Writing songs of worship and prayer for your church is different than writing just any song. You need to keep in check three tensions: (1) your church; (2) your community; (3) and your experiences. All three need to be biblical and contribute to discipleship. Too often, modern worship is about being divorced from the past, and, more specifically, from our parents’ church. Instead of throwing out sacred songs, we should consider reimagining them.
Worship Songwriting – How To Write The Prayers Of Your Church
My faith was born in a modern, contemporary church. My youth group played Amy Grant and Micheal W. Smith. My church had a full rhythm section, often accompanied by brass and strings. Hymns were part of the experience, but mostly we sang contemporary songs.
One weekend, I drove north from San Jose to a traditional Presbyterian church, with spires, arches, stained glass and an enormous pipe organ. It wasn’t what I knew. I sat in the balcony as the church flooded full with people. The order of service seemed complicated, and I felt very out of place. Then, the That the organ started to play Bach as a prelude. The bass notes rattled the balcony and chills shot through me. The organist was talented and expressive, and for a moment I was transported to another place. The whole service moved me, unexpectedly so.
The experience changed me. The sense of awe and history spoke to me. I think there’s a hunger in each of us that longs to be connected to history, and fall into a deeper story than our own. As worship leaders, we might expect our contemporary songs to carry us to another place. They might, but I want to challenge us to something more, to reach backwards and forwards.
There are many reasons to consider writing songs that bind us historically and propel us forward. It’s not about embracing pipe organs, in particular. Rather, it’s about realizing and embracing the journey we are on, and that includes the past 2,000 years of Christianity. Do we know the stories and music that shaped those that came before us? For too long, the majority of contemporary church music wanted to distant itself from Grandma’s church. Why can’t we make new music that blends old and new? The balance might help our churches be more stable generation to generation.
OUR CHURCH’S PRAYERS: UNIQUE & UNIVERSAL
Our individual churches have both a unique story and a universal one. The greater narrative of the church as a catholic or universal church is found in our earliest creeds. Our unique town, culture, and history are the lenses that filter our faith, but we are also part of something far greater. It’s what the early creeds talk about as the communion of the saints. We are bound together with Christians around the world and to the the great cloud of witnesses that Hebrews 12 mentions.
Each of our churches have a unique story. It is vital to how we worship and pray. Sometimes, there is nothing outside our church family that can articulate the details of our journey. We certainly need to tell the story about God working among us. If we are only in the past, our traditions can be propped up almost as idols. The same can be said if we are only expressing worship with today in mind.
When we worship locally, it is humbling to remember the millions who are also worshiping around the world. When we over value our small, tribal expression of worship, we denigrate the power of worship, both with the great cloud of witnesses who came before us and the Christians from all sorts of backgrounds, nationalities and musical particularities. It is a mystical union and one that we can explore further in our songwriting.
THE RESULTS OF SPIRIT-FILLED PRAYERS
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:18-19
Spirit-filled prayers satisfy and complete us. We may leave worship without feeling complete because we forget its not about emotion alone. It’s beyond the moment, beyond the momentary fix. Our very lives need to change. In the context of our songwriting, do we believe it?
How do we stay filled? We are like a bucket with holes. We leak and have to return again and again to the well. Our Christian worship is something powerful and not simply an afterthought or an add-on to the sermon. There is something mystical about it. Wine will make us drunk and take us down because it can never fill us completely. It gives the false sense of transcendence. And, did you know, the word for witchcraft in the Bible is the same as for drugs. We actually get our word pharmacy from the Greek word for sorcery (pharmakeia) in Galatians 5:20. Obviously, our prayers—whether sung or spoken—have a mystical affect that satisfies where substitutes fail.
THREE TYPES OF PRAYERS
The three types of prayers that form songs include: (1) Psalms or anthems; (2) creeds of the day of hymns; (2) and spontaneous prayers. In our weekly liturgy, it can be good to offer all three. If we only offer one, we prevent our church from entering into a worship done by the church universal.
PSALMS are the songs of Scripture and a pattern we can follow in songs we write today.
For example, psalms of ascent are the songs of pilgrims heading up to the Temple to worship. (48:1–2; 120–134). Could our contemporary experiences outside of church be put into prayer songs in the church? I think the pattern of Psalms encourages us. Roger Ellsworth in Opening Up Psalms says, “As the [pilgrims] ascended to Jerusalem to attend its annual festivals, their hearts ascended within them. If this was indeed the case, these hymns speak very pointedly to us about how we regard public worship. Can we say that our hearts ascend within us as we anticipate worship in the house of God? We should regard worship in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people as the highlight of the week and look forward to it more and more with each passing day.”
HYMNS are written out of tradition, support the seasonal church calendar, and might follow the scriptures scheduled in the lectionary.
As you know, the for hundreds of years, the Church was united in a seasonal calendar called the lectionary, divided into readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. They are grouped into three years so that after that time, a congregation would receive readings from the majority of Scripture. Many churches still use this outline. Whether or not you use the calendar or put liturgy in your worship is not necessarily the point here. However, we should consider, what are the hymns of our faith? What are the creeds that we can draw from and add to our songs and prayers?
We can find great ideas from the lectionary as it follows the seasons. We can also look at the New Testament, particularly Paul. There are many instances where his words restates very the dogma of our faith. For example, he writes to Timothy, “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). We can adapt this into songs and lyrics and teach Scripture to our congregation as a result.
SPIRITUAL SONGS are the spontaneous expressions in song, the prayers of the people, or melodies straight from the heart.
Spiritual songs are often confessions of our need for God. Spontaneous songs come from the raw places. Are we inviting people to express their worship freely, or do we edit out expressions that may feel negative or singed with doubt?
Are we allowing our congregations to have a voice in worship? Do we allow them to tell their stories? It can be a powerful point of worship. The entire church can be strengthened when we celebrate the work of God in our lives. Songs that bring out these stories are prayers of the people. Paul says to, “sing with mind and sing in the spirit” (I Corinthians 14:15).
PLACES TO MINE FOR WRITING CHURCH MUSIC
There are a few books and places to consider when writing church music.
Valley of Vision by Arthur G. Bennett
This is a collection of written prayers from our Puritan tradition in America. The Puritans are often misunderstood as reserved. This book provides a glimpse of their passion and honesty with God.
God Songs: How to Write & Select Songs for Worship by Paul Baloche
Paul is one of the most effective and gifted writers of contemporary worship music. We will certainly learn much from his wisdom and process.
Book of Common Prayer and The Revised Common Lectionary
These will both introduce us to the beauty of liturgy that will inspire us.
Find a few and begin a list. I have a growing collection of these on my piano. When I read the lyrics and sing the tunes from hundreds of years ago, I am reminded of how God has been working in those people who came before me.
Most pastors are theologically trained, and when we’re in the process of writing a song, it’s good to check in and collaborate.
Collaboration is a powerful tool in writing music. We see different sides and perspectives to arrangements and it may take our songs to a far better place.