Monday, February 16, 2009

The Challenge Of A Good Worship Song

My recent post in response to Dr. John Stackhouse has brought a new issue to mind: The challenge of writing a really good worship song. I write this post to help people appreciate the songs that truly work well in a Sunday morning gathering.

Before we moved to Albuquerque, I had a publishing deal as a songwriter with Word Entertainment in Nashville. Basically all that means is that I got paid to sit in a room with another songwriter and try and co-write the next big Christian hit. At the end of the day, we would turn in the song to our publisher and they would pitch the song to a Christian recording artist.

I found out soon enough that this style of songwriting really wasn't for me, but that is another blog post for another day...

I tell you all that just so you know that I have some experience with songwriting and have, in the past, tried to write songs that would be good for corporate singing. On the whole, I have felt that I have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.

Here are the three main reasons why I believe songwriting for church use is a unique challenge:

1. Catchy Yet Simple Melodies: Writing melodies that are easily accessible to a large group of mostly non-musicians is very difficult, especially when most of our churches don't use musical notes on a page. If I were your average artist on the radio, I would just write melodies that are really catchy and sound good when I sing them. The worship songwriter cannot approach his craft so selfishly. The worship songwriter has unique constaints: Is this too high for the average non-singer? Is this melody too rhythmically challenging? Can this melody be quickly remembered? Is the range of the melody too extreme (like Silent Night or The Star Spangled Banner)? Writing for a large group of mainly non-musicians is not easy.

2. Unique But Not New: Writing songs that have lyrics beyond "grace, place, see your face, run the race" is difficult as well. Expressing great theological truth without sounding awkward is very challenging. We have a fixed message. Our Biblical content is unchanging. Within these fixed theological boundaries, saying something in a unique way (being creative) without saying something new (this would potentially be heresy) is quite daunting for the worship songwriter.

3. Creative and Clear: If I were a typical artist that was just looking to sell some records I could be artistically creative and to some degree could care less if my audience totally understood all my metaphors. They might just write me off as "arty" and that would be a good thing. For example, I love Radiohead and I seriously could not tell you what one of their songs is about. The worship songwriter does not have this luxury. They have to be creative enough to be respectable as an artist, but clear enough to have the mind quickly engaged in the truth that is sung. This again, is no small feat.

I write this so you can truly appreciate great songs for corporate worship singing. Believe me when I tell you that songs like, In Christ Alone, How Deep The Fathers Love For Us, Our Great God and Psalm 62 are very hard to come by. Thank your music leader when you sing them and pray that God would give songwriters inspiration to craft new songs for the Lord and for his people.

(If anyone is interested, on my blog site, in the sidebar on the right, down a little bit, I list about 50 of our best songs that we use at the church where I lead.  If you are looking for some new songs or new arrangements, you might want to check those out)


Jason Kanz said...

I had some of these same thoughts yesterday, albeit on a more elementary level, and didn't know how to put them down. I have been struck by those calling for "high" music in church worship by some. I get the sense that most worshipers (at least those I worship with) do not feel the need for musically and lyrically complex music nor can they, as you have alluded to, handle such music. I believe people can connect with God with simple melodies and lyrics they can sing at the top of their lungs, knowing what they mean. Personally, I'll take a Chris Tomlin song any time and will probably be singing "Jesus, Messiah" at the top of my lungs on the way to work today.

Janice said...

As someone who has been in churches where hymns (in hymnbooks) are the primary worship song used practically her whole life, and who does not listen to CCM radio where all the latest worship songs get air time(I'm assuming), I find it difficult to follow along during the worship service of churches where worship songs and screens (e.g. no musical notation) are used when I have occasion to worship there. Is this the same argument for why churches choose to abandon hymnody, that it's hard to sing along to? My experience seems to beg the question - is it really about making it easy for the congregation? For whom are we crafting the style of our worship?
Let me qualify this - I'm no staid matron! I'm comfortably in the Paste magazine, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock demographic. Having the benefit of worshipping in churches where the richness of the gospel and God's Word are the focus in their music, my view is that most (not all) contemporary worship music doesn't come close to adequate when compared to good hymns.

ChristinaG said...

I cannot even imagine trying to write a worship song. It seems that worship songs, more than any other songs, get criticism from every place. Either they are too rangy or too simple, the melodies are too simple or too complex, the lyrics are too wordy or are to simplistic. You get what I mean.

However, I don't believe that writing a worship song should be any different than writing any song to the Lord. If you approach it as a "worship" song, I believe, you would soon get lost in the limitations and needs that are placed by so many. I believe you must just write from your heart. Maybe God may guide you towards writing a beautiful song designed for congregational worship OR He may inspire you to write a song designed to be sung my a soloist.

As a soloist myself, I see that God can not only move in congregational worship but He can also touch the hearts of many through a beautiful solo or duet or trio (or quartet). A song is no less glorifying God just because it isn't a "worship" song.

Cathy said...

Hi, Thanks for that article. I have written a couple of little worship songs, and they are posted on my blog, Wordsong Collections. I found you through my friend Patricia at Pollywog Creek. And thanks for listing the 50 songs.