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!