songs and people will only tolerate that for so long.
Again, there is a time and season for grief (think Ecclesiastes).
And it is certainly true that one can be filled with an abiding sense of hope (and be filled with the Spirit) even during seasons of mourning and loss, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the writer who only wants to dump her pain out from a messy divorce in her songs. Or the writer who feels sorry for himself and wants to write songs filled with self-indulgent pity or victimization. That’s not cool.
You bring all you are to the songwriting process.
Being filled with the Spirit means you’re moving toward balance and spiritual/emotional well-being and that is what ‘s reflected in your songs.
Write from the Overflow
The second important thing to keep in mind is that the best worship songs come from the overflow of your spiritual life and not merely from crafting a song you think would be nice for people to sing.
But be careful here.
Some might read that and think, “See! I don’t have to learn about songwriting… I just have to be really really FILLED with the Holy Spirit and I’ll write great songs!” Actually, that’s just not true. That’d be like me thinking if I was just filled with the Spirit enough, I could perform surgery or run a marathon today. It’s just not going to happen.
The truly useable “spontaneous songs” that I’ve heard of being written on the spot have been few and far between, though ironically, one I sang out spontaneously in a church service years ago was actually recorded on an Integrity Music release (Let Your Spirit Come/1992), but, again–those are MAJOR exceptions and I was already a songwriter and knew how to craft the inspiration in the moment.
Because most aspiring writers confuse inspiration with craft, it’s important to note here that writing from the overflow only works well if you know how to write well first. Many writers feel a surge of inspiration, think they’re getting a “download from God” in song form, and then mistakenly believe everyone’s going to love their poorly-written song. Even worse, they then can become quite hurt and angry when people don’t love their song and they either get mad at God or quit writing altogether.
Every writer feels inspiration, but not every writer knows what to do with it.What we’re talking about is intention, or the inner motivation for writing and not the results one way or the other. If the song gets used on a grand scale like Bethel, Hillsong, or Gateway… great. If not, great, as well. We all walk a fine line between selflessness and servanthood when it comes to our songs.
The song Good, Good Father was birthed out of a line writer Tony Brown had been singing for years and that had been used spontaneously in his house church with Pat Barrett, until they developed it into the song it is now through the recording and exposure by Chris Tomlin.
Another great example is the record label Forerunner Music birthed out of Kansas City’s International House of Prayer (IHOP) where they’ve been worshiping 24/7 for over ten years and counting. These people do spontaneous worship, like, day and night, but a whole lot of songs have been crafted out of the spontaneity that can speak well to the rest of the world that doesn’t understand 37-minute spontaneous prophetic singing with no hook to speak of.
I use a tool called The Song Continuum in our coaching that helps writers visualize the fact that songs fall into unique categories ranging from the prayer closet to the performance hall. Each type of writing has its unique characteristics, purposes, and functions. You just can’t critiques a prayer song sung spontaneously. You can, however, begin to craft some of them into radio-friendly 3:20 minute songs that anyone can love. It’s all a matter of what you want to do with your writing and the resulting material that flows out of you.
And then there’s the hybrid of the two, such as the live recording of Come to the River (HouseFires II) that I’m sitting here listening to on YouTube while I write. After some very singable, commercial verses and chorus, she’s sung, “O my soul thirsts for you” about a thousand times and I love it. It’s all context.
Demonstrating Crafting the Spontaneous
At the end of the day, we can write songs that are used effectively to help them express their worship and praise. The best ones happen when we ourselves are immersed in a beautiful sense of His presence and as we develop our songwriting toolkit to the point we can then interpret heaven’s intimations into singable, others-friendly songs like the ones we’ve come to know and love.
The Holy Spirit is the Ultimate Songwriter, but He chooses to flow through us to express Himself. The more adept we are at crafting His messages, the clearer they become.
Imagine if I stood up and sang, ” O my God, You’re beautiful and amazing and I’m in love with You and You are eternal and holy holy holy holy holy and sweet to me so sweet to me so sweet to me and I will love You love You love You forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever amen amen amen amen so great amen yes yes yes hallelujah hallelujah You are everlasting strong and amazing and I stand in awe and You love me love me love me and I want to praise You and be here in this presence forever forever forever…”
Then, imagine having a perfectly beautiful spontaneous worship moment like that, but then pulling a nugget or phrase from it to craft into a singable song, something like this in a Hillsong sort of way:
My God, beautiful, amazing
Holy, ever-living, loving, everlasting
My God, all of heaven’s singing
You’re beautiful, amazing and I join them in the song
Holy, holy is my God (Beautiful, Amazing by the Author)
So, I totally wrote the “spontaneous” lines above without thinking about them first and then crafted the second set of lines out of them. See what I did? I captured the essence of the free flow into a singable version that could be taught anywhere to any group with good results. (Hhhhhmmmmmm…. I might just have to finish this one!)
In my book, the spontaneous songs and the crafted songs have their unique place and role. I’m not voting to get rid of either or say that one is “better” than the other. How could that be? God loves your spontaneous worship! But He also loves and uses the crafted song that delivers a concise message with a repeatable hook and a repeatable result as the songs of heaven are crafted to be used in the worship of the people on earth.