God Gave Me A Song… Now What?
God has given you a song. Maybe you sat down with your guitar one day and it started flowing out effortlessly. Or, you were driving in your car when suddenly this incredible melody came to you that felt so powerful you thought the whole world should hear it.
Or maybe you’ve been writing poetry since 5th grade and you have about 4,000 poems so far but no real music to go with them. “Is there a true call to write songs on my life or not?” you ask. It’s hard for you to believe God would give you so many songs and have no plans to expose them to anyone else on the planet. But does that mean that your songs are destined for contemporary Christian radio?
Well, maybe yes and maybe no.
Different Kinds of Songs and Songwriters
I believe God gives everyone songs. Zephaniah 3:17 says that the Lord Himself is singing over us, so I think we all hear His song in our hearts, the echoes of His voice in our spirit that we long to express. But when it comes to writing songs that other people may love and use, there are clearly different kinds of songs and different kinds of songwriters. God made us a million different ways and He delights in the diverse creation of His hands.
Paul’s double admonition in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 about, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit…Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” applies to every believer. We all have songs rumbling around in our hearts, whether we know it or not, but that doesn’t mean every believer is going to become a professional songwriter.
When I work with songwriting clients, I often use a very simple tool called “The Song Continuum” that places “devotional songs” on the far left and “commercial songs” on the far right with all kinds of songs in the middle like Scripture Memory songs, liturgical service music, children’s music, and more. It’s a helpful way to discover where your writing falls and make adjustments if you want to. You can download it here.
There are many kinds of songwriters, from the purely devotional writers to highly commercial writers like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and all the great songwriters you know and love. The good news is that you can decide where you want to be on “The Song Continuum.”
Commercial songs like you hear on the radio (or even the most popular worship songs) are highly crafted to appeal to the largest number of people. They’re not better than devotional songs and you’re not failing if you don’t write on a commercial level. God has His purposes for you and your songs right where you are.
I’ve helped dozens of songwriters move down the continuum towards commercial songwriting, if they felt that was the direction He wanted them to go. They’re just as inspired by God once their songs have gone global as they were when they wrote “from their hearts” when no one was listening. God’s still giving the songs, it’s just that they have more tools with which to craft them into a style and form that many more people can enjoy.
From the Prayer Closet to the World
I interviewed Jon Thurlow for The Song Revolution Podcast recently and we talked about this very thing. As a worship leader at the International House of Prayer (Kansas City) for many years where they’ve had 24/7 worship and prayer since 1999, Jon would cycle through hundreds of known songs, but a lot of spontaneous devotional songs would happen, too.
Most of these spontaneous songs were just for that moment, but he felt that some of them were destined to be taken and crafted into songs that many more people could sing as he shaped and fashioned the original idea or snippet into a fully-developed song. That’s how IHOP’s Forerunner Records was born and how great worship songwriters like Cory Asbury got started. Jon Thurlow and many successful songwriters have learned how to flow devotionally as well as how to craft perfectly singable, memorable songs on a commercial level.
God is always pouring out songs.
He sings over us and gives all kinds of songs to people of all ages, from toddlers to octogenarians, but these songs are more often gifts to the individual than gifts to the entire world. God is just precious and close that way. Since Zephaniah 3:17 says that God is constantly singing over us, it’s only natural that we would want to sing back.
The rub happens when we think a simple song in our hearts should be the next big hit on Christian radio. If you’re feeling the tug to write more commercially, dig in to how that happens. Get more resources and training to add greater skill to your writing and begin to develop your talents for the glory of the Lord.
Here are five ways to develop your devotional songs into songs worshipers the world over could love:
Make sure your song has a strong hook and title
A “hook” is just that – it hooks the listener by being memorable, universally appealing, singable, and repetitive. Look for the one phrase in your devotional song that could sum up the feeling of the entire song and focus on it. See if you can build verses around it and make it singable for anyone who hears it.
Think about the primary phrase in “What A Wonderful Name It Is” (Ligertwood/Fielding), for instance, and go look at how many times it is repeated in the chorus, driving it home again and again. Then think about what it would have been like to not use it as the central phrase or hook – it would have weakened the whole song and it wouldn’t be the song on top of everyone’s worship set list right now.
Stop writing introspectively
Many aspiring songwriters make the mistake of writing so introspectively about their struggles and pain that listeners can’t relate well to their songs.
Writing songs other people want to sing requires you to put yourself in their shoes, listen with their ears, and write with their voices ringing in your ears. Would they want to sing that word or phrase? Is that melody too tricky or rangey? Is your chord progression too intricate or confusing? Introspection works best in your journal or for singer-songwriters. A song like “10,000 Reasons” (Myrin/Redman) captures a universal, yet personal, desire to worship that never indulges in introspection. No surprise it’s touched the world and will be sung for decades to come.
Reach beyond typical worship phrases
Christian songwriters circle around several major themes such as the cross, the love of God, salvation, and Jesus Himself. Worship songwriters must incorporate those themes, yet take the focus even tighter into worship, drawing listeners into the actual experience of it individually or corporately.
Think about Jennie Riddle’s classic “Revelation Song.” Not only does it describe the heavenly throne room of God with unique phrases like “Clothed in rainbows of living color,” it actually takes us into high praise with the chorus belting out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” Jennie’s descriptive phrases in her verses brings the scene to life and avoids many typical worship phrases we’ve recycled far too many times. Keep it fresh to win more listeners.
Use a “surprise” phrase or chord progression
Speaking of reaching beyond the typical phrases to keep things fresh, an unexpected phrase or chord in your progression can often brighten the song and capture a listener’s attention. Songs like “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” (Houston/Crocker/Lighthelm) and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves” both engaged us with unusual moments in the phrases “sloppy wet kiss” and “where feet may fail.” The new Andrew Peterson song “Is He Worthy?” recently covered by Chris Tomlin uses a call and response format and a “surprise” three-minor (iii) chord to break up the progression in the verses that refreshes the ear beautifully.
Check out the writer credits on your favorite song and the odds are high that it was co-written. Co-writing has been around a long time, of course, and we can immediately think of great duos like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney, Leiber and Stoller, and Bill and Gloria Gaither, to name but a few.
If you’re better at writing lyrics or dreaming up great titles but struggle with writing melodies, a co-writer will come in very handy. If you’re a strong musician but can’t write a line you’d let your dog see, finding a strong lyricist is your next right step towards songwriting success.
Yes, God did give you that song, but what happens with it next is up to you.
Will it only live on your cell phone or be buried somewhere on your laptop? Or, will you take it to the next level by identifying the strongest phrase and developing it into a power hook? Will you keep refining it, testing it with your friends and congregation until it actually could go global?
One of the worst things a songwriter can do is mistake an undeveloped first draft for the final song.
Saying God gave you the song doesn’t excuse you from making it the best it can be (see Matthew 25) and it certainly won’t make people love it. Songwriting is a gift that must be developed. The more you develop your knowledge and technique, the more effective you’ll be at capturing the inspiration God gives in songs the whole world may one day love to sing.
About John Chisum
John Chisum is a veteran songwriter, publisher, and worship leader. He was VP of Publishing for Star Song Media and Director of Song Development & Copyright for Integrity Music. He is currently Managing Partner for Nashville Christian Songwriters. He has been married to Donna for 39 years and they have one daughter, Aly.