By Paul Baloche
(This article was originally published in Worship Leader’s March/April 2007 issue. Subscribe today for more great articles like this one.)
It’s no big secret that Americans tend to be fierce individualists. Most of us see ourselves as expressions of our deeper selves. Our faith, our fears, our concerns, our guidelines, our art, these things are ultimately under our own supervision and not overtly connected to the world at large, let alone the Church. In the worship songwriting world, this is something to be mindful of because we, songwriters, are at risk of being the “chief of sinners” in this area.
However, the singer/songwriter Paul Simon finishes his iconic song of individualism, “I Am a Rock” with some simple but profound words, “A rock feels no pain / And an island never cries.” Think about that for a second. No true individual, in the purest sense, could ever write a song. Why? Because they have no feelings. They are never moved, and they never move others. They are an island. Like Paul Simon says, they feel no pain, and they never cry. As worship songwriters, even as Christians, this is an all-important concept. As much as we like to see ourselves as poets observing life away from the bustle of the common folk, we are a community, and good art is born of the joy, pain, laughter, tears and intimacy that comes from that.
So why collaborate in writing songs? One of the main reasons is that songwriting is born out of your walk as a believer. We Christians collaborate simply as a result of living our lives. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34 NIV). It is the right way to live. It is also the right way to write. I’m not saying that we should never write songs alone. But I am finding more and more how important it is to make sure our songs are always collaborative efforts, even when we do happen to write alone. The majority of my album, A Greater Song was birthed in collaboration, so I’d like to share a bit of why I think it’s an important part of worship songwriting and how it has worked for me.
Fill the Well
Do you ever get tired of hearing your own voice? Thinking your own thoughts? It’s kind of like when you have listened to all the music in your personal collection so much, you just get tired of it. It loses its spark. At one point or another, all songwriters have to face the blank page again. And, frankly, even if you feel like you have been able to say some things musically in the past, the next time you go to write a song, all of that doesn’t matter. Sometimes the well just feels a little dry.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve been more intentional about collaborating in the last couple years. “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work…” (Ecc. 4:9). When I’m working with another songwriter, there’s a good chance that even if all I have is one little inspired idea, or if all they have is an inspired idea, it’s a start, and there’s a possibility that something can be developed. It’s the start of a dialogue.
Coffee and Conversation
I tend to see collaborations as extensions of friendships and a commonality in Christ. The process that I prefer often starts with a cup of coffee and maybe reading the Bible. Connect with each other and then allow that to flow into some time worshiping with some familiar worship songs. When you are worshiping, your mindset has been given the framework of what you intend to do together. You can be tempted to set goals and guidelines for our worship songs, but better than sitting around talking about worship, you worship. That is how Matt Redman and I wrote the title track of my album, “A Greater Song.” We were in a little Methodist chapel and we just worshiped for like an hour. We sang, and then we would pray and then sing again. And out of that, one of us would say something like, “Oh man, that reminds me this passage in Scripture….”
That type of collaboration prepares the ground, your heart, the atmosphere and the environment where you’re about to write. It creates a posture of receiving. It challenges the mentality of coming at writing thinking that we’re going to be “Oh so clever,” or we’re about to write something that will blow everyone away. It’s a posture of prayer that says, “God, we look to You, and we call on You to pour out Your heart, pour out Your ideas. Please tell us, what your Church needs to say back to You.” The fact is we could all write 50 Christian songs a day if we wanted to, but it doesn’t mean they’d be any good. Let’s face it, whether you’re writing a song, an article, a book, or painting a picture, artists are always trying to grab onto the rope of inspiration that has been offered by the Holy Spirit; that is the only place good worship songs come from.
Come By Here
This brings us to an important point. Collaborative songwriting is an extension of the way we live as Christians. Not many people would argue that our walk of faith is in collaboration with the Holy Spirit. He guides and influences our decisions, thoughts and actions. But, it’s funny how easy it is to leave God’s Spirit out of our songwriting processes.
Sometimes people like to put songwriters and musicians and church leaders on a higher spiritual level than the average Christian person. But we know. We’re just like everyone else, and it’s easy to get lost in the monotony of our work. It’s easy to sit and power out music because it is where we are comfortable and just kind of flows. However, we need to constantly remind ourselves, even if it isn’t our full-time job, we are the prayer writers for our communities. I don’t know how to build houses, I don’t know how fix plumbing at the church. I don’t know how to work on cars. I’m not good for much, apparently, but I know how to put words and music together in a way that gives people language or a small prayer to sing out to God. That’s why it is vitally important that we are seeking God’s presence as we write.
A Unique Tool Belt
Writing is different than swinging a hammer. We deal with the commodity of emotions, spirit and inspiration. It’s some very intangible stuff. So while we practice the presence of God in our simple task of songwriting, we also invite Him to be in the words and notes that we write. Without Him, we know that we don’t have much. And many times, in those moments of prayer and worship, we start to feel the wind begin to blow our sails. That’s what we’re hoping for: at some point in the process, we feel the wind, which allows us to turn off the songwriting engine and let the Spirit finish our thoughts.
So how do we get in that realm? It’s like a hot tub; we just have to get in. Whether we are collaborating with another songwriter or if we are by ourselves, the first thing we do is worship with our songs. Whatever that inspired idea is, let it take you to a different place. Sometimes those moments are part worship, part imagination, part trying to forecast where the idea will go, but in all these ways acknowledge Him.
Collaborating with Your Community
Taking another hint from our lives as Christians and bringing it into the songwriting realm, collaboration with our communities is vastly important. We need to remember that we are writing, not just for ourselves, but congregations of multi-generational, primarily non-musical people. As worship songwriters, that is our bull’s-eye.
Even if we have come up with something that sounds like a Police tune from the 80s, or really hits on a Paul McCartney-Beatley-kind-of-thing, it’s always important to continually go back and ask yourself: Are people going to be able to sing this? Will groups of people be able connect with this fairly quickly? When we fall into the temptation of thinking about impressing the coolest musician buddy we have in our life, it may be nice for us, but it will probably alienate 95 percent of our community.
And this goes into the lyrics of the songs, as well. It’s important for us to get our eyes off ourselves and lift our heads up and look around. If we write out of our own little experiences, we are missing a large part of His work in our collaborative lives. Yes, there are some universal things that we all experience, so it’s not a crime to write out of your own experience with God, but we have an opportunity to paint a more elaborate portrait of our worthy God when we look past ourselves. What’s our church going through? What are our families going through? What’s our nation going through? What’s the world going through? When we ask those questions then find a musical way to express that, we are including our church in the process. And in the end, these songs are their songs as much as they are ours.
Diapers and Domestic Disasters
To take this idea to a different level, as songwriters we even have the liberty to imagine the array of God’s children and find ways to include them in our writing. We have the freedom to imagine a truck driver who has six kids and sits in the middle of the congregation. Maybe he’s not really a singer but Sunday is his chance to be with his family and to sing his heart out. We can imagine that his children will always remember the voice of their dad singing in church even though he wasn’t a rock star. What a gift to be able to serve a guy like that.
Or we can think about a young housewife who has three kids under the age of five. Her week is filled with nothing but diapers and domestic disasters. Maybe Sunday is the only day of the week where she can put the kids in the nursery and feel like an adult and sit with and hold hands with her husband while they worship the Lord. When we write in collaboration with our communities, we have the privilege of serving someone like her.
It is also surprising how underused our pastors are in the art of worship songwriting.
I can easily say that my senior pastor has had the greatest influence on me as a worship leader and as a writer. Even if you are not on full-time staff at your church, I suggest going into the church to write some of your songs. There’s something about being in the physical building that encourages our worship imaginations. Then on top of that, your pastor will likely be in the building. Bring your songs to your pastor. Ask for guidance and for feedback. And if you are a pastor, remember to be encouraging, and remember to keep your focus less on the musical and more on the theological pastoral perspective. Also have grace. When I was starting as a writer, I’m sure there were days where my pastor just rolled his eyes during a Sunday service. But on Monday morning he was always gentle. Often he’d point out some things that I did right, or he’d take the opportunity to ask, “Hey, what did you think about that last transition?” He was gentle in my development. And because he reached out to me as a younger man, I wanted to serve, bless and edify him.
Honest, Sincere, and Biblical
All that we have control over is getting up tomorrow and trying to write honest, sincere, and biblical songs to God. Then we can do our best to be good stewards of those songs when they do come our way. Living life as a believer and writing songs for worship is like living in the tension of the opposites. There’s a sense of rest, but there is also a mild tension just below the surface where you know you’re capable of looking more toward yourself and your desires than out toward your community.
Collaboration is bigger than just writing songs; it’s more about a walk with God—picking up our cross daily and following Him. Our songs, like our lives, should be the innocent drawings of a child offered to a father. All a child wants to do is create an artistic expression that comes from her heart and give it to her father. That may sound trite, but it doesn’t get any better than that when you continue to press on with that motive, whether you are writing alone or with a fellow songwriter. At the end of the day, there is full joy and satisfaction in finishing a piece of art that will bring glory to God and will, hopefully, inspire others to look to Him. That is the kind of art that God uses to transform people’s lives.
Paul Baloche is the writer of such worship songs as “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Hosanna (Praise Is Rising),” “Your Name,” and many more. His new release of worship songs, Your Mercy, is coming out on Oct 7.