Christian Songwriting 101 (or The Lyrical Messenger)
As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with Christian song. As a child, I used to sit in the pew during worship services and flip through the hymnal, reading through the rich lyrics of the numerous hymns. I wanted to know and understand the words to the songs we sang plus discover new gems of songs I had never heard. The themes and images I discovered within the hymns stuck with me. Frequently, when I returned home from church, I would attempt to write my own lyrical compositions – most of which are too embarrassing to post. (Let’s just say that my Christian arrangement of “Let it Be” seemed a lot cooler when I was nine than it does now.)
As I have grown older, my interest in Christian song has steadily increased. Many of my academic studies have focused on the theological dynamic of Christian song in worship, a topic I examined in my post, “Introducing Lyrical Theology.” Worship planners and pastors have the responsibility of choosing appropriate material for worship because words matter. But for pastors and worship planners to choose good material, good theological songs must exist. It is the task of the Christian songwriter to resource the Church with lyrical theology. In other words, since the words we sing in worship carry theological meaning they must be carefully formed.
The Christian songwriter as a messenger
The Christian songwriter must acknowledge his/her crucial role of standing before the Church as God’s messenger. Worship songs (in part) proclaim God’s story, reveal God’s character, examine God’s commandments, and acknowledge God’s desires. The Christian songwriter is faced with the task of communicating God’s truth through poetic language. Through an economy of words, the Christian songwriter uses poetic devices such as meter, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, and figurative language to make known who God is and what God has done. The Christian songwriter proclaims in lyrical form God’s message of hope and salvation. Thus, Christian songwriters are important theologians of the church as they are responsible for both knowing and upholding correct theology in their songs.
The Christian songwriter serves not only as one who declares God’s message to worshipers but also as one who gives worshipers the words to proclaim to God. The Christian songwriter gives worshipers a theology to sing. He/She is responsible for the words placed on people’s lips in worship. Lyrical composition is the Christian songwriter’s response to God through messages of praise, petition, lament, and celebration.* Worship music then places these words on worshiper’s lips as a message to God.
The Christian songwriter has a unique and weighty responsibility. He/She is a messenger, a teacher, a theologian, and a worshiper. Awareness of each of these roles is crucial for Christian songwriters to continue appropriately resourcing the Church with songs for worship. From mature Christians come mature Christian songs.
It is fitting then to ask who is responsible for training these worship messengers? Though there are several valid answers, I would like to examine three influences of growth:
- Christian songwriters are responsible for their own growth
- Pastors are responsible for Christian songwriters’ growth
- Christian songwriters are responsible for each others’ growth
Christian songwriters are responsible for their own growth.
In part, Christian songwriters are responsible for their own theological growth. For their songs to have rich theological content, Christian songwriters must develop through contemplation on rich theological content. Examining worship music is a great place for Christian songwriters to begin. I encourage Christian songwriters to read through the lyrics of a variety of hymns, pslams, and spiritual songs. Look beyond popular or familiar music (though consider these as well) to other expressions and cultures. Notice the language and imagery used. Examine how God’s character and work is described. Consider the main message the song proclaims.
Christian songwriters should also familiarize themselves with important theological teachings of the church. Know your own tradition’s background and read from important figures that have contributed to your doctrine. Read from great Christian thinkers such as Athanasius, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, A.W. Tozer, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Catherine Booth. Allow their wisdom to give content to the messages written in Christian lyrics. Matt Maher has a great way of doing this in his songs. “Alive Again” is basically a retelling of Augustine’s conversion, noted by Augustine in his Confessions. Maher’s reworking of Augustine’s account makes for a powerful song on the experience of God’s movement in one’s life.
Another important practice for Christian songwriters is to continually keep reflecting in lyrical form. Contemplate on scripture, sermons, and devotional readings by jotting down some lyrics. They don’t have to be good or complete, but keep in the practice of writing and thinking in imagery, meter, and rhyme. You can always go back and edit later.
Pastors are responsible for Christian songwriters’ growth
As my post, “You’re a Theologian and Don’t Even Know It” pointed out, all worshipers are theologians. Worship both teaches and proclaims theology, making each worshiper a theologian. The content of worship is of utmost value as a primary place of theology for worshipers. Worship is also a primary place of theology for Christian songwriters. The content of worship teaches the appropriateness of Christian song. It develops both desire and knowledge of God and his people. For me, it was it was worship that turned me on to songwriting in the first place, causing me to want to imitate what others had contributed to the church.
Christian songwriters are unique in the way that they are formed by worship but also give content to worship, though they are not the only ones. Pastors and worship planners share in this responsibility. Thus, there should be a careful partnership between pastors and Christian songwriters. Pastors need to consider how they are teaching and training Christian songwriters. Pastors should help songwriters think theologically, prompt ideas to be expressed lyrically, and offer good critique and feedback on Christian songs. (A good example of this last point can be seen in my friend Tom Feurst’s blog post, “Demolishing Building 421: This IS Where I Belong.”)
Pastors should also partner with Christian songwriters. For some pastors, it may mean actually practicing expression through lyrical form. For others, it may mean surrounding themselves with lyricists who have the gift or desire of lyrical writing. Deeper consideration of lyrical partnership to sermons could be beneficial to worship. Pastors can help Christian songwriters see theological gaps in existing worship music. They might also direct Christian songwriters toward certain scriptural or liturgical reflection. Pastors need to give and Christian songwriters need to accept pastoral encouragement, support, and challenge.
Christian songwriters are responsible for one another’s growth
I do not know many people who aren’t amazed by the fact that C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers met regularly together with other members of a group in Oxford called “The Inklings.” One of the primary purposes of their gatherings was to discuss and critique one another’s literary work. There is something striking about such collaborative creativity. Who knows what great treasures from these authors may have never existed if that group were never formed?
Having a safe group of trust and accountability can be of incredible benefit to the Christian songwriter. I do not consider myself to be a great songwriter, but I have found my songwriting skills strengthen when I allow others into the process. When I am willing to allow others ask questions about my songs, point out theological flaws, and speak encouragement on ideas and themes I present, I have found my work benefits greatly. Many times I discover that the message I was trying to present in a song wasn’t as clear as I had assumed or an image didn’t come across as powerful as I had hoped. Others’ reflections and suggestions end up enriching the limited perspective I had when writing the song.
Hearing from other songwriters is often a good catalyst for theological meditation. Theological themes can be prompted through discussion and examination of lyrics. Regularly evaluating and critiquing other songwriters’ work helps one reason through poetic and theological reflection.
Christian songwriters need a safe place to share their work. One of the safest groups is a gathering of fellow songwriters. Of course, it takes humility and vulnerability to lay one’s creative work before others for critique and review. Trust, honesty, and support are three key characteristics of suitable accountability. They are also essential to collaborative creativity. Perhaps there is great benefit for the church from songwriters joining in collaboration with one another. Who know what treasures are yet to be discovered by those willing to follow the example of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers?
A word of encouragement
Much more can and should be said about the role, responsibilities, and growth of the Christian songwriter. I plan to tackle a variety of topics on Christian songwriting in future posts by examining songwriters like Charles Wesley, Chris Tomlin, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Matt Maher, Moses Hogan, and Marcos Witt. Each of these songwriters has contributed to worship music in very profound ways, and there is much we can learn from them. For now, I close with this encouragement to Christian songwriters: understand the responsibility set before you. Remember that from mature Christian songwriters come mature Christian songs. Be certain of your calling as a messenger of God. Grow in your knowledge and affection of Him. Proclaim His word for all to hear.
*Christian songwriters are also often concerned with musical composition, but my main focus in this post is on lyrical writing.
How Worship Music Works Pt 1 (or I Can’t Get This Song Out of My Head)
There is a quote attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo that says, “To sing is to pray twice.” I have often heard a variety of assumptions made about the meaning to this statement. There are three in particular I would like to consider in this post:
1. When we sing a prayer to God instead of speaking it, the prayer has stronger emphasis. Since music is by its nature filled with greater emotional and associational power than the spoken word, music grants an emotional emphasis to what the spoken word may lack. Music allows us to pray in both word and heart.
2. Meter and rhyme serve as a good mnemonic device. Music makes text easy to remember. Songs allow prayers to stay constant in our minds and on our lips, so in essence we “pray twice.”
3. Music allows for corporate participation by a group of people. By having a specific melody, meter, and rhyme, multiple people can easily join in song as a unified voice. A prayer or sermon is often spoken by an individual. Singing, however, unifies a multitude of voices. Depending on the number of people singing, the prayer is sounded twice, three times, one hundred times, etc.
Words of consideration and caution
There is significance to each of the above assumptions, though I am cautious to jump too fully into all of the rationale. Let me consider each a little further:
“Since music is by its nature filled with greater emotional and associational power than the spoken word, music grants an emotional emphasis to what the spoken word may lack.”
First of all, yes, music is emotional and tends to grant a particular emphasis that sometimes lacks in the spoken word. Fewer things make me feel more patriotic than when I sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The song emphasizes for me the joy and freedom I have to be an American. It moves me on an emotional level and emphasizes an important reality in my life.
I have often heard it said that music is for the heart and sermons are for the head. I believe this is a very dangerous dichotomy to make. Though music tends to lend itself more to the emotional realm, it is important to not too strongly associate music with emotion (or the heart) and spoken word with intellect (or the head). Emotions can change suddenly. If not careful, we may too quickly associate emotional experience (and thus music) with the movement of God. If this goes to an extreme, we might begin to believe God is at work only when our emotions are aroused. Head and heart are not isolated entities. Many spoken sermons, prayers, and liturgies have moved me emotionally while many songs have stimulated me intellectually.
Theology is a pursuit that cannot be separated from holy living and our desire for the Triune God. Our intellectual contemplation of God helps our desire for God grow. Likewise our growing desire for God urges us to contemplate God more. To be moved emotionally in worship without contemplation is dangerous. To be stimulated intellectually in worship with no increase of desire for God is incomplete.
“Music makes text easy to remember.”
On the whole, I agree that music makes text memorable. There are quite a few Bible verses I can recite from memory today because I learned them in song form as a child. My sister taught herself European geography using a Justin Timberlake song. Cadence, rhythm, and rhyme are a few of the musical devices that have helped provide a structure for memorizing texts since ancient times. The Psalms are a great example of this, and their true brilliance shines quite bright in the original Hebrew.
I have often made the assertion that not many churchgoers will recite a sermon the next day in the shower but many could still be humming a tune to a song sung in the service. Some pastors have pushed back against this notion saying to make such a claim is to set up an unfair contrast. A song may be used in worship multiple times throughout the year while sermons are typically only preached once. One pastor even argued that if a congregation heard the same sermon preached twelve times in a year, congregants would be able to recite the sermon as easily as a song they’ve sung twelve times.
I admit songs have a better chance than sermons of being memorable due to their quantity of use, but I am not convinced that hearing a sermon preached twelve times would make it as memorable as singing a song twelve times. The nature of sermon and song are quite different, which is actually the point I try to make in the shower analogy.
Songs are characterized by simplicity and redundancy, qualities that make them ideal to convey a message. Even within a single song, a chorus or refrain may be repeated multiple times. By the careful partnership of music and words, worship songs are able to capture succinctly the essence of theological ideas. Additionally, songs provide a natural structure for memory. Even musical arrangements without words tend to easily stick in our heads. (Andy Griffith, anyone?)
We must be aware that since music has the advantage of making text memorable it can easily put false ideas or corrupt images in our minds. That is why we need to be careful about the content of what is being taught through music (which you can read about in my previous post, Lyrical Theology). Likewise, songs tend to convey ideas that have been more fully expressed and contemplated elsewhere, such as in sermons.
“A prayer or sermon is often spoken by an individual. Singing, however, unifies a multitude of voices.”
There really is something amazing about a multitude of voices combining to sing praises/laments to God. I love joining a congregation in worship, standing as one body and harmonizing in one voice. Each individual voice, instrument, handclap, etc contributes to a singular, unified sound. I believe it is a beautiful example of how the church exists as the body of Christ.
Music is a natural act that brings the church together in one voice, but it is not the only one. I love joining with the gathered church in proclaiming creeds, reciting prayers, and responding in various liturgies. These acts are just as important and crucial to worship as musical ones, so I am careful not to set one above the other.
Not all music inspires contemplation, functions theologically, or is appropriate for religious reflection. Worship music in particular must be true to the message and spirit of proper theological reflection. In its simplest definition, theology is the study of God. It is an exploration, a discovery, and a challenge to know more about God and his relationship to humanity and to the world. Since we are finite and limited creatures trying to better understand an infinite and boundless God, theology must use both reason and imagination. Worship music gives memorable and imaginative expression to theological themes elaborated elsewhere more systematically, such as in sermons.
As you can tell from the “Pt 1” of the title, this is only the first of a series of posts on the nature, role, and importance of worship music. Much more can be said and there is much more I hope to write on how worship music works. I look forward to reflecting more with you about music’s ability to step into worship, contributing in a unique way to theological understanding and experience.
Interested in reading more on musical theology? Check out this book: Music and Theology by Don Saliers
 For any of you church history nerds like me, the actual quote from St. Augustine is this: “For he that sings praises, not only praises, but praises with gladness: he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection also of one loving” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Psalm 73, 1). Over the centuries the quote has somehow been abridged to, “To sing is to pray twice.”
 I admit that this may not be true for every person out there. Some people just don’t pick up on music as easily as others, and that’s okay. But I think this principle does tend to be true for the majority of us.