Songwriting Tips from Fernando Ortega

I’m in Austin, Texas at the moment, with three of my good friends, Ken Boer, Joe Stigora, and Pat Sczebel. Each of these guys serves as a music and worship pastor in a Sovereign Grace church (Gaithersburg, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Vancouver, B.C.)  They help me equip, encourage, and serve the worship leaders of Sovereign Grace in their different regions. We’re here attending the National Worship Leader Conference, put on by Worship Leader magazine, and also planning our own WorshipGod08 conference (July 30-Aug. 2).

This morning I had the opportunity to hear Fernando Ortega lead worship with a string quartet and then teach a workshop on songwriting. Fernando is a humble guy who has written some beautiful songs. I’ve especially enjoyed his reflective CD The Shadow of Your Wings, a collection of Scripture songs and hymns.

In any case, here are a few thoughts from Fernando about writing songs for the church to sing:

  • Don’t set out to write a "hit" and a good song at the same time. Focus on being faithful.
  • The challenge for us is to find a new way to say what’s been said over and over again about God.
  • A lot of times you start with a kernel of an idea, but it eventually becomes something very different. You have to be willing to let go of what you begin with it. It may be the "best thought you’ve ever had," but you don’t get to write it down, because its purpose was to lead you to one you’d actually use.
  • Spend time reflecting on God. That’s what we’re asking people to do when they sing songs – reflect on God. If I’m not doing that, I’m not going to be able to translate that to a song.
  • Pay attention to your melodies. Work on them. Sing your melody to la-la syllables. Speed up your melody and you might find potential weaknesses in it.
  • Try playing songs in different keys as you’re writing them. It may open up new possibilities.

Finally, as an example of brilliant lyric writing, one that contains powerful imagery and substantive , he recommended the Thomas Kelly hymn "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted." Take a moment to read these words slowly, and if you’re a songwriter, allow the Holy Spirit to inspire a greater commitment to writing songs that feed people rather than songs that merely feel good.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
By His Son, God now has spoken:
’Tis the true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting His distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him,
Was the stroke that Justice gave.            

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.            

Here we have a firm foundation,
Here the refuge of the lost.
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the Name of which we boast.
Lamb of God for sinners wounded!
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
Who on Him their hope have built.

9 Responses to Songwriting Tips from Fernando Ortega

  1. jscottkill July 25, 2007 at 12:37 PM #

    Wow, really powerful lyrics! That song would be really hard to memorize, though. I’d have to have a cheat sheet to lead that song.

  2. Heather July 27, 2007 at 6:32 PM #

    Do you know where I might find sheet music for that hymn?

  3. Bob Kauflin July 27, 2007 at 10:55 PM #


    The music and words can be found on, where most hymns can be found. It’s at:

  4. Bill Bell July 29, 2007 at 3:04 PM #

    When I led worship in the not-too-distant past, we used a version from Reformed University Fellowship that had remants of the original German tune. It’s very singable and worked well with that congregation. Lead sheets, chord charts, etc. of all of their hymns are available online. Here’s the link for “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”:

  5. Bob Kauflin July 29, 2007 at 4:50 PM #

    My friend West Breedlove has written a flute and oboe part for this hymn that he’s happy to share with anyone who emails him at westbreedlove at cspc dot net.

  6. Dana July 30, 2007 at 9:04 AM #

    Wait, Bob. There’s no catchy chorus, no easily repeatable emotional one-liner. Well, OK, I could sing “Christ’s the Rock of our salvation” for several millennia before really getting worried about getting tired of it. I have been starving for really good worship, that is to say totally GOD centered. This just makes me even more hungrier.

    It is a joy to just remember worshiping our Lord and Savior under your ministry. God bless you, dear brother.

  7. The Cyber Hymnal March 14, 2009 at 5:44 PM #

    We wanted to let you know that the Cyber Hymnal (linked from this blog) has a new URL: Please spread the word!

    God bless…

    Dick Adams

  8. Gangai Victor September 26, 2011 at 9:56 AM #

    These tips are very practical, thanks for sharing. Would invite you to take a look at these 45 tips for skillful worship songwriting too:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes