Master Class: The Five C's of Songwriting for Corporate Worship

Writing songs for corporate worship is different from many other situations. The purpose of worship music should be to focus upon the power, grace, and majesty of God. This fairly narrow but important focus sometimes leads to a lot of sound-alike, uncreative music, but it’s not difficult to break out of these tired patterns. Here are some ideas we call The Five C’s to make sure that your worship songs are focused, enjoyable and entertaining.

1) Clarity

A clear message is of the utmost importance in worship music. If the words being sung don’t make any sense to the congregation, the purpose is not being served. Some songs glorify God but are not suitable for corporate worship because of their form, style, or lyrical content. As you write, consider your potential audience. Some songs will be more suitable for youth worship, some for elderly congregants, with a lot of in-between ground and not as much overlapping appeal as we would like.

Poetic language is good, but the message can be lost if your concepts and choice of words are too far out. Remember, old-style hymnody was rich with poetry, but the English language has changed so that much of the language that was spiritually uplifting in the 1800s is archaic, confusing, and meaningless in the 2000s. (Seriously, how many of you actually know what “raise my Ebenezer” means?) If your audience is likely to really get something out of King James English, then go with God and write that way; if not, think about how the NIV, The Message, or other more contemporary translations say things and use that as a model.

Your lyrics should clearly reflect scriptural truth in light of Jesus’ coming, and should be consistent in message. Sometimes we get so inspired with words, we string together phrases that probably shouldn’t be used in the same song because they contradict one another. While many people don’t even think much about the words they are singing during worship, there are many who do. For example, some songwriters and pastors have taken issue with Keith Green’s worship staple, “Create in Me a Clean Heart”, as having a contradictory message. In the Bible, Jesus promises that His spirit will abide with us, so some feel that Green’s lyrics contradict Jesus’ promise by saying, “take not thy holy spirit from me”. It might be a minor quibble, especially since it’s a quote from Psalm 51:11, but it has been enough to put some people off of the song.

The best way to check for clarity in your lyrics is to ask someone impartial, preferably two or more people, to read the lyrics and confirm the message as they interpret it. Don’t let your ego get the best of you, but rather listen wisely and intently to what they say. These close critics represent your audience and come from a different perspective than you have as the songwriter. Choosing critics who are kind but aren’t just “yes men,” and asking them their interpretation rather than feeding them yours, will improve your music immensely.

2) Creativity

The motto of every Christian songwriter – really, any Christian artist working in any discipline – should be “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149; Isaiah 42:10). Metaphorically we can sing new songs with our voices, our pens, our brushes, any artistic tools. And it’s most important for church musicians to take this on in a literal sense. We serve a creative God, and He has made us to be creative people. As such, we need not be afraid to go in new directions instead of staying with what is known and comfortable.

Don’t be afraid to try something new musically, even if it doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would. Failure is simply discovering that something doesn’t work, like Edison and his “five hundred ways not to make a light bulb”. Whatever your experiments may involve, make sure that lyrical clarity is foremost and that your audience won’t be turned off from the primary act of worship. Don’t get so creative that your song becomes hard to follow or unmemorable. For worship, story songs aren’t usually appropriate in content and structure unless they are specifically designed to assist the flow of worship. They are better suited for special occasions outside of corporate worship time.

Listen to different kinds of music to open your imagination. “Secular” music (that is, music not designed specifically for a Christian audience) is harmless if you protect your mind from bad influences, so tune in to a local non-Christian radio station and listen for a while if you don’t do so already. Pick up a used CD or cassette, or download some tracks (legally) from an artist you’re unfamiliar with. You can’t open your musical mind to new things if you’re always listening to the same stuff.

Also, don’t get too attached to the way a song has been done in the past, whether it’s one of your own songs or a worship standard. Frankly, it can become tiresome to hear the same old version every time, and it’s harder for a listener to make a personal connection to a song that they are bored with. Sure, it’s hard to connect with a new song the first few times as well, but the idea is to move your music forward.

3) Consistency

Don’t mix and match different styles of music, meters, and language forms in one song. You can use a lot of creativity while ensuring that your music and lyrics are uniform throughout the whole tune. If one song includes a teen-pop chorus in youth-group English, a verse from the King James with a reggae beat, and a bridge that sounds like Boston or Journey in their heyday, no one will be able to make heads or tails out of what you’re trying to do. You should have valid musical reasons for tempo, key and mood changes.

Worship songs should be either addressed to God or speak about God to the audience; don’t keep shifting perspectives. One of the few popular songs to break this rule is Brian Doerksen’s “Come, Now is the Time to Worship”. The first part of the song calls the congregation to worship, while the second part speaks directly to God Himself (“One day every tongue will confess you are God”). It constantly bounces back and forth between talking to God and talking about God. Very few other songs, even in worship settings, succeed with this kind of vacillating point of view.

4) Conciseness

One of the humorous bits of wisdom passed on to creative writers is, “Be concise. Don’t use two sentences when one will do.” (Advice which, obviously, breaks its own rule.) In trying to convey a message in a worship song, simpler is usually better. The number of words in a song should be predicated upon the message you’re trying to send. Deeper ideas might require more lyrical explanation, while simple statements of glorification and love can be put into a few words.

Worship songs like “Mercy Is Falling”, “Friend of God” and “Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord” keep things very simple, while the songs of even popular writers like Rich Mullins and Chris Rice are sometimes bogged down by “verborrhea”. Try to rein in your poetic instinct and whittle down what you’re saying so the word volume doesn’t become overwhelming. If you have a lot of really great ideas you want to use in a song, try building more than one song. You don't have to drop good material just because you can't fit all your ideas into what you're working on right now.

5) Cliché

A few months ago we posted a master class that addressed the problem of cliché, but it’s good to review it again. Clichés are things that have been said innumerable times so that they begin to lose any real meaning. The word actually comes from the French term for a printer’s stereotype or press, which churns out the same thing over and over again.

More than any other form of music, worship music is especially prone to overuse of clichés. Because much of its lyrical content is drawn from the Bible, and because its focus is somewhat limited by definition, worship music tends to contain the same ideas stated in the same way time after time. Because of this, after a while the lyrics lose any real impact or resonance in our minds. They simply become something to say because we feel like we have to say them. Some songs, like Hillsong’s “All Things Are Possible”, are little more than long strings of Christian clichés, with almost no original content or ideas:

Almighty God, my redeemer
My hiding place, my safe refuge
No other name like Jesus
No power can stand against You
My feet are planted on this rock
And I will not be shaken
My hope, it comes from You alone
My Lord and my salvation
Your praise is always on my lips
Your word is living in my heart
And I will praise You with a new song
My soul will bless You, Lord…

See? The music is catchy, to be sure, but every single line is something that’s been said in dozens, perhaps hundreds of other songs. So much contemporary worship music falls into this same trap. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Maturing in one’s faith brings a better use of language in describing and addressing God. The more that the Christian life becomes an everyday thing for us, the more capable we should be of expressing Christian ideas in a wider range of phrases.

Now, it’s easy to go overboard the other direction, bringing in meaningless words and images off the top of one’s head, or things that might have some personal meaning to us but wouldn’t register with anyone else. Your mountaintop experience might not click for someone else, so put it in accessible terms. The line “We sing the songs that awaken the dawn” is adapted from Psalm 57, but it doesn’t really have to do with anything else in the other lyrics of “Awaken the Dawn”. It comes off just sounding like a neat line that the songwriter wanted to use somewhere. When you think about it, what does it really mean for us to sing songs that “awaken the dawn”? It’s a deeper thought than the song allows for, and it’s not developed very well before the chorus is done.

For all the Bible verses that have been grossly overused in songs, there are plenty of other treasures buried within its pages that would make good musical fodder. Set a goal for yourself to scour a book like Isaiah or Proverbs and find some ideas in there that make you think, but that you haven’t heard in a hundred songs before. But if you’re going to base a song around an idea, make sure you develop it enough to make it meaningful.

Look here for our prior Master Classes:

Experimenting with Abstract Landscapes, May 2009

Preparing for Excellence, April 2009

It Builds Character, March 2009

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding Cliches, December 2008

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