Lots of Christian musicians would like to be song writers. In today’s performance culture it can seem quite glamorous, but however much we need songs that sound great on CD, what God’s church needs most are songs that we can sing together congregationally.
Here are a few tips as to what to focus on in writing a Christian song for congregations.
First of all, some principles:
When we prepare a sermon, we are rigorous about the doctrine we preach. When we sing as a congregation we need to be just as rigorous because that doctrine will be sung on the way home from the church meeting. I think it was Graham Cray who said that you can tell what a church believes by the songs it sings. Though I’m sure that my gran said it once too – sorry Graham.
In general, the lyrics of a good congregational song will be centred on God’s word and His work. That is, whether the song is objective (us singing about God) or subjective (us singing to God), it will be focused on the Lord’s character and work, and not ourselves. As for the tune, the song needs a simple melody that serves the words sensitively and within a comfortable range so that everyone can reach all the notes.
I ask myself two main questions about the doctrine of a song.
1) Does the song teach believers faithfully about God? If we’re to encourage, build and admonish each other in the truths we sing, then they need to be truths that encourage, build and admonish.
2) What would a non-believer pick up about God from the song? (It’s right to expect non-believers to be present amongst us, though their needs shouldn’t be the primary focus of our meetings.) As Christians, we may know what the writer’s talking about, but a visitor may think we’re irreverent or even crazy about the God we worship. (Crazy in a whup whup ring-de-ding wheeeeeee sense.) For this reason, I always avoid songs with phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ in, and songs which are overloaded with old-fashioned jargon.
I think that in general there is more care taken over the theology in the songs than there was in the Nineties and early Noughties. There are clear attempts to be more faithful to Scripture, and there is an effort from some writers to be more profound in the expression of biblical truth. Having said that, the majority of songs are still only just deep enough to drown an ant wearing a snorkel. The trouble is that many start promisingly, and then they stick in an ‘Oh yeah’, or an ‘I just really wanna’. As soon as I see one of those, I flick straight over to the next song. Doesn’t the line ‘Because of you, I can be me.’ make your toes do arpeggios in your shoes? Mine are playing a Chopin Étude.
Also, there are some songs which have the appearance of being biblical, because they take an Old Testament character or imagery. The trouble is that instead of taking the characters or images to be the shadows of the greater realities that are found in Christ, we are invited to ‘become David or Joshua’, or to ‘experience’ the shadow. Hence, some songs use temple imagery to invite us to ‘enter the holy place’ while we’re singing, rather than giving thanks that we are already seated in the heavenly realms in Christ. This is a symptom of the fact that our songs are written by musicians rather than theologians, something that must be addressed if our songs are going to get any better.
Next, how about the tunes? Celtic still seems to be winning the day (not the football team – though now Rangers have been dropped to the 3rd division they’ve got more of a chance). A simple melody with slight variations in the harmony for colour – that’s all a tune needs. Again, the majority of song-writers are missing this trick. The tunes are mostly written by guitarists who get a good rhythm together, and then stick a ballad-like tune on the top. They’re hard to pick up at the best of times, without all the cross-rhythms that require a music degree to decipher from the sheet music. Also, if it’s tricky getting a grip on the tunes for the verses and choruses, there’s now a trend of putting in various links and bridges which have yet more different tunes. The upshot of this is that many new songs take up 4 or 5 sheets of A4 – really tricky to balance on your music stand. It’s one of the consequences of trying to follow the pop song format. However, these songs have got such a short shelf-life these days that by the time the congregation have struggled to learn one, it’s passé, and anyway, by then the song companies are trying to market the latest hit. This may sound cynical, but they’ve got to make money, so there’s got to be a fast through-put of songs to keep the wheels turning.
So, my analysis is that things are getting better slowly, but if you fancy yourself as a song-writer, we don’t need quick-sellers, we need best-sellers that will go on feeding us for generations to come.
With this in mind, there are a group of us who meet every now and then in London. We write songs, and then take them apart (gently but firmly) to make them as useable as possible. Then we put the best ones on the website – the site’s called songsfortoday.com
It shows the latest songs we have written, with a page on the theology behind each song and suggested placement within a church meeting (eg before the sermon, after confession etc). On the next page, each song appears as a freely downloadable PDF. I don’t even know what ‘PDF’ means – all I know is that if you click on the PDF file, the song appears. Ker-Pling. Then you can print it off and photocopy it as many times as you like. It’s all free, no strings attached, and it’s not a carrot to entice you into buying anything else. We’d just love Christian congregations to use these songs to sing praise to Jesus.
There are no mp3s of the songs, because we didn’t want to spend thousands on a professional studio recording – sometimes that can frighten people off.
At the same time, we don’t want to create the impression that we are the only ones writing Biblically faithful songs (or that we hold the key to defining what is good stylistically). We want to promote songs that we think would be useful for today’s congregation and will still be useful for years to come. I’m personally grateful to Keith Getty, Stuart Townend and others in answering many of the deficiencies in contemporary congregational song writing. We’re certainly not in competition with other writers. If we become aware of new songs that others have published, which we consider to be worth a look, we’ll try our best to put in links to the websites where they’re available. This means that if it’s new and it’s good you’ll find it on songsfortoday.com, even if it’s not written by us.
Hopefully, this will mean more encouragements like the following: “I have begun to prepare the song book for our church weekend away in Sept and have logged on to ‘songsfortoday’ and have found 5 already that we will use. Am thrilled to bits with the quality. So thank you for the initiative and help that this is going to be. So amazingly simple to be allowed to use these songs without the hoops of permission that we usually have to go through.”
Songsfortoday.com has been a little quiet over the past few years because of team over busyness among other things, but we hope in the next while to start updating more regularly and have more material available, so do check it out and/or subscribe to the mailing list. Also, if you are a song writer or would like to be one, get in touch!