Writing Songs that Encourage

Now, more than ever, we need encouragement, right? We live in turbulent times full of fear and uncertainty. In these trials, millions upon millions of people will turn to music for strength and a sense of community, especially if they cannot gather in person. For one example, I look to Italy and see those who are stuck in their homes singing from their balconies.

Singing brings communities together in such a beautiful way. Part of this is due to the nature of singing. I can sing a melody by myself but unless I go and master Tuvan throat singing I’ll need others if I want to sing harmonies. Not only that, but I will need diversity if I want a full range of harmonies. I can’t have a bass sing like a soprano and each singer is going to bring their own timbre, texture, and culture to the mix. Together, many singers reach musical accomplishments that I as a soloist simply cannot touch. The same is true for the spiritual and emotional sides of music.

There is a certain comfort in singing a song that only I know. Perhaps I whistled a tune and stuck words to it because I needed a song to help me through a certain time (I’m looking at you, Greek exams). Yet this experience is completely different from singing along with someone else’s song. When I sing a song from the radio, or one that I streamed, or heard in church, my singing instantly becomes part of a communal experience. Even if its just me singing in the shower, its still me, the person/people who wrote the song, and all the memories attached with it. When I’m going through a rough time I’ll put on some Jon Foreman and suddenly, I have solace. I’m not the first person to experience this and there’s this unconscious recognition that if they could make it through this feeling, write a song about it, and keep going, then there’s a chance for me!

But there is a fine line between the solace that sad songs bring and feeding despair. This is where our songs of encouragement come in. Now when we use the word “encourage” we generally mean one of two things. First, to encourage someone could be to give them hope. Second, to encourage someone could also be to encourage them towards something. In essence, to encourage is to support.

Now I think we have a good understanding of the first definition. I just want to make sure that the hope I give is a substantial, relational hope not a shallow “hope you get well soon” hope. I want people who listen to my songs to find hope in the content of the truth instead of in the feeling of being encouraged (or manipulated by the I-V-vi-IV chord progression underneath).

The second definition, however, is a bit more tricky. Suddenly, the encouragement itself is not necessarily good. Instead, if we want to write songs that further the kingdom of God, we must ask the question “encouraging what?” or “supporting what?”. Because those sad songs that we sing could easily turn from solace to supporting depression, or dread, or loneliness. Now we do need songs that express all these emotions. They are part of the human experience and to bottle them up or push them aside without dealing with them first is a quick way to mental health issues. However, we as songwriters need to be aware that our songs can either encourage people to stay swamped in negative emotions or can help people through these emotions. The same is true for the happy times as well. We can write songs that try to keep people trapped in a perpetual happiness (because how could a true Christian ever be sad?) or we can write songs that help people carry joy through life’s trials.

Essentially, we need to be aware of what our songs are doing. Our songs always teach something, our songs always encourage something, and in my next “writing songs that…” article I’ll assert that songs always worship something. The question is “what are we teaching? What are we encouraging? And (in the next article) what are we worshiping?”

“So what should church music be encouraging?” Well I’m glad you asked. How I see it, church music needs to encourage the Spirit filled life. I think it is important to focus on being Spirit filled and not on any particular emotions or desired state of being because we can be Spirit filled in all stages of life. We can be happy and Spirit filled (Luke 1:41). We can be tired and Spirit filled (1 Kings 19) . We can even feel like God is far away and still be Spirit filled (Matthew 27:46). But notice, especially in the instance in Matthew 27, which is a quote of Psalm 22, that the Spirit does not leave us in a hopeless place. Psalm 22 may start with “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” but it ends with “But I know You have done great things, God” (in summary, not in quotation).

Consider this and how we songwriters can write songs that encourage the individual and the community towards a Spirit filled life. Consider how to write songs that encourage love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23) Consider that this is also Paul’s purpose statement for music in the church. In Ephesians 5:17-21 (entire chapter included for context) Paul begins by saying “Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is”. That is to learn what God wants you to learn. Then in verse 18 “and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit”. I might add to this point that it is also possible to be drunk with a chord progression (Once again, I’m looking at you I-V-vi-IV). But what does being filled with the Spirit look like? Well verses 19-21 give an illustration. It looks like singing songs to each other and giving thanks to God and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. So Paul says, in modern words, “learn what God wants you to learn and act in a way that God wants you to act. Also, one of the most notable ways of doing this is singing songs that teach you what God wants you to learn and that encourage you to act like a Spirit filled Christian”.

Then, when Spirit filled Christians sing songs that remind them of the truth and encourage them to be Spirit filled, those Christians become a light to the people around them. Suddenly, we accomplish the first definition of encouragement, that is giving hope, by pursuing the second. It is when we are Spirit filled, and not grieving the Spirit, that our singing moves beyond the shallow platitudes of Hallmark encouragement and progresses into the great adventure of advancing God’s kingdom.

As a closing thought, I’ll leave you with two songs that I consider great encouragements in this time. The first is the third verse from an upcoming song that I have written called “Joy Inexpressible”. I hope to record this while Corona and the government have me stuck at home for two weeks. The second is a tried and true hymn excellently arranged for a modern audience by the Norton Hall Band (no affiliation with The Worshiping Songwriter). I hope you enjoy and are encouraged!

” Joy Inexpressible” – By Dan Loch

Even though it’s tested by fire
Even though there’s pain on the road
Proof of my faith is more precious
Than comfort, pleasure, or perishing gold

“How Firm a Foundation” – Arr. Norton Hall Band

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