Writing Songs That Teach

There are many ways to write songs. When I was young I used songwriting as an emotional journal. I would feel something and I would try to capture that feeling with my guitar and a pen. Eventually I grew tired of the angst and pain that accompanied my songs and took a break. For two years. At the end of that break something changed and I started writing worship songs. Suddenly, these songs weren’t just for me to record my feelings. Instead these songs had a goal: encourage God’s church through congregational singing.

I don’t want to dismiss the emotional journal approach to songwriting, some of the best songs of all time are emotional journals. However, an exclusive journal approach presents some dangers and barriers when it comes to congregational singing. What if the lyrics are so veiled behind the emotionally charged metaphors that the congregation only receives the feeling and not the meaning of the song? If we’re okay with that couldn’t we just play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on a Sunday morning and get a better result? Or how about when it comes time to refine a song? Will an the emotional writer respond kindly to critique that shapes the melody so that it is better for congregational signing? Or will they be willing to smooth their lyrics so that the song can reach a wider audience (For an example of smoothing lyrics: John Mark McMillan wrote “How He Loves” after the death of a friend and included the line “Sloppy wet kiss”. He graciously allowed David Crowder to smooth this out to “Unforeseen kiss”)? In my experience, songwriters go on the defensive when someone tries to critique something so personal.

“But Dan!” you might say, “The Psalms are full of these emotional cries and some of them seem very journal like. Why are you being so down on emotions?” And I might respond with “Good observation! But the Psalms, in their very nature, are meant for communal worship and they purposefully go beyond journaling to venture into the realm of teaching” So here’s the main point: we write songs that teach content.

Lets take Psalm 22 as an example. Verses 1 and 2 are about as close to an emotional journal as possible. These verses are a pure emotive cry. This is true whether David is crying out in his trials or if Christ is crying these words out from the cross. However, verse 3 brings in a sharp change. It is no longer a personal, emotive cry. Instead we are now reciting truths about God’s character. Verse 6 seems to resume the journal approach and verse 9 counters this with another look at God’s character. This alternating continues until Verse 19 where the Psalmist lets out a cry for God’s aid. This cry will carry us through to the end of the Psalm where the Psalmist reminds the singer that the Lord has accomplished His mission.

I find this Psalm to be such a wonderful example of how the emotional journal and congregational worship songs intersect. In the beginning of the Psalm God gives us the words to ask “where are You? Why haven’t You saved me?”. Then instead of condemning the worshiper for asking such questions He simply reminds them of who He is. In this Psalm, the emotional experience is used as fuel for better understanding the character of God.

I won’t pick on any particular song, I’ll let you do that, but compare this with the songs that we sing in church. Do the songs we sing teach us who God is? Or do they cater exclusively to human emotions?

The truth of the matter is that songs teach content. Many of us learned our ABC’s by singing it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. If you don’t believe me try it out yourself. The next time you are studying for an exam or trying to memorize a list, sing it. You can thank me later. Back to the topic at hand. At this point we should be saying “If songs teach content then what is my congregation learning when we sing?”

My personal goal is to write songs that explore the fullness of God’s character. There are many songs that explore His love but what about His justice, wrath, holiness, goodness, or aseity (If you happen to know of a song that uses the word “aseity” would you pass it my way)?

If eternal life is knowing God (John 17) then I want my songs to teach me who He is.

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