In my eleven years as director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, I’ve reviewed hundreds of worship songs and written a few of my own. Not all of them have been stellar. Actually, very few of them have been. I’ve noticed recurring tendencies that keep weak songs from becoming good or great songs. I’m intimately acquainted with those tendencies in my own songs and I’ve listed my top ten below. While these thoughts are meant for songwriters, most of them apply to leading worship as well.
So if you want to write bad worship songs, follow these simple tips:
1. Aim to write the next worldwide worship hit.
It’s already been done, and you can’t control the results. Who are you writing for, anyway?
2. Spend all your time working on the music, not the words.
Does it really matter what words we sing? God thinks so. We should, too. If God thought music was the most important aspect of a worship song, we’d have recordings of King David singing and playing the Psalms.
3. Spend all your time working on the words, not the music.
Don’t be concerned about melodies, rhythms, or harmonies. After all, only the words matter. Really? Consider this: great theology set to melodies that are bland or impossible to sing won’t be remembered for long. If at all.
4. Don’t consider the range and capabilities of the average human voice.
You may have a three octave range but most people in the congregation are comfortable in the range from a low A to a high D. Also, they probably can’t sing the alternate melodies and inflections as well as you can.
5. Never let anyone alter the way God originally gave your song to you.
Why mess with divine inspiration? Well, because we see in part and don’t always get it right the first time.
6. Make sure the majority of your songs talk about what we do and feel rather than who God is and what he’s done.
Why clutter up our songs with clear, specific, and compelling descriptions of God’s character and works? Why not just emote and talk about how passionate we are? Because an emotional fire that has no doctrinal fuel dies out pretty quickly or ends up trying to feed on itself.
7. Try to use as many Scriptural phrases as you can, and don’t worry about how they fit together.
This is what Nick Page refers to as “fridge magnet poetry.” It sounds biblical, but no one quite understands what you’re saying.
8. Cover as many themes as possible.
Unless you’re writing 17 verses like some 18th century hymn writers, you probably shouldn’t try to deal with creation, the fall, Israel’s history, the incarnation, Jesus’ life on earth, the last supper, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, the pouring out of the Spirit, the church, ministry to the poor, salvation, holiness, the second coming, and heaven all in one song. Great lyricists can weave numerous themes around a consistent focus. But most of us aren’t great lyricists. Stay focused during your song, and make sure you have a good reason for one line following another.
9. Use phrases and words that are included in 95% of all worship songs.
You bore my loss/upon the cross; you took my shame/I praise your name; you came to save/me from the grave; my filled my soul/and made me whole; thank you for your love/that came down from above. Believe it or not, those phrases and rhymes have been used before. They’re fine words. We can probably think of more creative ways to use them, though. We can probably think of other words, too.
10. Forget about Jesus and what he accomplished at the cross.
Make it sound like we don’t need a mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), like we can gain access into God’s presence on our own (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 10:9-22), and like our worship is acceptable just because we’re the ones offering it (1 Pet. 2:5). While every song doesn’t have to mention why the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is so important, it should always be in our thoughts while we’re writing.
I’m sure my list is incomplete. What are some other ways you can think of to write bad worship songs?
By the way, if you’re interested in some tips on writing good worship songs, we’ve collected MP3s and outlines from some of our past song writing seminars at the WorshipGod website. They include thoughts fromSteve and Vikki Cook, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Dustin Kensrue, Kevin Twit, and Mark Altrogge.