5 Questions…

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…to ask about that Worship Song You’re Writing

The number of new worship songs being released these days is staggering. As songwriters, we all long to write songs that are noticed, used, and enjoyed by a wider audience but how can you ever hope your song will stand out in such a crowded market? Here are 5 questions to ask about that new worship song you’re writing.

1. Is it true? Is it honest? Is the song a true expression of my personal experience? Does the line “God I always feel you when I’m hurting” express your true experience? If you don’t believe what you’re writing, no one else will either. Don’t try and sell us false platitudes and niceties. Give us something true and then invite us to sing along.

2. Is it biblical? There are too many worship songs that sound good but aren’t actually biblical. Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today is not that which is anti-God but that which is almost-God. If you think you’re quoting scripture, look up the reference and make sure you’re not putting words in God’s mouth. Get theological input from trusted pastors. You might MEAN something that is not being communicated clearly in your lyrics.

3. Is it singable? Congregational singing is tricky business. Can a room full of non-musicians sing this song you’re writing? You might sound great performing this in front of people but can your church sing along? The new hybrid of worship-artists often write songs that they sound great performing but your congregation will have difficulty singing. A TOTAL melodic range of an octave or less is a good starting point. Writing a captivating melody in an octave or less that is easily singable by a crowd is a challenge.

4. Is it fresh? Over these thousands of years of recorded history surely millions of songs have written to God or about God. If you could listen through those songs you would be forced to ask, “does my song say anything new or interesting.” You will not say something that no one has ever said before, but can you find us a new window into an timeless idea? Tired cliches and the same trite phrases are repeated in worship song after worship song. Find fresh ways for the church to experience the timeless truths of the gospel and we will gladly raise our hands and sing along with you.

5. Is it excellent? Surely an excellent God deserves excellent work from His children. We say “that’ll do” way too often as Christian craftsmen. Is it beautiful? Is it thoughtful? I have often heard well-meaning Christian songwriters tell the same “God gave me this song” story only to perform a cliche and poorly crafted song. If God has inspired you to write a song, then follow Paul’s advice in Colossians 3:16-17, 23 and do the difficult work of crafting that song to richly reflect God’s glory. Dig deeper. Re-write it one more time. Find a richer metaphor. Sing a more interesting interval. The One Most High God deserves no less.

James Tealy is the worship pastor in Redemption City Church (Franklin, TN) and teaches songwriting at Belmont University. He has penned chart topping singles for Kari Jobe, Josh Wilson, Unspoken, Lauren Daigle, and more than 80 others. This week Redemption City Church releases “HANDED DOWN: Songs of Redemption City.” You can find free resources for the album here:

bit.ly/sorc2

Top 10 of 2015

I’m a song guy. I don’t often sit and listen through full albums much less listen to the same albums more than once. However, in 2015, I consistently re-visited these 10 new albums. There were other albums I listened to a bunch in 2015 – albums I contributed to – but these are the top 10 albums I had nothing to do with. I have no stake in their success. I’m just a fan.

Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites this year that I might have missed?

Top 10 Albums of 2015

(in alphabetical order)

AABA

After a study of common song forms in one of my Commerical Songwriting 1 classes at Belmont University, I realized I had never written an AABA song and decided to give it a shot.

A prevalent song-form from the 30’s to the 60’s, AABA is rarely employed now that the extended pop form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) dominates the songwriting landscape. A strophic or stanza form was a great tool for storytelling because each verse can introduce “a new chapter” in the story. The AABA form added a “middle 8″ section: an 8 bar break from the story to give context, introduce a twist, ratchet up the tension, or add some emotional internal details to compliment the external details of the narrative verses.

The Beatles catalog is full of AABA songs. Other great examples include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by Carole King, “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “Over the Rainbow.”

For this exercise I’ve used Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” as a model, placing the hook in the first line of each A section. [SIDENOTE: Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” was recorded steps from where I wrote this song. Our songwriting classrooms share space with the Quonset Hut and Columbia Studio A.)

Goodbye, TX
(c)2015 Eleiht Songs / BMI

Born and raised in Goodbye, TX
Hundred miles from anywhere
One way street in both directions
For getting out once you get there
The oil in the ground was a shallow dream
The Quick-to-come were as quick to leave
Quick to leave

Met a girl in Goodbye, TX
I was stuck and so was she
We thought love just might distract us
Long enough to find some peace
We’d wave as the u-haul trucks passed by
In a weekly parade of red taillights
Red tail lights

My roots are anchored deep in this dry ground
But save a seat for me on the last truck out

Probably die in Goodbye, TX
Buried out behind the church
A dozen plastic yellow roses
At a gravestone next to hers
There’s no one left here to speak my name
From dust back to dust in a long slow fade
A long slow fade

START AN INDIGENOUS SONGWRITING MOVEMENT III

Over the next few weeks, the church I lead in worship will celebrate the release of our first collection of indigenously written songs. The album is called “Songs of Redemption City.” We are a thirteen-month-old church plant on the rural edges of suburban Nashville, TN with a unique mix of farmers, artists, business leaders, young families, religious leaders, educators, retired couples, and music industry types. We have spent our first year as a growing faith-family both recognizing and defining our ethos. Along our journey of writing, recording, and releasing this small batch of songs, we have encountered (and will continue to encounter) a variety of barriers that often accompany any indigenous songwriting movement.

The Singer/Songwriter Dilemma. The gift of songwriting is not always accompanied by vocal performance gifts. That dilemma can become a barrier in several ways. The vocal abilities of the songwriter can affect what direction the melody follows. We tend to write what we can sing. That means a song might never reach its fullest melodic potential if the songwriters voice is the only vehicle to carry the melody. We can address this in several ways. First, find someone else to perform the song you’re working on. Second, collaborate with a stronger singer to help the melody come alive as you’re writing the song. As those leading a songwriting team in our church, we have to learn to hear the song-stuff beyond the performance (lyric, melody, range, arrangement). We should ask some of these questions: What would this song sound like if it were being led by someone else? Should we transpose it to another key and let someone of the opposite gender lead the song? You might also begin to recognize the lyric-writing gifts of your people and pair them with stronger singers for collaboration. As writers, we must also learn the skill of writing songs with other singers in mind. Learn to write melodies that someone else will sound great singing.

The Song Placement Dilemma. If a Sunday morning worship gathering is your only outlet for new songs, then you will use very little indigenous content in your church. We are all much more motivated to write when we can see a potential use for the songs we’re writing. Right now in Redemption City, we are searching for new outlets for the songs our people are writing. We are working toward using our songs in community groups, in our children’s ministry, and in the nursing homes our ministry teams visit. We will probably introduce fewer than 10 new songs in our main Sunday morning worship gathering this year, but our team will hopefully write three times that amount of new content. I want our writers to know that God has important uses for the songs we write that extend well beyond our Sunday morning gatherings. Finding outlets for the songs being written in your church will keep the writers around you motivated to keep the new content flowing.

Building a Culture of Critique. This is the barrier I fear the most. When I invited my people to begin writing songs for the worship-life of our people, I also took on the uncomfortable role of critiquing their songs. After 11 years as a staff songwriter in various publishing companies, I have become fairly used to hearing “no.” I’ve been critiqued a lot along this journey and now I am used to placing the subjective criticism of these gate-keepers in perspective. I have learned to keep a loose grip on my songs and receive criticism with an eye toward helping my songs reach the widest possible audience. However, I recognize that receiving criticism of your creative work can feel soul-crushing. Perhaps, building a culture of critique into a songwriting community should be it’s own blog post. However, here are at least a few quick tips for navigating this emotional mine-field. First, set aside time for community song-sharing among the songwriters in your church. This will help your writers learn the difference between subjective opinion and objective truth. They will learn to answer the question, “Is this song biblically true?” That’s a very different question than, “Is this song compelling?” or “Do I like it?” Second, learn (and teach) the skill of balancing compliment with criticism. Asking and answering the following questions as you critique a song can help guide you: “What’s working about this song? What grabbed my attention? What subtle choices of adjective, metaphor, or melodic space stirred me?”

Ego. The hunger for attention and affirmation is poison to the human heart. There will be people who view your efforts to feed the church with indigenous content as their chance to gain fans and followers. Ask God regularly for the spiritual discernment to recognize this poison not only in those around you, but in your own heart. Then search for the courage to root it out early and often. Pride can spoil the work of building an indigenous songwriting movement. This work must be entered into with a humble and prayerful love for the church. We cannot simultaneously serve the Bride of Christ and serve our own hunger for attention and affirmation. Let the prayer of John the Baptist mark your songwriting efforts, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 HCSB).

In the next post, I’ll suggest some practical first steps for starting an indigenous songwriting movement in your church. In the meantime, can you identify some people around you that might join you in the work of writing in your church and for your church? The Creator is already at work around you. Join Him!

START AN INDIGENOUS SONGWRITING MOVEMENT II

Phil was sitting at the piano with his back to the sparsely filled room. It was a Wednesday night prayer meeting in a traditional church. The crowd had quietly mumbled through a hymn or two and quickly transitioned into sharing prayer requests. Phil began to quietly play as the church members behind him shared the weight of their burdens, joys, sickness, and praise. They talked to God. They talked to each other about what God was doing. Phil could feel the connection point between the melodies he was playing and the eternal story his people were playing out just over his shoulder. Phil told me in that moment, he remembered how the scribes worked faithfully to record and transmit the story of God’s people. He remembered the work of the Psalmists painting song-pictures of the intersection between their personal story and God’s eternal story. He was feeling the songwriter’s call and he began a discipline of writing songs for his people; songs that tell their story, reflect their culture, and use their unique language.

Phil’s story is one piece of a larger movement. Churches around the globe are re-discovering the value of indigenous content. To clarify, I’m defining indigenous content as songs that are written by the people in one local congregation or region FOR the worship life of that congregation or region. I’ve now worked with songwriting teams from the East coast to the West coast; large suburban churches, urban church-plants and traditional rural congregations. Over time, a congregation develops its own vocabulary—its own cultural ethos. Those linguistic nuances come from repeated phrases pastors use from the platform, vision statements, church slogans, and sermons. Different denominational tribes have their own lexicon as well that often drive language development in your church.

But just because your people share a few unique phrases, does that really mean you should be writing your own songs? There are currently over 25 million songs in the iTunes store. The company, CCLI, licenses the use of worship songs in churches. They currently have over 300,000 songs in their catalog. Do we really need more songs? Does your church really need songwriters?

The answer is yes. We need to write new songs in the church because it’s THOROUGHLY biblical. We see implicitly in the repeated command, “sing a new song to the Lord,” that the church NEEDS new songs to sing. We have ample biblical evidence of the songwriting process stirring among God’s people. There are over 30 song lyrics beyond the 150 Psalms in the Bible. (See Ex.15, Deut. 31-32, Num. 21, Jdg. 5, etc.). The psalms are a beautiful example of the connection between specific moments in the life of the songwriter (or the lives of God’s people) and the songs that were written in response. From Moses to Mary, Jubal to John, the Bible is full of songwriters and the songs they wrote. Writing new songs within the church is evidence that the living God continues to move among His people. A fresh movement of God’s Spirit draws fresh expressions of worship from us. Is God alive? Is the Spirit of God still at work? Is the cross still Good News? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then new songs should be born in the church.

Practically speaking, songwriting within the church also kills the pop-culture dependence in us. It challenges the “idol factory” in our hearts. It is not the responsibility of a celebrity who doesn’t know our people to feed our people. God has chosen to use His servants in the local church to feed His people. Giving voice to the worship of God’s people around us is our responsibility as songwriters.

Inevitably, as you have read these posts, a number of barriers have popped up in your mind; reasons an indigenous songwriting movement cannot work in your setting. There are plenty of barriers, both real and perceived. In the next post we will wrestle with a few of these.

For the people quietly lifting up prayer requests behind Phil as he sat at the piano that Wednesday evening, it was worth the risk. For the people sitting to your right and left this Sunday, it will be worth the risk. Write with courage.