There is no doubt that we are living in one of the most prolific and creative times for worship music in the history of Christianity. It reminds me of something a pastor once told me… during times of spiritual awakening there is a renewed passion for God’s Word, a changed lifestyle devoted to prayer and the outpouring of new worship songs. We see evidence of this outpouring and focus on songs of praise via the proliferation of worship songs making their way on top 40 radio charts, the advent of top selling “worship” artists and even the rise of independent websites devoted to providing new distribution channels for the song of faith. Worship even made the stage of American Idol as battling contestants joined together to sing Shout To The Lord.
Rick was a member of a successful mainstream rock group, The Outlaws, then continued for more than 15 years as a Christian recording artist, serving for more than 5 years as an executive of EMI Christian Music Publishing, and 16 years as an ordained minister. He released 11 albums, with six #1 songs and nine Top 5 hits, and a Dove Award nomination.
Ocean Hills Community Church
San Juan Capistrano, CA
Holland Davis is an award winning and Platinum selling songwriter and worship leader. He is the director of Worship Life, Inc. and the founder of www.worshipsong.com
Teaching Pastor/Worship Arts
A Canadian recording artist, songwriter and producer, Brian helped plant a new interdenominational church called ‘The Bridge’ in Abbotsford BC. October 2007 at the GMA Covenant Awards, Brian was nominated for 6 categories and received awards in all 6 categories. In April 2008, Brian received the Canadian Juno Award for Contemporary Christian/Gospel Album of the Year.
For over 20 years, Joel Engle has traveled the world leading worship and teaching the Bible. Joel has written and recorded many songs that have been heard on the radio, sung in churches and recorded by other artists.
Rick Founds Music
Rick Founds has been leading worship since he was fourteen years of age. He has authored numerous songs that are used every week in church services worldwide. Some titles include: “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High”, “I Love Your Grace”, Jesus, Mighty God”, “I Need You’, and “Jesus, Draw Me Close”.
World Outreach Church
Jamie was an exclusive writer with Integrity and went on to write and record several worship classics including Firm Foundation, Because We Believe, Garments of Praise (Revival in Belfast) and My Heart (Already There), for artists like Ron Kenoly, Don Moen, Kim Hill (Focus On the Family), The Motor City Mass Choir, Newsong, Truth, Petra, Promise Keepers, Jeff and Sheri Easter, and others. He has several Gold and Platinum recordings to his credit.
South County Christian Center
St. Louis, MO
Scott been a full-time Worship Pastor for 8 years. He has sung with Christian gospel groups, “Faith First” (www.faithfirst.net) & “The Heritage Singers” (www.heritagesingers.com). Written songs published by WorshipTogether/EMI, Maranatha! Music, Better Than New Music, Dwell Ministries and written songs recorded by Phillips, Craig & Dean, Raylene Scarrott, & various other independent artists.
Vice President, Creative Development
A 20 year veteran of the Christian music industry, Steve Rice has been a leader in the creation and distribution of Christian music. He has worked with many top songwriters including Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Toby Mac (DC Talk), Jon Foreman (Switchfoot), Paul Baloche, Nichole Nordeman, Matt Redman, Martin Smith (Delirious), Peter Furler (Newsboys), Israel Houghton and many others. He has been the recipient of numerous ASCAP and BMI “Publisher of the Year” awards.
With so many artists claiming to be worship leaders and so many songs claiming to be worship songs, it does warrant that we take a moment to pause and focus on the topic of songwriting as it applies to the song of faith. So TFWM contacted some of the key voices in the music industry and the worship community to talk candidly about the issue of songwriting for the worshipping community.
The following article is comprised of excerpts from these interviews. There is a lot of great material in this article, but we’ve had to shorten the full interviews given the depth of the responses. For those of you that want to read more from these folks, you can find the full interviews at www.tfwm.com/web-only
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF WORSHIP IN THE CHURCH TODAY?
One of the best descriptions I’ve heard for the function of worship songs in the corporate gathering is that worship is our prayers set to music. It is the corporate cry of the community expressed through simple melodies to God. That makes the worship leader the primary prayer leader of the church. Steve Rice, Vice President of Creative Development at Integrity Music says it like this: “Our deepest or strongest feelings are often best expressed by singing because setting them to music allows us to join together and express our prayers as a body with one voice and one heart.” Canadian recording artist, songwriter and producer Brian Doerksen agrees and carries this point further. “Worship songs provide God’s people with a powerful and wonderful way of bringing our hearts and our heads together in something that we can all participate in.” In fact, the time of corporate worship is really one of the only parts of the service that is truly interactive.
However, historically worship songs have had a greater significance and use in other ways as well. Joel Engle, who is Lead Pastor at a new church called The Exchange in Keller, TX expands his use of songs to include more than just the corporate expression of prayer. “Worship songs also teach the truth of God’s Word and can be used as evangelistic tools when non-believers heard the message of the gospel in music.” he comments. Rick Founds, a Worship Leader/Songwriter in California says “Lyrics can be directed to each other and become a source of inspiration, encouragement, instruction and teaching.”
It was Martin Luther that took theological truths from God’s Word and put them to the melodies of popular songs in order to teach the Bible to an illiterate culture. The key is writing to impact the audience that is directly in front of you. Which brings up a great question… with the proliferation of nationally known worship writers, what audience do they focus on when they write?
NATIONAL FOCUS VERSUS LOCAL FOCUS?
Brian Doerksen responds like this: “I am a local church guy. I actually warn writers to not think of anything beyond being true to what is going on in their own hearts and in their own local church. Someone once told me that their goal was to write a song that the church around the world would sing. My response was, why don’t you write a song that you want to sing in the privacy of your own time with God.”
In the words of Jamie Harvill, who was an exclusive writer with Integrity and went on to write and record several worship classics, “Congregational songs are meant to be sung by real people directly to a real God.” On a practical level that means melodies written to be sung by people who have a limited singing range (Bb below middle C to D an octave and a whole step above middle C). Many Christian pop songs are written for an artist to perform and can be very difficult for the average person to sing.
Scott Reed, Worship Pastor at South County Christian Center in St. Louis continues by saying that his best songs are written when it’s for his local church body as an expression of what God is saying to them in a specific time and place. “When I think more nationally, I tend to not write with as much impact or focus.” he explains.
I’m often asked how the song ‘Let It Rise’ was written. In all honesty, it didn’t come out of a songwriting session with someone or a focused time creative exploration. It came out of an authentic heart cry, out of a time of prayer during a live worship service at a small Bible study in coffee shop at a local church on the beach in San Diego. It was a spontaneous prayer set to music and it was written in the amount of time it took to sing it. In fact, it was literally discovered as an afterthought by Maranatha! Music at a songwriter’s meeting. I had just finished playing all my “hits” which were politely passed over and then played what I called “half” a song and the entire room came alive. It blows me away to see how God continues to use that song to bring congregations alive to the presence of God.
SO WHERE DOES THE INsPIRATION COME FROM?
If worship songs are written for a local community of believers, then it would make sense that inspiration would come from our personal times with God and the local church. Christian Music Pioneer Rick Cua says that he gets his inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit, personal experience, hearing the stories of others, sermons, movies and from all aspects of life.
Rick Founds says that his inspiration comes from something that particularly strikes him during his personal reading and study of the Bible. Joel Engle says that his inspiration comes from The Bible, his own personal journey with Christ, sermons, books, life situations or anything else that moves him. As a publisher, Steve Rice finds most great worship songs are inspired by sermons or strong biblically based teaching from the local church in which the writer is intimately involved.
Often the inspiration comes from the most painful of events when we least expect it. Brian Doerksen’s song Eternity was written in a moment of intense passion and absolute knowing that heaven was real in 1990. “My best friend was killed in an accident around that time so my heart was often thinking about the other side. I can hardly wait to hear the Father say ‘No more death, tears, shame…’”
Sometimes songs come in response to a time of serving as is true for Joel Engle’s song Living Sacrifice. It was written during a time of communion at a youth camp where the senior adults of this church came and served communion to the students in the most beautiful way. This deeply touched Joel and a song was born.
SO HOW DO SONGS COME TO US? MELODY FIRST? CHORD PROGRESSION?
There are as many right ways to write a song as there are songs. It seems that no writer has a standard starting point for writing songs. Steve Rice says that the best starting point to writing a good worship song is in worship. However, even the way that we enter into that place of worship is different for each of us. For Scott Reed it begins with a lyrical idea.
Maybe something from scripture or a phrase that inspires a melody or chord progression. Jamie Harvill agrees: “I usually start with an idea, title or hook. It seems that the lyric, melody and chords come simultaneously, but I labor most over lyrics.” Rick Founds has even had songs “arrive” completely in one sitting where others are worked on over a number of years.
Brian Doerksen says that it starts with some kind of “seed” or creative gift from God. This “seed” can be a melodic hook or a lyrical phrase that gets the ball rolling, but from that point on it’s totally up to the individual expression of the writer. One thing that Brian does caution writers about is writing a song based on a chord progression. He says that he can usually pick out songs that are being led around by chords. Chords are the first part of arrangements, but a song is words set to a melody with the melody existing in pitch and rhythm. To change the chords may be to change the arrangement but not the song.
In my personal experience as a writer I will often begin by spending time in worship. Out of those times of worship, prayer and communion with God I will get an idea that may be a melody, a prayer that is on my heart, a theological truth that I’m meditating on, a scriptural phrase or a “word from God.” Rather than say those things, I will often begin singing the prayers or thoughts that are in my heart. Often a song will come spontaneously and build as I sing a chorus or a verse over and over. Sometimes these “songs” are for that moment in time and sometimes they are the rough draft of a song that I will go back and refine over time. On a few rare occasions, the songs come out finished.
HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT YOUR SONG IS FINISHED?
Jamie Harvill says a song isn’t done until he’s satisfied that it will fly in a real world situation. Ever after introducing a song, he will make changes as he goes if needed. Joel Engle takes the same approach. Even after introducing a song, he will continue to work on the song until the congregation is singing it and it meets his personal standard of excellence.
It is this personal standard of excellence that sets apart songs that are heard and songs that don’t get heard. According to Brian Doerksen, almost every song he writes has gone from draft one to about draft four or five before people hear it. “The only thing more important that rewriting for songwriters is the initial writing itself. I don’t usually re-write after I have started teaching a song because I don’t teach a song until I have re-written it.” he says.
There are exceptions to every rule. Rick Cua doesn’t often re-write, and puts it like this: “Once I start teaching or playing a song it’s pretty much done. My feeling is if it needs excessive rewriting it may not have been right in the first place.” In some ways I personally agree with Rick on this point as there are many songs that I know are good songs from the moment they are conceived. Contrast that to other songs I’ve written and re-written only to find that after spending hours of time on a song it still doesn’t have the same kind of instant appeal.
SO HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR SONG IS GOOD?
This is such a vulnerable issue for writers. It’s almost as if our songs are our babies and even if we know that our baby might not be the most beautiful one in the bunch… you better not say anything about my baby!!! So rather than talk about how ugly your baby is, let’s talk about what makes for a great worship song.
Scott Reed says that a good worship song is one that is intuitive. In other words, when someone hears it, it’s easy to pick up on and easy to follow where it’s going. Jamie Harvill says “A good worship song is easy to sing, easy to remember and lifts my soul towards heaven.” To Brian Doerksen it’s no easy task. “A good song has a melody that people love to sing with words that are full of truth. Sounds easy, but it’s very hard to write songs like that!”
In fact, the rules for writing congregational songs are much more limiting that the rules for writing a Christian pop song. According to Rick Founds, “There are certain things that make a song more congregational than others… like vocal range, the ease with which the lyrics flow off the tongue and musical genre. Some songs may definitely be expressive songs of worship, but because of the stratospheric nature of the arrangement, they can be nearly impossible for most people to sing.” According to Brian Doerksen, Christian pop songs are designed to be sung to you or ‘over’ you, and are identified by the fact that people want to listen to them rather than sing them with others.
As technical as songwriting can get, skill isn’t the only factor in great worship songs. According to Rick Cua, there are spiritual factors as well. A great worship song is a simple yet profound lyric sung over a memorable accessible melody that comes from knowing God. Joel Engle says that good theology, simplicity and original content are all important, but it’s ultimately the anointing of God that makes a great worship song. Unfortunately for the hit makers, this isn’t a skill that you can get from a book. You can only get this from spending time with Jesus Christ Himself.
SO HOW DO I GET MY SONGS HEARD?
Now comes what seems to be the most difficult part of the equation for writers. You’ve written a song, taught it in church, everyone loves it… now what? How do you get others to hear your song? Scott Reed says perseverance is the key. Submit, submit, submit. That’s all you can do, keep going up to the plate, swing at it with all you’ve got and if it’s an “out”, it’s an “out.” But don’t stop swinging. Keep hitting it as hard as you can and leave it at that. You’ve got to have some thick skin because more of your songs will be rejected than accepted, that’s just the reality of it. I submit things to worshipmusic.com, songDISCovery, Worship Leader Magazine, worshiptogether.com and any other relationships or contacts I may have. They’ll either be well received or not, but at least you gave it a shot.
But what about those who may not have aspirations for a major publishing deal? Jamie Harvill says to start with your local congregation. If a song catches fire there, then share it with other congregations. Creating a recording of your song with a lead sheet and a “chords over words” chart makes it easier to pass it on to others. If you are not a singer or player, get someone else to help you. Writers are best suited to stay where they have the greatest influence: in their local congregation.
Rick Cua recommends using modern technology to get your songs heard. There are websites like Indieheaven.com where you can upload your songs and network with other writers. Email mp3’s to your mailing list, upload songs to your website or post them on your myspace page. There are a variety of new websites that are providing songwriters with ways to get their songs heard such as worshipsource.com, worshipsong.com and broadjam.com. The bottom line is, the more your songs are heard by others and played in their churches, the greater your chances are of getting the attention of a major publisher.
According to Steve Rice at Integrity Music, if worship leaders begin using your song regularly in their churches (without you there), then you know you’ve got a winner. If a number of local and regional congregations enjoy singing your song, then there’s reason to believe the song may also work on a national or international level as well. In a nutshell… give it away and the good songs will spread like wildfire. The publishers will flock to you from every direction. Just do what God has called you to do in ministry and he’ll bring the increase. Watch!!