Mainstream Christian music (or CCM) has always been slightly frustrating to me. Often, when I drive somewhere and I’m not listening to music on my phone, I’ll listen to a few songs on a popular Christian radio station. It isn’t long before I feel agitated and decide that I prefer the white-noise of my car over what’s being played on the radio. This is an over-reaction, because it is not sinful, or wrong, to listen to Christian music stations. God uses them for his glory all the time. However, there are always a few songs that serve as motivators for me to want to write worship songs for our church. These “motivator” songs tend to be what I call, “fluff songs,” that are just vague enough that if you changed a couple pronouns, you could make the song about a girlfriend or boyfriend. Thus, when I have an idea for a corporate worship song and sit down to write it, I want to be very intentional about a couple of things.
I have been writing worship songs since I was 17 years old. Granted, that is not a long time considering I am only 24. I do not have vast years of experience and do not pretend to be an expert. However, my limited experience has been shaped and molded by certain standards that I believe to be both reasonable and necessary. This list I am about to present is not exhaustive. However, I hope these will be things you might consider when writing a corporate worship song of your own.
When Writing a Corporate Worship Song…
- It should be clear and understandable. This means that by simply reading the lyrics of a worship song I should easily be able to understand what you’re trying to communicate within one, maybe two times listening. An example of this is a song like How Great Thou Art:
“Oh Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the world thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder; thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed!”
The first verse makes it very clear that God creates all things like the stars, planets, thunder, and that his power is seen through those things.
- Worship songs should be accessible. What does that mean? It does not mean “easy to get a hold of.” Accessible means that after clearly understanding what the song says, I can personally identify with the narrative or message of the song. Let’s use How Great Thou Art as an example again. We’ve already seen that the song can communicate God’s awesome creative power clearly. Now we see that the Chorus echoes the natural response one should have when faced with such a reality:
“Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee; how great thou art!”
The first verse even uses sensory words in phrases like, “I see the stars” and “I hear the rolling thunder”.
These are all things we can personally identify with and have in past times experienced.
- A worship song should be a marriage between biblical truth and beauty. Truth simply means that everything that worship song says should be true, right, and reflect/reference correct doctrines found in Holy Scripture. Straightforward, right? This also means it should not be false, wrong, or contrary to correct doctrines found in Holy Scripture. Beauty means that what the worship song says should be said in a way that makes the truth come alive and affect us. Since we’ve used How Great Thou Art quite a bit, let’s go to the last verse of the grand ol’ hymn, The Love Of God Is Greater Far:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
and were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
and every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky”
Let’s look at this verse with the criteria we have so far. Is it clear and understandable? If you were actually listening on Sunday morning rather than thinking about lunch, then yes! This song is describing the endlessness of God’s love. Is the song accessible? Maybe not as much because of the dated vernacular, but the poetry certainly is timeless! Is the verse a marriage of Biblical truth and beauty? I believe so. To see this, we must first understand the ways in which the truth of God’s endless love could have been communicated. For instance, the hymn writer could have written, “God’s love is so big, you can’t write it down.” Is that wrong? No. Is it true? Certainly. Is it beautiful? Not really. Now look at the verse above and how the hymn describes the vastness of God’s love.
Do you see what I mean? This song says things that are true and biblical in beautiful ways that makes us truly ponder the vastness of God’s love in a new and fresh way. Beautiful lyrics affect us in ways that straight forward lyrics do not.
- Worship songs should be both catchy and easy to sing. By catchy, I mean a song should be pleasant, memorable, and something people want to sing. Rich truth paired with boring music is not a sin. However, if we can write good melodies for the good truth, why not do so? When I say easy to sing, I mean that the song should be in a range that is comfortable for the congregation as a whole, not necessarily for the worship leader. I don’t care how hipster your glasses are, how tight your jeans are, or how amazing you sound belting out the outrageously high bridge of a worship song, if people cannot sing with you than you aren’t worship leading; you are worship performing. Worship songwriters must be wary of this temptation.
- Worship songs should universal. While accessible means you can identify with the song, universal simply means that almost anyone can identify with the song. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Let’s make up some lyrics for example. Say I wanted to write a worship song about suffering and wrote a line like this: “Lord I’m burdened by my fearful and anxious soul, help me trust that you are in control.” There may be people in the congregation that are experiencing the same thing I just wrote. However, not everyone is at the moment. What if I wrote it this way instead: “When we’re burdened by our anxious souls, help us trust that you are in control.” What’s the difference? First, notice that I changed the anxiety from a present reality to an eventual reality. If you’re not anxious now, you will be later. Everyone can identify with that! Second, I hope you noticed I changed the pronouns from singular to plural. Asking God to help us rather than help me gives the sense that we’re not alone in our struggles and that brings comfort.
I hope this is a helpful window into the world of corporate worship songwriting. However, here are a few warnings with all of this in mind:
- Do not become a cage-stage worship song critic. This is the temptation I personally fall into all the time. Trust me, no one likes that person who can’t enjoy listening to music for music’s sake. Resist!
- Don’t persecute Christian radio listeners! As I said at the beginning, it is not a sin or wrong to listen to popular Christian radio stations. I listen to them periodically as well. The high-horse mentality is not what we have been called to.