A Potpourri of Tips on Writing and Choosing Songs for Worship

Can the world still use new worship songs? Yes. Does their worth depend on how much they sound like other songs or how many people hear and sing them? No.

Can the world still use new worship songs? Yes. Does their worth depend on how much they sound like other songs or how many people hear and sing them? No.

At least, not according to many Christians who've thought deeply about how new songs can honor God. Perhaps some of these tips will help spark (and discipline) creative worship song composition and selection.

Remember that musical taste is fleeting

When Gregg DeMey was a college student, helping to develop the LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) Sunday evening service at Calvin College, he recalls feeling a tension between “trying to like the things we felt God wanted us to like” and being ruled by fellow students' tastes.

“We hoped college students would come and find that their musical language was being spoken—and that it rocked.” He credits mentors with helping LOFT founders broaden their vision of the church and world to include psalms, ancient chants, re-invented hymns, and global worship music in LOFT services.

Gregg DeMey and Gregory Kett composed an arrangement of “My Friends May You Grow in Grace” that is still sung at LOFT and in congregations across North America.

Now that DeMey and Kett are planting a Christian Reformed church (Lakeside Chapel) together in Ludington, Michigan, DeMey realizes, “Musical taste and the need to be hip are fleeting.” He says it's more important to provide “the songs and texts people need to rehearse for their hours of need, for their moments of immense joy, for…”

Focus on your local congregation

DeMey says that local congregations are the best places to work out the gospel's countercultural nature. Instead of trying to write or choose songs just from the top 25 praise songs, you can sing some of those alongside songs from Zaire and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” written in the 12th century.

Instead of trying to write a song that will hit the charts, realize that God might intend for you to write a song that directly addresses your congregation's situation. When DeMey was on staff at Granite Springs Church, near Sacramento, California, he worshiped with new or not-yet Christians who rejected churchy language. So he and Shari Thorpe used simple language and a contemporary tuneto explain the beauty of God's work in us.

Transform big ideas into current language

DeMey says his song writing goes best when he latches on to a big, biblical idea, such as that all creation, even while broken, is praising God all the time. Next he brainstorms phrases and images that fit with “a blue collar way of putting it.”

For example, explaining that “it” is the song of creation, he writes:

It spins with the planets, it courses through space, 
It fills every atom and inch of this place,
It finds its perfection in the whole human race.
Come, let's take our place.

All of creation sings your praise.
I stand amazed amidst all that you've made.
All of creation cries to you,
And I do, too.

Root yourself in ancient Christian tradition

There's a reason that people with dreadlocks and tattoos are gravitating toward services that include icons, candles, and ancient chants. They want to meet the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Robert Webber and Sally Morgenthaler echo what Brian McLaren says in his “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters” : “There is a wealth of historic spiritual writings…crying for translation into contemporary song. Every era in history has rich resources to offer, from the Patristic period to the Celtic period to the Puritan period.”

Proclaim a world-blessing gospel

McLaren says that the best contemporary songwriters are charting new lyrical territory. Consider writing songs about these topics:

  • Celebrating God's character and creation
  • How to love God and your neighbor in a way that blesses the whole world
  • God's care for the poor, forgotten, alien, orphaned, widowed, and forgotten
  • What it means to be Christ's hands, feet, eyes, smile, and heart
  • Being blessed to be a blessing
  • Laments for the world's woes and hope for the future God intends

Sing about God's actions, not just God's names

In Leadership Journal, J.D. Walt, a pastor, composer, and chapel dean, explains that singing about God's attributes means even more if the words are set in “the storied soil of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.”

So as you write songs that magnify God, try to write texts that remember God's actions in biblical history.

Know the difference between composition and inspiration

In a postscript to McLaren's letter to songwriters, John Mortensen, a composer and piano professor says, “First, we must understand that good lyrics are composed, not inspired.” That means studying meter, rhythm, rhyme, and imagery.

Mortensen also recommends writing songs in community, which means being sensitive to community needs, laboring over a text, and then checking it against the counsel of wise spiritual friends.

Retool old melodies and compose new tunes

Mortensen says the search for authenticity in worship is leading many churches to unplug. They're using acoustic pianos and guitars and instruments from around the world—panpipes, djembes, and congas. So when you write tunes, it's okay to write for an electrified worship band. But it's also okay to write for different sorts of instruments or even for voices only.

Whether you want to re-craft old melodies or compose new tunes, Mortensen suggests you discard the idea that music is mainly chords. Instead, try matching your rhythms, pitches, and harmonics more purposefully to the text.

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