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Writing a Worship Song

A good song has a power that spans the spiritual, emotional and physical dimensions to a greater depth than virtually anything else. Throughout the years it has delighted, inspired and been a vehicle for expressing the multitude of emotions in my own heart as I've vocalised my thankfulness to God for all that he is. From hearing the simplicity of a well-played song on an acoustic guitar, through to the footstamping, handclapping mass of voices in the tent of our favourite Bible Week, the beauty and complexity of words and music intertwined have left me with the aspiration of becoming someone who could articulate what's going on inside me through the language of a well-written song.

The modern Christian songwriter finds himself or herself as part of a remarkable lineage deriving from biblical times. Down through the centuries songs have been written that carry the message in a contemporary way to the masses. The classic Christian praise song Amazing Grace is an outstanding example to us of a song that communicates rich biblical truths in an accessible way. John Newton, the writer, was formerly a slave trader who had turned from his ways and as an expression of his faith used words that were consistent with the culture around. Interestingly enough the original lyrics were set to a number of different tunes before finally coming home to the now familiar melody that is instantly recognisable across the world. Wesley, Isaac Watts and many of their hymn-writing peers often would concentrate on the lyrics and then set their words to existing tunes.

As well as giving expression of love and gratitude to a merciful and almighty God, a good worship song is capable of inspiring others to live for his glory, motivate and evoke a response towards him and to help identify the presence of God in our lives and the lives of others.

The lyrics to the worship songs we sing are important. They contain ideas, concepts and theology that are capable of being passed on to and learned by every member of the worshipping congregation. Even if you do not use quotations directly from scripture, it's important that your content matches up with the basic tenor and teaching of the Bible.

For us to begin to write expressive lyrics in a worship song I believe there are certain key principles that are foundational. Listed here are some of them, which I hope you will find helpful as you attempt to sharpen your lyric-writing skills.

Stick to the script
A good song must be about something in particular. It's amazing how many songs I come across that have a good general Christian theme but are not used by others because they are not specific enough. It's always a good question to ask yourself: "Why am I writing this song?" Shine Jesus Shine, Jesus, be the Centre and Bind us Together have proved to be popular worship songs for a reason. They have limited themselves to exploring a particular aspect of truth or doctrine. A good title or theme will help you anchor your song acting as a reference point and prevent you writing a whole bunch of unrelated thoughts that go off in tangents. When writing your song keep reminding yourself what the song is about, what makes it distinctive and something someone else would want to use to express their faith?

Line construction
As a general rule of thumb, try to make the metre and accents the same in verse 2 as in verse 1. This will help create a lyrical flow making it easier to partner a melody with. Sometimes it can be helpful to write to an already existing tune to achieve this as a kind of prototype to be discarded later. This will help your words and accents have shape and form and enable the melody to contour with the words. So remember: rhyming and scanning need to be consistent.

Natural length
"If I'd had more time I would have written more briefly" Julius Caesar
Most songs have a natural length to them. If you've written a song with 16 verses then I would suggest it needs more than a little pruning. Brevity can be a powerful thing. Think of My Jesus My Saviour. It's short, concise, yet profound in its message.

Use your imagination
Think to yourself: "Have I made good use of basic poetic devices?" Imagery, metaphor, rhyme, inner rhyme and simile - the use of figures of speech and word pictures can be very powerful. A picture paints a thousand words... What we see we remember, what we hear we often forget.

Who's it to?
Is the song about God or to be sung to God? I find it incredible how many modern songs get jumbled up, sometimes changing the focus mid-way through.

Can it be understood?
Steer clear of unhelpful religious clichés and jargon. Remember Jesus spoke in the contemporary language of his day. As lyricists we have a responsibility to present divine truth in a clear and inspiring way. Try to think to yourself: "If someone were walking past my church and heard the song that I had created, would they understand it?"

A popular method of contemporary worship lyrics is to use repetition in the core of the song. 'I could sing of Your Love Forever', 'The Splendour of the King' and 'Let everything that has Breath' all use this simple technique to great effect allowing the music to take the strain and of course the verses to explain. (Strain and explain! – that's what happens when a songwriter writes an article!)

Sing it out
On the whole it's good to aim for words that rhyme (some call them 'ear caressers') but do avoid the trite. Try and use singable words and at all costs avoid putting those words that are difficult to sing at the ends of lines - words like next, that, intrude and djembe!

I hope this helps you in your songwriting journey. As you begin the exploration, remember, as a wise sage once told me: "Anyone can write a song; the trick is to write a good one".

By Dave Bilbrough. This post was originally written for the BBC Hymn competition in 2007. It was seen in its original form on the BBC Religion and Ethics site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/music/hymnwriting_3.shtml) Accessed in Feb 2012.