By Elia King
I'm fortunate to be part of a church family that loves to sing. Even better, they enjoy learning new original songs that come out of our journey together as a church. Consequently, in addition to my other duties as a pastor of a local congregation, I am occasionally tasked with writing original worship music for us to sing together as a church family.
Writing a song that comes out of our shared experience and then leading a congregation in singing it is a uniquely rich and rewarding experience. That said, the songwriting process alone can often be overwhelming to the point that even seasoned songwriters will sit down to begin work, only to return their notebooks back on the shelf after a few frustrating and fruitless minutes. Writer's block can be a devastating place to live. With that in mind, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on the worship songwriting process. You might be a struggling pastor or worship leader. Or you might not be musically inclined, but rather find yourself in a place where you are supporting or mentoring an aspiring musician in your congregation. In either case, I hope the following will be both helpful and motivating.
First, remember that when you write an original song for your church, you are giving people the vocabulary to express their hearts to God. That may be a paralyzing thought at first. But think of it this way: how often do we censor ourselves when it comes to prayer? One of my favorite worship leaders, Paul Baloche, has posed the question like this: When was the last time you didn't pray a prayer because someone else had already prayed it? Or when was the last time you decided not to pray because that prayer might not be a top 40 hit? Although it's important for a "good" worship song to resonate in the lives of our fellow believers, when we remember that they are first and foremost an expression of our hearts to God, it should liberate us from some of the pressure we often face to craft every song for heavy radio rotation.
Second, keep in mind the 10,000 hour rule. In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell suggested that "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness." Some have misinterpreted Gladwell's theory to mean that in order to be great at something, all you need to do is spend 10,000 hours practicing. But that actually was never the author's intent. Instead, he proposes that even natural ability requires dedicated time and effort to achieve success. Although there are certainly other factors at play when it comes to writing songs for worship, there is no denying that while practice may not make perfect, it certainly can make more proficient. The songwriter Ryan Adams has told the story of how he realized that there are people in the world who get up and go and do something all day every day and call it their job. So it seemed unfair to him that he should be able to spend an hour or two a week songwriting and call it his job. If getting musical ideas down on paper is a challenge, consider how much time you're really spending at your craft. People who call themselves professionals — doctors, lawyers, and yes, sometimes even musicians — have dedicated years to being experts in their field. Don't be frustrated if you aren't able to hammer a song out in fifteen minutes. The struggle of writing an average (or even bad) song today may teach you something that helps you to write a really great song tomorrow.
Third, consider that the process of creative work may not always feel very creative. After a recent service, one of our leadership team approached me to tell me how much she appreciated a new song we had sung that morning. She asked how long it had taken me to write it, and I responded that it was the result of weeks or months of singing or humming melody lines into my phone, but that the real work of finishing the song took a day of sitting down with all of the pieces and fitting them together. As those words were coming out of my mouth, I realized that the work of songwriting is often not just a few minutes of inspired writing, with perfectly rhyming phrases pouring out of my pen (or keyboard). Instead, it is often hours (or days) of compiling ideas that have been written down in journals or on the backs of receipts, fitting them to snippets of melodies that have been sung into my phone, all to clearly and succinctly convey a singular, coherent thought related to worship. If that sounds like hard work, that's because it is. But as I've already mentioned, it can be a really rewarding experience to hear that work come to life as it resonates in the lives of the people who make up my church. The point is this: don't be discouraged when the work seems difficult. Keep writing down ideas. Keep singing into your phone or voice recorder. Although the process itself may feel tedious, it is incredibly inspiring to see a song come together. Even more powerful still is to hear stories of how the product of that hard work is taking root in the lives of people around you.
As a final thought, remember that these songs are meant to be sung together. Likewise, we should never discount the possibility of working with a group of trusted co-writers. Career songwriters from all walks, both in and out of church circles, have long known the power of writing with a trusted team of friends. Admittedly, co-writing is a field that I am just barely beginning to explore again after years of solo work. But some of my most productive songwriting years were spent with a group of friends crafting songs together. As pastors, leaders, and participants in a community that is interested in expressing ourselves to God through music, we should never underestimate the possibilities that come from working together to create something beautiful and meaningful.
Despite the challenges that come along with writing music for worship, I'd like to encourage you not to put down your pen when you feel stuck. The church and the world need dedicated and talented artists who are crafting beautiful, creative, and faithful songs.