Archived entries

gathering people – the beginning of a song circle

Last week’s post was the first in a series called “writing for the community in community.” I laid out the basic components of a songwriters circle that could result in a crop of songs springing up from within your own church. In this week’s post I want to highlight the first essential component in a songwriters circle – people.

Assembling a songwriting community is a pastoral work. It isn’t for “band leaders.” When we assemble people to write songs we begin to walk people through a process that allows them to do something perhaps greater than they expect from themselves. This requires the vision and heart of pastor, along with the skills of a worship leader.

The first challenge is gathering people. It’s a challenge because if we have acted only as a band leader, we haven’t seen the potential in the people around us: Bass dude is bass dude; Harmony girl is harmony girl; Annoying-can’t-find-the-pocket drummer is–well–you get it. Also, bass dude doesn’t consider himself to be anything more than bass dude, either. When assembling your group, you may need to make personal invitations. If your church doesn’t already have a developed culture of songwriting you have to go out and hook a few people into your new experiment because they have never considered themselves to be anything other than what they currently are.

Everyone’s mindset needs to change. The musicians have to see themselves as creative partners. The songwriting circle becomes a way for the worship leader to pastor people through all sorts of heart issues: insecurities, fears, humility, false humility, critical spirits–you name it. When people write and share their songs with others it is a vulnerable moment that requires you, the worship leader, to become worship pastor. Everyone gathered needs a pastor.

In the songwriting circle we discover that we do not fully know everyone around us. There is poetic and melodic genius genius sitting right beneath the surface of a lot of people. It’s just never been encouraged! It’s never been invited out into the open. Part of the power of a songwriting circle is here, right at the beginning, when you choose your first participants. It’s the power of inviting someone to be something they’ve dreamed of, but never dared to try.

Don’t be afraid to mix the experienced with the novice. Shoot for a group of between 5 and 10. Bring in new people. Invite the old regulars. Gather the awkward 13-year-old and the stay-at-home-mom. I’m a firm believer in having a good mix because the goal is to write for the whole church. People all write from different perspectives emotionally, thematically, and experientially. These differences will give voice to the entire gathering of people who call your church home.

One of the main benefits of community is that it saves any one individual from having to be the expert in everything. People can celebrate their unique life with God and the sound that it gives off, and that sound begins with gathering and pastoring potential songwriters.



writing for the community in community

Songwriting can be tough! Songwriting for the local church can be even tougher because not only are we balancing lyric, melody and meter, but we are called upon to create something for everyday folk – people who are not skilled musicians or singers. We are called to craft approachable words that give voice to the human heart for people who, generally speaking, are not poets – theological truth that can be feasted upon for people who are not theologians, and somehow package all this in a way that preserves artistic beauty. (And by-the-way, we all want beauty, artist or not. You want beauty. I want beauty. Heck, even my log-buying-mule-riding-punch-you-in-the-face dad wants beauty!) Admittedly, it’s a daunting task, but one well worth the struggle and strain.

Perhaps one of the best ways to start is by creating a songwriter’s circle. We first began one at our church five years ago and I can honestly say that nothing in all my years of being involved in the church has done more to empower songwriting. Up until our songwriting group formed, original songs were sporadic and generally written by two people. After the group, new music was regular, as well as the number of writers increased dramatically. One of the most enjoyable parts of all this for me was that people who never considered themselves to be writers were suddenly, within two weeks, writing songs – songs that our church still sings five years later!

Here are the essential ingredients to a songwriting circle that will change your church forever:

1.) People! Keep the group small enough that there can be time to share songs without creating a four hour meeting but big enough that it is interesting. 4-10 people is perfect. Also, don’t be afraid to invite a couple of people who didn’t instantly come to your mind – someone new to the worship band, the super awkward 13-year-old skate punk, the mom of three who hasn’t played her guitar in years. Often, these “additions” are packing a punch in terms of fresh perspective.

2.) Deadlines! Decide how often you are going to meet, and when songs are due and stick to it! At our group we write a song every two weeks, and if you don’t bring a song then you are out! The biggest obstacle to writing is procrastination, and everyone knows that musicians and artists are the worst procrastinators. Make a deadline – every week, every other week, once a month or some other interval – the interval isn’t as important as sticking to it.

3.) Critique! The only way to get better is to play what you have written and then receive some real feedback. This can be sticky – artists are notoriously sensitive, but it is essential. Maybe that melody isn’t quite as rad as you thought, and you need to know – and eventually, you will be glad. Likewise, maybe there are a few things that are pure gold, a turn of phrase or metaphoric idea, and again, you need to know. Make this way more about encouragement than correction, especially with new writers. Also, backhanded complements just suck, so don’t be a jerk. At the beginning, only allow a critique after two or three positive affirmations.

More to come!



inspiration is kind of a big deal…

It’s been said (over and over) that songwriting is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, with the point being that songwriting is hard work. Anyone who has seriously given themselves to writing songs knows this to be true. Great songs rarely, if ever, just fall out of heaven, finished and complete – and ignorance or resistance to this fact has lead to lots of really (for the sake of generosity) “unrefined” songs being played on Sunday mornings. Songwriting is hard work. No argument here.

But here is where the axiom loses potency or accuracy – hard work alone won’t make anyone a great songwriter. I’m a huge proponent of grinding, but just grabbing a guitar and trying harder won’t yield a file cabinet of hits that your church just loves to sing. Don’t believe me? Just come and look through my file cabinet!

The truth is inspiration is important. If the old adage is true, that inspiration is only 10%, then it’s the most important 10% ever. Ever!

Inspiration is the raw-hunk-of-metal-idea that will animate our work, our action, and our grinding. Inspiration is the sudden inhale of a fresh thought, or raw emotion that must be exhaled. Inspiration that isn’t expressed is like holding one’s breath, not conducive to living and actually requires more effort to hold than to release. As songwriters, we were made to breathe. We were made inhale ideas, melodic musings and life experience and exhale songs. What we exhale in the form of songs is proportional to what we inhale in the way of inspiration, both in quantity and quality.

As songwriter for the local church we’ve gotta stay connected to the source of all inspiration – God.

In Genesis 1, God breathed the breath of life into Adam – His exhale became Adam’s first inhale. It was a face to face encounter that animated the rest of Adam’s days. It’s a picture of inspiration.

As songwriters for the local church we’ve gotta stay close to God, find his face, and breathe in His life. Personal experience with Him is life – life in such a complete and total way that it animates all of who we are, right down to our artistic expressions. I have noticed that a songwriting “dry spell” isn’t always a lack of hard work and craft on my part, but a lack of inspiration, a lack of ideas, a lack of the practices that keep me experiencing God and receiving his life.

Every song requires multiple inspirational inhales. We need ideas to write about, we need a melodic home for our ideas, and so on. When we see God, we breathe in and life is sparked in our hearts and minds allowing us to exhale a lyric or melody.

These inspirational inhales come in a thousand ways. When we receive the scriptures, we breathe in. When we quiet our hearts to pray, we breathe in. When we live in community, we breathe in. When we experience the beauty of creation, we breathe in. And when we breathe in we become inspired, though often times it is quiet and subtle. And when we are inspired we are pregnant, filled with something alive that must come out!



put down the guitar

Put down the guitar, and the keyboard too. And since we’re on the subject, it may be time for the shy-no-meat-for-me-super-indie-folk-rockers to give the banjo a break. Why? Because sometimes our history with our instrument is standing in the way of writing a more compelling melody.

The very best melodies are the ones which haunt our alone moments – in the shower, car, and walks round the neighborhood. The ones that the heart readily accesses, even when the iPhone is out of reach.

I keep telling my wife, my friends, and for that matter, Jesus, that before I die I want to write a song like Be Thou My Vision. Lyric, meter and theological truth all tied together by a melody which haunts, hangs around, and needs no accompaniment to make it’s presence felt. I can’t tell you how many times recently that I have stood at the kitchen sink washing dinner dishes and spontaneously began to hum or softly sing a verse or two while the kids are taking baths and doing homework.

Melody is such a mystery, able to open soul and spirit. The lyrics to Be Thou My Vision have been around for centuries, but I wonder if I would have ever been open to their influence apart from the lilting folk melody? Probably not. Equally mysterious is the fact that I struggle to memorize scripture, I can’t recall any Shakespeare (even though I remember being forced to recite three sonnets in eight grade) but I know every word to R.E.M’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It by heart – “Lenny Bruce is not afraid…”

So songwriters here’s the challenge – let’s put our guitars down for a week, and along with them, the tired melodies that appear like zombies every time we play G, C, D, and Em – some things are better off left dead in the grave. Let’s start singing in the shower and humming at the office. Turn off the radio and give yourself to writing in a new space of melodic nakedness. Put down the guitar!



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