Today, I am starting a series on songwriting. If you are already familiar with my blog, you know that I am a big proponent of spontaneous singing, but just because I love spontaneity does not mean I am against songwriting. Writing original songs for worship is an important piece of any community because it reflects the unique work of the Holy Spirit at a certain time and place.
However, crafting a song takes time, and as I have found, being a good worship leader doesn’t equal being a good songwriter. It takes intentionality to develop as a skillful writer. It’s true that not every worship leader needs to write songs, but how about organizing people in your church to start writing songs for worship? Finding and nurturing budding songwriters will be a blessing to your community.
So, where do we start?
First of all, there is no correct way to write a song. Some techniques may work better than others, but since each of us are different, you’ll have to discover what works for you. I will write this series of posts using a specific order which you can follow, but I have intentionally left out “Part 1”, “Part 2”, etc. so that you can access them in any order you choose.
Secondly, if you’re just getting started, don’t expect your first song to be awesome. Write to worship. Write to gain experience. Awesome songs will come in time.
Third, don’t wait for inspiration. Set aside a time and place to be creative and then just keep going back. What looks messy today might end up being a masterpiece tomorrow.
Now, let’s talk about theme.
Deciding a theme is a good starting place. In a well-crafted song, the theme is supported by each element individually and synergistically. Knowing your theme from the beginning helps you make decisions that keep your song focused. Focus is important because it gives your song a specific purpose. Without that purpose, it will likely have too many ideas.
Choosing a name can be a good way to identify your topic and find additional ideas that you will use later. Once you have a name selected, write down as many other words/thoughts/feelings/scriptures that you associate with the title. Spend time being descriptive. None of the process will go to waste. Be sure to save all your ideas and organize them. These are the beginning of your lyrics.
If you’re short on ideas for a theme, look at the themes your pastor preaches. Having worship songs that support the message are incredibly powerful. Also, think about experiences you’ve had with God. What was He ministering to you? Writing what you know will always produce a better song than writing from theory.
Ready to get started? What theme will you write about?
One of the challenges every worship leader faces is knowing when to talk and how much to say. My personal preference is to err on the side of saying nothing, but for many, a few words throughout the service helps them engage. On the other hand, too many words make for a very distracting worship time.
Today, I’m proposing there is another way to communicate during worship without stopping the music and talking. Singing. Yep, that’s right. Aren’t we already singing? Yes, but the singing I’m suggesting is a sung version of what you would otherwise say. A spontaneous song. It’s possible to phrase your thoughts in such a way that instead of being an exhortation to the congregation only, it is also a response to God.
Below is a link to an example of what I’m describing from our worship service at The Well. Skip ahead to 35:00 on the play bar if you don’t want to listen to the sermon (which was very good). The spontaneous song starts at 35:39. Listen for the spontaneous chorus (37:07) I use to end the song and help the congregation respond to the message.
What did you think? How would you use this technique?
A current trend for that last decade or so has been the constant clarification that music is not worship. In our culture, it is especially easy to refer to the worship time of our services as the singing time. But singing in and of itself, is no more worship than throwing a rock in a pond. Worship is the response of the human heart to God.
Now, having said that, let’s talk music! Even though music itself isn’t worship, music has a deeply powerful effect on the human body, soul and spirit. It’s not a coincidence. God created it that way. (It was an amazing day when I realized that God created music and art and color. You’re believing a lie if you think God is in anyway uncreative or boring. He’s the most magnificent, interesting and wonderful being in the universe.) God created music to be able to engage us in a different way. Different from pictures. Different from stories. Different from movement. Its not necessarily better than other ways. Just different.
There is a story of Elisha the prophet in the book of Kings. When asked to give the word of the Lord, Elisha first asks for a musician to play the harp. While the music was playing, God’s Spirit came on Elisha and he began to prophesy. Likewise, when King David established a tabernacle in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant, he ordered musical worship night and day and taught the musicians to prophesy on their instruments.
If we come to worship and think that an electric guitar solo or a drum solo is just about enjoying the music and having a good time, usually that’s all it will be. I’m proposing that, as worship leaders, we invite God to release His song through our instruments so that we begin to prophesy. I’m not asking you to be weird! Please don’t. I’m not suggesting that we manufacture something either. Other than being skillful on our instruments, the only thing we need to do is be open in our minds for God to move through the notes we play. The change in thinking and expectation is enough to bring it about.
We can also develop our ears by practicing simple chord progressions. Start with something easy and familiar. Play until you’re bored and then begin to listen for new melodies or different chord resolutions. Ask God to sing to you. Try it out. You’ll be surprised. It may take some time, but you can develop your relationship with the Lord and discover how He interacts with you in the music.
When you prophesy on your instrument in a worship service, you will know. Something will feel very fresh and new. Often, someone else will confirm it too by describing how God was ministering to them. If you truly prophesy with your guitar or keyboard, others will recognize and acknowledge God’s involvement.
Have you ever prophesied on your instrument before? I’d love to hear the story.
It sounds like an oxymoron, I know. Still, scheduling a time of spontaneity into the worship service is the best way to make sure it happens if you’re not accustomed to being spontaneous.
So, what do we plan? Certain songs are great launching points for times of free praise. Free praise or spontaneous singing are terms that mean everyone sings their own song to God with their own words at the same time. It can sound chaotic, but most often, it is simply wonderful. An example of a planned spontaneity could look like this:
- Sing to the King
- Sing My Love
- O Praise Him
- Free Praise – Chord progression same as O Praise Him chorus
- Agnes Dei
- Worthy is the Lamb
This way, everyone on the team knows when to expect the free praise and they will not be caught off guard. Eventually, when your team gets really comfortable with free praise, you can then take it out of the plan and just give a vocal cue in the moment whenever it seems timely. To cue, use phrases like “Lift your voice to the Lord”, “Sing with your own words” or “Sing the love song of your heart”.
Getting everyone on board can be a challenge at first, but with the right leadership, people become familiar with the idea and participate joyfully. The best way to lead free praise or spontaneous singing is by example. You as the worship leader and your vocalists should all sing very boldly. We can’t demonstrate timidly because that is what the congregation will do. Having multiple singers on stage actively engaging encourages people to engage also. If only one person is singing loudly, people will tend to listen to that one person.
Before you ever try it in a worship service, you should acclimate your team by practicing in a rehearsal. Find words that are easy to sing spontaneously. They can be simple phrases like “Jesus, we love you” or “Hallelujah”. Try spontaneous singing without instrumentation and with instrumentation. Practice for a really long time (10 minutes or more) until everyone is uncomfortable. The more you push the limits, the easier it becomes. Once the team is ready, then it will be much easier for the congregation to follow.
Do you incorporate free praise into your service? Is it planned or spontaneous?
Today, I want to share a simple way to introduce spontaneity into the worship service. Repetition. Since spontaneity tends to make people feel uncomfortable, we can bring it into the meeting wearing the cloak of repetition, which tends to be very comforting.
Being spontaneous means that you do something unplanned. Using repetition as our helper, this is as simple as repeating a chorus just because it’s going well. I usually operate from the premise that if it’s going well (or there’s “life” on it) keep doing it. Whether it’s the verse, chorus or bridge, get comfortable repeating them without a plan.
In order to do this well, you will need to communicate to your team and the congregation. If they are not used to anything but the plan, first talk about the idea of spontaneous repetition. Cast vision for it and demystify anything that causes concern or worry. Once the team is on board and you practice some spontaneous repetitions, you’ll be ready to use it in the worship service. If your band can’t follow you, it will most likely create confusion in the congregation.
The next place we can use repetition is with one line of a song. Now instead of repeating the entire verse or chorus, we just repeat one line of it. Which line? The one that the Holy Spirit highlights to you in the moment. For example, the song Tradin’ My Sorrows (I know it’s old, but it was the first example that came to mind) has a line which says, “I’m blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure.” That’s a great declaration, but in the song we breeze by very fast. It wouldn’t be fun to sing it slow either. So one day, I started repeating just this line. After five or six times, people are beginning to realize the truth they are declaring as it sinks in.
Life generally tells us that we’re not blessed. Well, life is wrong. God’s word says that He has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. Wow! That’s a lot of blessing. Every one. Being blessed beyond the curse means that my life is not defined by the curse of the law. My life is defined in Christ and I have become his righteousness. Coming to that understanding is all apart of having a renewed mind. I don’t know what it did for the entire congregation that day, but that little repetition has stuck with me all these years.
Help your congregation find meaning in the songs they are singing using this simple technique. Everyone wins, except possibly your video projector operator, but there are lots of good software options that make spontaneous decisions manageable.
What are some of your favorite worship lyrics to declare? Does the music allow for you to repeat that one line?
BGV stands for background vocal, and while it serves a very good purpose in defining roles for most of the music world, I believe we should to step away from that model in worship. Regarding someone as a BGV ignores the potential they have for helping to lead the worship service.
As worship leaders, it is too easy to miss the valuable resource God has given us in our singers. Singers are generally relegated to one of three categories: melody support, harmonies, occasional lead on a particular song. All those are great functions, but still there is more.
To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.”
Adopt a team ministry approach to leading worship. Empower the BGVs to step out from the back and release the song, prayer, scripture, or testimony that God gives them during worship. When the team is ministering in this way, we begin to get away from that “programmed” feeling kind of meeting and step into something more genuine and communal.
What about excellence? I know some worship leader right now is freaking out at the thought of turning their singers loose. Here’s the thing, incorporating a team approach to leading does not equal chaos or a lack of boundaries. Rather, clearly communicate expectations and the new boundaries/responsibilities your singers will have. Work on a communication system so that things can still flow smoothly.
In the early stages of transition, things may feel rocky. Don’t give up! Keep talking and working through the problems. Allow for input from your team and congregation. Be open to spontaneity in worship.
What do you think about a team ministry approach to worship leading?