Worship Songwriting: Private to Public

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“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in Him.” Psalm 40:3

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on a master class with Mark Stewart, composer, musician, and current music director for the legendary Paul Simon. During the class, Mark challenged our roomful of songwriters and composers with the idea of “private music versus public music.” More specifically, he encouraged us not to move our new creations too quickly from the private sphere to the public sphere.

I found this to be a great reminder, particularly for worship songwriting. Why? When writing worship songs, we write out of two places. The first is internal: we write out of our own personal worship time and experience. We write because we are inspired, or because we feel God is speaking to us and we respond through the medium of song. The second is external: we feel there is a new song our congregation needs to be singing, or a certain message that is lacking in the current stream of worship songs. Whichever place we are writing from, there is a period of time when our songs are private – they are between us, our co-writers and God. Often times, we tend to jump too quickly from this crucial greenhouse phase and transplant these seedlings into soil before they’re ready. So how do we know when the time is right? There is no formula or clean-cut answer, and every song might be different. But here are some questions that may be helpful:

Keeping It Private:

  1. Is this song just for me? Some music is meant to stay private; not every song needs to be made public. Just because you’re the only one worshipping God with it doesn’t make it any less of a worship song.
  2. Have I played with the song enough? In this childlike private world of songwriting, we can PLAY: be creative, push limits…try anything! The private music realm allows the song to grow, change, blossom, even die and come back to life. Mistakes are welcomed here and seen as teachers. The more we play, the more we stretch ourselves musically, lyrically and artistically.
  3. Is this song pure? Have I taken the time to examine the motive behind and meaning of the song? Do I really mean what I’m singing? Have I avoided accidental plagiarism? Has this idea been said before the same way, or is there a way I can say it with new and fresh language?

Making It Public:

  1. Who do I trust to give me honest, loving feedback? Particularly for young songwriters, this is the hardest step. Before throwing your song into the great big world for all to hear, first introduce it to someone you trust: your pastor, spouse, or friend. Get their first impression, let them sit with it for awhile, and then have them give more specific feedback. Rewrite as necessary. You may be surprised at how little changes can make enormous improvements. (Or not. That happens sometimes, too.)
  2. Does this song pass the truth test? Here is a grid I learned from Paul Baloche that I run every worship song I write through: Is it biblical? Can people relate to this? Can I imagine my congregation singing this on a Sunday morning? Sing your song through one time, and actually imagine your congregation singing this song. Is it singable? Is it in a good key? Is the song repetitive and predictable enough that the congregation will catch on, yet unpredictable enough that it is interesting?
  3. Have you prayed over this song? Pray that the Holy Spirit would breathe through the song, both through the singers and musicians and into the hearers’ ears. Pray that, indeed, God would be praised through this new song and many would see and fear the Lord and put their trust in Him. (Psalm 40:3)

THAT is the goal of bringing our songs from private to public. May the name of the Lord be praised, and may others come to know Him.

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