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.

START AN INDIGENOUS SONGWRITING MOVEMENT

SongwritingGroupFor a few years now, I’ve been working to foster an indigenous songwriting movement among the churches I visit. I long to see more churches both writing and using original content in their corporate worship gatherings. I have seen new songs for the church created in over 15 languages around the globe as believers work to give voice to the praise that wells up naturally in every human heart.

All of humanity was created to worship, and we all bear the creative image of Yahweh the Creator. It is not only natural, but Supernatural that new expressions of worship would surface in us.

I believe that every church on earth is a congregation full of songwriters in hiding. I believe that God plants melodies and lyrics in our hearts, giving us the tools we need to bring Him fresh expressions of praise. Our culture often stifles those spiritual gifts or muffles heaven’s melodies in us. “Leave that work to the professionals” an inner voice says, “you’re not creative enough to be a writer.” Or perhaps, “how arrogant of you to think you have something better to offer than the songs that have already been written.” I believe countless melodies have been surrendered to the noise of negativity in our hearts. How many lyrics have been scribbled in private journals but never shared, songs written and then placed in a proverbial box under the bed?

Along my own journey as a songwriter, there are plenty of songs that God has inspired in me as a private expression of personal worship. Those songs were written IN a moment, FOR a moment between God and me. But I have also experienced moments where I sensed God was calling me to give a voice to the worship of the people I’ve served. Those songs used the unique language of our tribe. They included images and word pictures that marked a particular season of our faith-family. Sometimes, those songs were written to respond to areas that seemed lacking in the “worship diet” of our church.

Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of blogs that I hope will inspire you to contribute to an indigenous songwriting movement in your church. I’ll explore some biblical and cultural MOTIVATIONS for writing new songs and suggest ways to overcome some of the key BARRIERS you will face. Finally, I’ll outline some key FIRST STEPS to help you contribute to an indigenous songwriting movement in your congregation.

The Holy Spirit of God searches the earth for a ready pen and resonant heart. Is there a song coming alive inside of you? Set it free!

Chasing the Unicorn

unicornFor the last 10 years I’ve been chasing a unicorn. I’ve seen it. I know it’s real. You can’t tell me it’s just a crazy dream because I am one of the privileged few people in the world who know the truth; it’s rare but it’s real. Parents tell their children, “chase something certain.” Guidance counselors tell students, “don’t waste your gifts on a myth.”

The myth is this – you can make a living making music. Songwriter Regie Hamm once suggested anecdotally that 1% of people who write music ever make a penny from their writing. Of that 1% only 1% ever make a living at it and only 1% of that 1% of that 1% every get rich at it. 2 out of 3 ain’t too shabby. The life of an artist is a rare and unlikely wisp of a dream.

Here’s my problem, I have seen it. I know it’s real. The unicorn is real! And now the thought of ever stepping back from that precipice into a safer, more comfortable life seems ridiculous. Sometimes I wish I could settle back into the “normal life” of my peers and find a desk somewhere. Could I learn to keep my art in it’s “proper place” as a hobby while I work in an office every day to support the family and provide the material success we are supposed to want?

I cannot fault the world around me for being so certain that the unicorn is a myth. I realize it doesn’t make any practical sense. I couldn’t possibly tell the students I work with that it’s a dream worth chasing. But inside I hear the distant pounding of hooves and the strident neigh of that majestic one-horned beast. The chase continues.

Lights On, Door Open

ghostHalloween has become a sensitive topic for Christians. The desire to distance themselves from the pagan and demonic images of Halloween in popular culture, have led many Christians to turn off their lights, lock their doors, and head to the nearest gathering of other Christians for a Fall Festival. I don’t have kids but I can imagine the opposing pressures Christian parents face this week are daunting. I would never presume to prescribe the “correct Christian response to Halloween.” However, as a follower of Jesus, Halloween has become one of my favorite holidays.

Once a year, all the invisible fences in my neighborhood drop. Once a year, my neighbors proudly parade their children to our front door to laugh, share, connect, and marvel at the cuteness of their kids. There is no EASIER chance we have to connect with our neighbors and to demonstrate LOVE to our neighborhood than on this one day. This Thursday (even if it rains) our lights will be on and our door will be open. We will give out candy, the best stuff we can afford. We will engage with the people who come to our door, ask good questions, and listen well. We will work to learn names and most of all we will LAUGH. Kids (and parents) in costume offer plenty of great reasons to express holy JOY!

Normally I can’t stand it when strangers come to my door. Several times a month strangers in pairs come to our door. It seems they never live in our neighborhood but have wandered in looking for converts to their brand of security system, lawn service, magazine subscription or religion. It seems they are always in costume (uniforms, suits, dresses, and hats that seem out of place for a stroll through my ‘hood). It’s one of the reasons I have always resisted the door-to-door visits that are common in my religious tribe. They feel like a spiritual sales call and while they have been effective for some I personally struggle to stomach them.

But this Thursday I can’t wait for people to come to our door. We will watch the shadows for movement and listen close for the approaching giggle of costumed children. I might even tie a paper ghost to my RC helicopter and fly it around the yard. If you’re looking for a friendly smile and a generous spirit – our lights will be on and our door will be open.