How to Write Worship Songs
Insights from a worship leader and songwriter
People sometimes ask me how I write worship music. There are many ways to go about it, but I can point to some specific habits I have developed over the years.
There are few things I enjoy more than a cozy backyard fire. I love it at every stage: hearing the sound of the crackling flames, toasting marshmallows to perfection over red-hot wood, and watching the dying embers.
Much like building and maintaining a good fire, there are several steps to songwriting. The elements that go into creating an original song are often a mystery, but breaking down the process makes it easier to understand.
To me, the Word is the wood. I am deeply concerned at the number of worship songs today that focus on human experience: our struggles, our thoughts, our insecurities. That’s kind of like burning a newspaper; the fire doesn’t last because there’s little substance.
Scripture should be the foundation of our worship music. The words we sing should focus on the character of God and help us understand more deeply what we believe about Him. So I sing Scripture. I’ll rewrite the Psalms. I copy verses. It is the first fuel for every worship song I write.
My song theology has a much better chance of avoiding heresy if I lift my lyrics from the Word of God.
The idea spark comes from God’s presence. It may be in my personal devotional time, where I find inspiration in Scripture and sit down at the piano. Often, it is in our church’s corporate prayer time, as I’m singing spontaneously, when the band collaboratively lands on a chord progression that lets the prayer ideas flow. The key in that moment is to capture it.
For years, I carried a tiny journal that had staff paper for jotting down ideas. Now I just turn on the voice memo feature on my phone and record whatever is coming to me, wherever I am.
The words we sing should focus on the character of God and help us understand more deeply what we believe about Him.
Sometimes inspiration comes as I’m listening to a sermon or sitting in an airplane. I simply find a place to sing quietly into the voice recorder. It might sound strange, but if I don’t capture it in that moment, it’s probably lost forever.
Fanning the Flame
Later, I take the time to develop the idea into a song. It may sound too similar to something else I’ve heard, or I may need to complete the lyrics. I sit down and work on the melody, the rhythm, the chord progression, and the flow of the lyrics.
I once sent a producer a voice recording of a live worship song idea that was terrible. But after I had refined it, the song wasn’t even recognizable as the original idea. Needless to say, he was relieved.
As I continue working on a song or collection of songs, I like to try different approaches, techniques and styles. It can help to pick up an instrument I don’t normally play, for example. I may listen to something new — or old. Changing things up can breathe life into a dying song and help me take it in a fresh direction.
Everyone knows fire burns swiftly when conditions are bone-dry. But if the ground is wet and the wood is wet, hours of effort can fail to produce any flame.
On occasion, an idea strikes and a song pours out in 20 minutes. Yet I may start on an idea that I have to come back to occasionally for a few months before I finally develop it into a song.
Other times, it’s like the creative conditions are wet, and nothing happens for a long time. I have been through long periods where I didn’t write, and some of that is beyond my control. However, there are things I can do to make conditions more favorable for the creativity to flow.
Sometimes I have to ask myself whether something is quenching my ability to write. It may be an intensely busy time, or other projects may be using up all my creative energy.
Throughout most of my life, I have kept a journal. I notice that when I drop off writing in my journal, I don’t write songs. When I pick the practice back up, I start writing songs again after a few weeks. Fire takes time to build, and it may take some time to get back to a place where ideas are flowing.
Lean in to God’s Word and His Presence. Capture the God-inspired thoughts. Make time to refine your idea. Pay attention to the conditions that breathe life into writing original music. You may be amazed at what God wants to say through you in song.