Saturday, June 03, 2006

Writing Songs for Your Spirit and Your Mind

This morning I read 1 Corinthians 14:15b which says “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” This verse is specifically speaking to the issue of using tongues in worship, stressing the importance of singing (and speaking) praise in a language that edifies the body by causing people to not only “sense the emotion” behind the praise, but to also become intellectually engaged by its content. I believe this verse captures, in principle, a concept that may be helpful for today’s Christian songwriters to contemplate.

Recently I reviewed several CD’s that represent a resurgence of songs in the church that are written using old hymn texts set to new tunes and/or instrumentation. It is nice to see the church finding value in the old hymn texts that have otherwise been forgotten; however, I can’t help but notice that this resurgence claims, in part, to be a reformation for a singing church that tends to gravitate toward songs with lighter weight lyrical content.

Now, if we consider that musicians who were also pastors and theologians wrote a lot of the hymns, it no surprise that these songs often reflect an understanding for the deeper issues of faith. This leads me to a few challenges for contemporary songwriters.
  1. Become avid students of the scriptures and theology. A deeper understanding of your faith will better equip you to capture more thoughtful content in your writing.
  2. Consider approaching your songwriting as if you were writing a poem. If the lyric could be published as “stand alone” poetic verses, then you are likely writing something that will engage the spirit and mind of the congregation.
In closing, I must qualify my challenges. Firstly, there is a lot of great music being written today. It is totally acceptable and appropriate to sing songs that are simpler in content and that meditate upon a specific aspect of God’s character; all this to say that the church would benefit from new songs that teach and sing about deeper issues of faith and theology. Secondly, I am not a songwriter, so I do not understand the finer points of writing a good song. I would appreciate any input from you songwriters that would add to my thoughts.


Julie said...

1. Amen to that, says the songwriter who (providing she is accepted) will be starting classes towards her MDiv Worship this fall! ;-) Bob Kauflin recommended Grudem’s Systematic Theology a couple of years ago at my first Integrity Songwriters conference, which is sweet for self study. It’s devotional in style with questions for personal application, scripture memory, a hymn text, and list of other resources. For the songwriter who likes a challenge, check out Appendix 3. Grudem was only able to find contemporary worship songs to go with 26 of the 57 topics covered in the chapters in the book!

2. Lyrics aren’t exactly poetry, but I agree the words should be able to stand alone. There are tons of things to consider when writing lyrics, focusing in on engaging the mind in lyrics - rhyming lyrics with matching em-PHA-sis and syllable count still tend to be more memorable and easiest to sing, and stock phrases or words that are so overused that their meaning has been lost should be avoided.

Other Musings:
What is the function of a song in worship? Prayer, praise, teaching, testimony? Are the lyrics addressed to God , for example, “Lord, You are good and Your mercy endureth forever”, or are they about God, for example “In Christ alone my hope is found”? I’d never completely want to give up the first category for the second, although the second category is generally where you find the richer lyrics.

A third category we often ignore are songs that are testimonial, that report what God has done or is doing in the world today. The bible is chock full of them. (Examples: Exodus 15, Judges 5, 2 Sam 22, Psalm 30, to name a few.)

I think there is some amount of education that probably has to take place from up front on the issue of engaging the mind. It may sound weird to say, but TV, television, radio, CDs… it’s all a broadcast medium, people just sort of absorb what is coming at them. Worship, on the other hand, is an interactive medium. To worship with our mind means to engage with the lyrics, and people aren’t necessarily used to doing that. Familiar songs are great, but it’s also easier to slip into autopilot.

I also wonder how much the modern “worship artist” mentality has influenced the quality of what we have lyrically in a negative way. The focus on being new, fun, cool, creative, and feeling inspired to write, rather than a focus on writing to communicate truth. How much of the great church music, from hymns all the way back to Bach, was written in the process of getting ready for Sunday?

Greg said...

I think Julie nailed it with the broadcast medium comment. We are so used to being fed information from one source or another that we have to be constantly reminded that worship services need to be engaged with on a personal level. Therefore, I think the biggest challenge for songwriters in the church is to write lyrics that can be engaged on many different levels (intellectual, spiritual, emotional, etc.) and THEN combine them with fresh music that doesn't just ape what Paul Baloche, Chris Tomlin, or Matt Redman do. If that isn't hard to do, I don't know what is!

For those who truly want to be a prophetic voice for music in the church today, you have to be firmly rooted in theology, church life, and Bible study....and then take all that and break the Christian music bubble and become inspired by truly great musical and lyrical artists no matter what genre they're in, THAT is when church music can become what it really needs to be: a vital creative force that challenges people to a deeper love of God.

scooterpastor said...

Clearly, based on the excellent comments made by Julie and Greg, I am but a wee tadpole in the pond of songwriting methodology. Thanks for jumping in.

Today I was thinking about my post and how based on Zach's review on "Worship God" a recent CD project by Covenant Life (Bob Kauflin's Church) you can see an example of what would be considered excellent lyrical content that struggled musically (I am also part of the review team for this CD, so you’ll be hearing my review in a few days).

Anyway, it just goes to show that Churches aren’t going to evolve with their singing by simply snapping their fingers and writing deeper more intellectually engaging music. This was well developed in the previous comments….