Many worship leaders and wonder how to write a worship song. That’s a big subject so let’s break it down a bit by looking at probably the most important aspect of the song — lyrics.
Writing worship song lyrics can be the most rewarding and frustrating journey on which a worship leader can embark. Here are some guideposts to keep you on track.
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Build Song Lyrics Around a Single Idea
Nothing is worse than a song that can’t make up its mind. A song should say one thing, say it well, and be done. The Beatles had this down pat. They sang “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
They did not sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand, Get Married and Have Kids because I Love Kids, Then One Day be a Grandparent and Retire in Florida Because it’s Sunny There.” That would have been a horrible song.
According to worship leader and songwriter Bob Kilpatrick, “when you say two things in a song, you cut the power of the song in half.” Pick one idea and expound on it, perhaps visiting it from different angles, but never sabotaging your song with separate ideas.
If you come up with oodles of subjects when writing a song, start a separate song for each additional idea. Soon you’ll have a great album instead of a mediocre song.
Find a Lyrical Hook
Every day it’s you I live for. My God is mighty to save. How great is our God.
These are great examples of lyrical hooks. They are irresistibly catchy and singable.
According to songwriter Sam Inglis a lyrical hook should be an intriguing idea that sounds good when sung.
Inglis says a writer can find a hook almost anywhere. The nightly news, advertisement, a cartoon, or anywhere there is spoken language. For instance, Mercy Me wrote a song called “I Can Only Imagine” about what it might be like to meet Christ after we pass on from this life.
The title and song idea is a familiar saying, a cliché even, but Mercy Me made it their own and sold a gazillion albums. Even an everyday idea or phrase can turn into something great. People enjoy familiar things with a new twist.
When writing worship lyrics, start off with a powerful image or intriguing statement that will keep the worshiper engaged and wanting more.
John Mark McMillan’s How He Loves is a great example. McMillan writes He is jealous for me / Loves like a hurricane I am a tree bending beneath / The weight of his wind and mercy.
The lyric pulls you in with powerful imagery stated in a unique way. It’s no wonder that this song is one of the most popular songs on CCLI even though it’s over ten years old.
A Word about Christian Cliches
On the opposite side of the coin, there are Christian cliches. These are phrases that have lost their meaning due to overuse. Here are some examples
- Amazing grace
- I love you Lord
- I worship you with all my heart
I know a lot of popular songs use these phrases. They are even true and biblical. But I challenge you to be different in your worship songwriting.
The Bible tells us to sing a new song, so think of ways of saying ancient truths in new ways. Don’t succumb to the easy way out: splicing the lyrics of ten popular songs together and calling it your own.
Let’s look at the three above examples of overused phrases and how we could change them.
- You freely gave me forgiveness, undeserved.
- My affection for you grows deeper.
- I bow down, bend the knee, to your greatness Lord.
You really, really do not need to use Christian cliches to write your worship song.
A Song Should Say Much with Few Words
Be more Hemingway than Tolstoy. More Dr. Seuss than J.K. Rowling. Think Twitter, not Facebook.
Your song is a can of orange juice concentrate. You need enough words to fill up the pitcher, but don’t make it too watery.
I know what you’re thinking. What about the old hymns that have six verses and a refrain? Well, those writers crafted each word carefully and crammed a lot of spiritual truth in each verse. If you are that skilled, feel free to do the same.
The best songs get a point across without the use of numerous redundant sayings, phrases and clichés that exhaust, tire, exasperate and otherwise fatigue the listener like this sentence is doing right now.
If something can be said it two words, don’t say it in five. A song doesn’t have to have a lot of words to be powerful and effective.
Bob Kilpatrick’s timeless Lord, Be Glorified (In My Life, Lord) is a good example. The song weighs in at only seven words, but has been sung by millions and has propelled his music ministry for almost 40 years. That’s power.
Show, Don’t Tell
A good songwriter shows the listener what he or she is talking about through images and stories, not plain descriptions. A great song puts images into a listener’s mind. It gets the point across without commentary or explanations.
Hillsong’s mega-hit Oceans uses powerful imagery. It says You call me out upon the water / The great unknown where feet may fail. The lyrics should always leave the listener with a picture in the mind and a feeling in the gut.
Great Lyrics Come From the Heart
Remember that a great lyric starts with a feeling inside the writer. Worship music should spring forth from the writer’s relationship with Christ.
Too many aspiring worship songwriters pen lyrics they think should be in a worship song rather than what they feel toward Christ.
A great writer will bring the worshiper along with them into deeper relationship with the living God.
Practice and COLLABORATION
Great worship lyric writing takes a lot of practice and, sometimes, rewriting the song.
Collaboration also helps. A fresh perspective on your choice of lyrics goes a long way. That’s why most of today’s worship songs are written by two or more writers.
For those who are committed and don’t mind working hard, writing great worship song lyrics is well within reach. Go ahead, step out into this arena. God just might be calling you to be the next great worship songsmith.
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Tim Lucas has been leading worship for more than 20 years around the Pacific Northwest, USA. Starting as a worship leader at the age of 15, he has ministered to churches, youth groups, and camps, locally and as far away as Australia. Tim now leads worship at his local church and lives in Washington State with his wife, Laura, and two kids.
Photo: Andree Brown