A few weeks ago I had the blessing of hosting nearly 20 songwriters from across the country at a songwriting retreat. Over the course of 48 hours we wrote in groups of 4-5 people and composed around 10 songs. Most importantly, we communed with God and with each other in a relaxed environment. It was wonderful weekend of new friendships, honing our gifts and learning from one another.
By far, one of the repeating questions on my exit survey was, “How can I grow a songwriting culture in my church?” On our last day together, I jotted down seven ideas that I shared with the group in our closing session. I have seen these ideas work in many environments and hope they will be starting points for worship leaders who desire to cultivate a songwriting in their church.
- Demonstrate and lead your team in journaling.
Part of discipleship is remembering the good work of God in our lives. This is a command repeated in Scripture again and again. Consider what the psalmist writes,
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds. – Psalm 77: 11-12 (ESV)
A songwriting culture requires deep wells from which you can draw from for inspiration. One way of digging wells is through journaling. Natural to some and a discipline for all, journaling disciplines you to articulate, expound on and describe your discipleship journey. I’ve never met a serious songwriter who didn’t keep a journal.
2. Develop and host regular Team Nights.
Doing life as an island isn’t healthy and if you want people to feel comfortable writing together, being together regularly will need to become a value in your ministry. Everyone’s busy so intentionality is key. My worship and production team knows we get together the first Wednesday of every month. This isn’t small group. It’s time to worship together, debate concerns, pray, have fun, be silly and build opportunities for increased vulnerability with one another.
Relationships amongst vulnerable people are the highway to honesty, commitment and meaningful creative friendships. If you want an environment where people are going to trust each other with their creative ideas, give them a head start by providing a regular time where they can get to know those they are serving with.
3. Find out who’s interested in songwriting and meet with them regularly.
Sounds fairly basic but one of the initial steps is asking who in your ministry is interested in songwriting. Chances are you will elicit many responses ranging from die hards to those who don’t see themselves as songwriters but may have a real gift ready to be mined out. Develop a habit of meeting with those people regularly. Make the objective of your time together to meet and seek God.
The purpose of songwriting is not to write songs, that’s merely a byproduct. The purpose of songwriting is communion with God and others. Standing on that rock will keep you from being disappointed if/when no songs come. When the worst that can happen is you worshipped your Savior with your friends, the pressure is off and for some, that’s when they are freed to be creative. Songwriting should make you become a better worshipper, not just a better songwriter.
4. Be willing to risk your platform for an original song.
In a day where production and congregational response is valued far more than it ever has, it can be a big ask to create room for a song that hasn’t been tested. In fact, it be a big risk – especially if it flops. However, this is ultimately the only true test of whether your song has wings. You may think the song is great, your friends may think it’s amazing and your worship team may be itching to play it but the church ultimately decides if it will be a keeper.
That said, new songs, especially original songs need a fair chance. Because it doesn’t elicit a good response the first time, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not gonna fly. Some songs need time to grow on people, penetrate their hearts and become sewed deeply within them before they truly own it and want to sing it.
One system I’ve seen work well involves introducing a song during an offertory starting first by teaching the congregation the chorus, then repeating it over the next two Sunday’s, resting it one week before bringing it back. After playing it three weekends in a row and resting it for one, when you bring it back that fourth time you should have a clear indication if it’s caught on or not. If not, don’t be disappointed. The value of a song isn’t in the breath of its platform. Some songs are meant to be like Kleenex, used once than thrown away.
5. Add value to others by reserving your preferences.
Learning to be objective in our artistry may be the hardest thing for worship leaders. We naturally gravitate to what we like and if we’re not careful, our ministry can be dominated by our preferences. Before you know it, we will have surrounded ourselves with ‘yes men’ who love to serve but perhaps haven’t bought into the heart our ministry because their contribution hasn’t been valued.
You will accelerate your team’s commitment to songwriting by allowing your songwriting style, vibe and presentation to be shaped by who God has entrusted to you. One of the values of our worship ministry at Harvest Bible Chapel Naples is that we are autonomously driven. What we mean by that is we’re not concerned with sounding like anyone except us. We’re content with being who God’s made us to be and writing songs that are shaped by our personalities and influences.
Waving that flag doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bar for what’s fit for Sunday morning but it does communicate that there’s room for songs that aren’t necessarily the preference of the leader or others. After all, the church is the ultimate determiner of whether a song will fly or not.
6. Teach in and reach out.
Educate yourself and share with your team what you are learning. Read about songwriting, join a songwriting forum, ask questions of those you respect and let those conversations become common on your team. Lead a devotion on songwriting and ask your team what they think makes for a great worship song. A songwriting culture can’t be created if you aren’t talking about the subject matter. Teach your team what you know and ask them to share what they’ve learned as well. Learn from each other.
Reach out to other songwriters you respect. You would be amazed at how many notable Christian songwriters are willing to happily share the things they’ve learned. Additionally, their participation adds credibility and value to the culture you’re desiring to create.
Sometimes the most effective times to teach in and reach out are during retreats. Chances are there are others outside of your church in your Christian community interested in songwriting. Why not hold a retreat where you share what you’ve all been learning, Skype in some credible people and worship together. You’ll be at no loss for trying. More often than not, great things happen when you put a bunch of creatives in a room together.
7. Win over your Senior Pastor
Ultimately a songwriting culture will never happen unless it becomes a value of your senior leader. Truth be told, he is the lead worshipper in your church and will set the pace and temperature for all creative initiatives. Communicate with him your desires. Let him know you want your songs to serve his vision, ideas and objectives. Ask him if your team can try writing a song that serves a specific message, sermon series, campaign or theme he’s trying to communicate. Make your relationship with him paramount. He’s your greatest ally, support and cheerleader. Share with him your heart to develop a songwriting culture and work together on setting the tone and achieving this goal.
Travis Doucette is Pastor of Worship and Leadership Development at Harvest Bible Chapel Naples, a church plant from Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, IL. For more information, teaching and music resources please visit harvestnaples.org.