By no means am I a songwriting expert. I guess it’s true that I’ve written a lot of music, but that million-dollar song has still eluded me. If rubbing shoulders with the right people helps, maybe I’ll eventually get there. I’ve had the privilege of jamming with Wynton Marsalis and Robin Eubanks, rocking out with Relient K and Five Iron Frenzy, and I’ve gotten to meet members of the Supertones and Sum 41. One band I used to play in even got to open for bands like Seether and Reel Big Fish. If I were to include each of the bands I’ve been a part of, I’m currently recording my 9th album in the last 18 years, with two more soon to follow. I’ve played gigs in front of a couple thousand people and played for less than a dozen people. I’ve seen huge amounts of money from a single gig, and…well, you can probably guess the other end of that.
Ultimately, I think writing music follows the same rules in life as anything else: understand what the consumer wants, and deliver it to them. Over the last decade and a half I have realized that there is a monumental shift when writing for entertainment and writing for corporate worship; at least there should be. Unfortunately it is common to hear contemporary Christian music led by the same principles as mainstream music. I see these principles as being rooted in two things; 1) write a catchy hook, and 2) discuss things that people find amusing and entertaining. That’s it. Unfortunately, much of what I hear in the contemporary Christian music world holds fast to these rules. Instead, I believe corporate worship songs should be guided by rich theology, Biblical truths, and, well…maybe we can keep the catchy hooks. But catchy hooks can do more damage than good if we wimp out on quality lyrics and replace them with watered down theology and shallow Christian clichés. I won’t name names, but you can probably think of a few too.
We can take the easy road and choose songs that are trendy but lack content. We can cut corners and rely on lazy songwriting that will never plant rich theological truths into our minds and hearts, but why? There is music available, old and new, that contains a treasure trove of deep, Biblical content. We should encourage songwriters to write in such a way that they are teaching good theology to the congregation. If a songwriter is unable to do so, they should find someone to partner with for lyrical content, or stick to the Psalms while also being intentionally Trinitarian. A similar hope should be in place for those who choose worship songs. Instead of making decisions based on what is on the radio or what has the coolest melody, allow the textual content of the song to determine whether or not it is worthy to be sung by the body of Christ. This is no small thing. After all, what we sing about God shows others what we think about God.
As I look back in life I see that the musicians I listed above were the right influences if my main goal was to entertain; and for many years, it was. But as I now try to fine-tune my skills as a songwriter for corporate worship, there are different giants in the songwriting community I seek to imitate. Some are common names while others are not. I’m thinking of people like Bob Kauflin, Matt Boswell, and Michael Bleecker. I’m listening to Steve and Vicki Cook, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Sojourn Community Church. These are also people I’ve met who have had an influence on me. These are the folks I want to look to as I continue to craft the songs I write for corporate worship.
Below are a few guidelines I try to follow for both song selection and song writing.
- Choose songs that stay true to the Bible. (If the text is not supported Biblically, why sing it?)
- Choose songs that have good theology. (We learn by singing. We memorize by singing. May it never be that we sing inferior songs just because they sound cool.)
- Songs should be congregationally friendly. (Not too high vocally, not too low, not too rangy.)
- Songs should be relatively easy to learn. (If the melody is too complex or confusing, people will grow tired of trying.)
- Never introduce too many new songs at a time. (If people spend the entire service ‘learning,’ they have much less time to focus on ‘worshiping.’)
- While being aware of #5, be sure to introduce new songs occasionally. (Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!” – Psalm 96:1)
May God bless you in your upcoming songwriting and song selection. The words of those songs will be on the mouths of God’s people. Make each one count.