SingerI must admit a fault to you…my main reason for writing this article is that I feel a hurt on God’s behalf. I hurt because I see that the most wildly popular worship songwriters of our day simply recycle the same clichéd lyrics over and over. I ache because artists choose to record one anothers music instead of singing “to the lord a new song.” My heart is in pain because little creativity is applied to the melody, chords, and studio arrangements of music written for the Creator of Music.

For the trained musician who would be a worship leader, writing a song for God is a noble task full of depth and gravity. It is not to be taken lightly. Spending months on a single song should not be unusual. He deserves it. That having been said, I’d like to offer some suggestions…

What Makes a Good Song?

A song, any song, consists of several elements – the chords, the instrumentation, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics…etc. It strikes me that the three most important things in a worship song are the lyrics, the melody, and the chords/song structure. These allow the greatest amount of creativity while giving a music team the ability to create their own arrangement with the musicians they have.

Lyrics are probably the most critical thing to me as a worshipper. I am moved by carefully chosen poetry – where you can tell the writer agonized over each word, crafting them in the Spirit as artwork. I am also moved by very modern, mature text which expresses passion without limitation. I personally don’t feel there are any restrictions to my worship vocabulary – I don’t restrict my prayer vocabulary, why should I restrict it in worship? Stuff we sing doesn’t have to sound like the NIV. And don’t be afraid of multisyllabic words. God invented language, and he loves poetry (the biggest book of the bible is poetry). Worship writers would do well to study great literature, which is usually full of symbolism, metaphor, wordplay.

So when you go to write lyrics, don’t just start screaming down the page stream-of-consciousness style. Think, pray, and vacillate (ooh! Good word!) over each word.

Also, choose a theme for your song. There are so many generalized worship songs out there – think of an aspect of God’s character, or a unique perspective of faith, and focus your lyrics on that alone. Too many songs revert to random Biblical axioms to fill space. Use a thesaurus!

An important note: some writers have chosen simplicity for their theme. The lyrics are therefore simple and sometimes the music as well. This is perfectly fine and makes perfect sense. An example is the song “Let My Words be Few.” Great song. Anyway…

The rhyme scheme is very important as well. It’s easy to rhyme everything with one syllable words, but let’s face it, it starts to sound like Dr. Seuss after awhile. “Lord, show me your grace, I see your face, come fill this place, I run your race…” Not that you have to sound like a college professor – don’t fake it – just challenge yourself. Does your writing match up to your audience?

GuitarYou can reduce the Sunday school effect by spacing out your rhyming scheme, and having fewer altogether. Or better yet, forget rhyming – just write whatever. And don’t worry about having too many words in your song. Write 3 verses, write an extra bridge – get poetic! Yeah, it’ll be more work for the worship teams in the end, but who cares? God will love it!

Now – chords, and song structure. If you’re a songwriter or a worship leader, stay away from the rut of songs that rely on 1, 4, 6m, and 5 alone. Or at least try to write or find songs that use those in a completely original way. What’s more, don’t just create a 4-chord turnaround and repeat it over and over again the whole song.

Play in some keys you’ve never played in before (DON’T use a capo). Learn some new chords. Download a massive amount of tablature of pop music from the last 40 years and learn it. Chances are you’ll not only start writing more musically interesting material, but you’ll become a much better musician.

HEAR THIS—I cannot be more emphatic about this point – worship music can take any form. If you write music for worship differently than you’d write fun music just to play for yourself, you’re making a big mistake. You should write what you love. That means if you express yourself through funk or hip-hop, write some funky worship songs that groove. Let’s give worship music some soul, some diversity, some of whoever you are.

God made music – it’s all his, and he loves it. Some people choose to write foul lyrics, but the music belongs to Jesus. So get funky for the Lord.

Last of all, the melody. There’s a battle that goes on between writing a melody a congregation can follow and writing a melody that is interesting, unique, and beautiful. I have a couple of thoughts on this one.

Musicians give their congregations very little credit for what they can do. Have you been to a concert recently? Most everybody at your average concert sings along with the songs, and they aren’t written to be sing-alongs. I mean, I hear people trying to sing Zepplin. If you’re even halfway keeping up with Robert Plant, you can sing anything. So at least there’s an argument to be made that if the challenge level of worship melodies was raised across the board, congregations with time would meet it.

There’s also a virtue in worship requiring effort on behalf of the worshipper. Giving worth to God requires exertion – it requires us to sacrifice ourselves. It shouldn’t necessarily be easy. Now I’m not saying you should leave your congregation in the dust; they have to crawl before they can walk. But keep pushing the envelope. Don’t cause distraction, but insert songs here and there that will challenge in addition to those they’re already comfortable with.

Melody lines can fall outside standard major/minor scales.

There are many ways of forcing yourself to create a unique melody – here are some things to try:

  • Don’t ever include the tonic, or at most, rarely.
  • Try to land on something outside the current chord.
  • Use larger intervals, and a lot more of them. Too many songs are mostly 2nds.
  • Rhythm is fun – use more words so you can have more rhythm!
  • Did I mention there are scales other than major and minor?

When you are writing, my prayers will be with you – may we all be skilled craftsman filled with the Holy Spirit.

4 Comments on “Worship Songwriting 101

  1. avatar Charismatic | :

    How do you go outside of the box when you as a musician cannot really meet that expectation? To clarify, I have only been playing the guitar for a few months, and I only know a few chords. The people I work with aren’t extremely skilled at arranging music. While I can easily sing songs with interesting, original lyrics, keys, chords, etc., I myself don’t know the chords that correspond. Do you have any suggestions?

    • avatar Josiah | :

      If you aren’t a seasoned musician and you still want to write worship songs, that’s fine. Just focus on putting all your heart into the lyrics and creating something new, beautiful, and original with the gifts God has given you. If you do manage to find a skilled arranger who is a strong musician, you could form a great partnership by creating the lyrics and melody yourself and having your partner do the rest.

  2. avatar Zach Prince | :

    Wow this is amazing. Ive been having a hard time with my walk with God and he got ahold of me last night at youth group during worship. I got right with him and now i want to start writing again. Im 18 now and ive been on worship team and leading sice i was 14. I cant wait to give God my all. Thanks for your advice i cant wait to see how it helps me and helps keep me right with God. Thanks

  3. avatar Paul Gentilini | :

    Great and Challenging! Wow!!

    I’m a worshiper, songwriter, producer and I feel inspired and challenged and freed from worship conformity! Now I got to get to work!!

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