As worship leaders, writing and arranging songs for congregational singing is something most of us hold, or would like to hold, as a value. (By writing I mean creating an original song. By arranging I mean taking an already existing song, typically a hymn, and altering it instrumentally and on the very rare occasion, adjusting the melody).
Even if we don’t have the most talented musicians or the most expressive group of people to lead, music matters because it’s part of our calling, to proclaim the gospel through music. So we do the best we can with the people and resources God has given us.
At the same time, music can’t be the primary focus.
What always takes precedent over the music is the gospel. We aren’t going to make the gospel sound any better than it already is, so our goal in writing music or arranging songs must be approached with humility and with a desire to call attention to the creator—not the created. Arranging and writing music can be fun, but it’s not essential.
There are a ton of great writers out there that have written music for their church, and there’s nothing wrong with playing their songs as is. But if you’re natural bent is to want to write or you would like to but just don’t know where to begin, the best place to start is by developing some basic practices. By no means are my ways perfect, but maybe you’ll see some fruit in the same ways I have by putting some of these thoughts into action.
- Participation and engagement is part of our job. A good friend of mine who was the lead singer of a band for many years told me something that has really stuck with me as a worship leader. He told me that when he was writing a song he always had the crowd in mind and how they would interact with the song. Now obviously as worship leaders, this is a little different since the focus isn’t on the congregation, it’s on Jesus, to whom we are calling the congregation to respond in expressive worship. With the help of the Word, we can biblically call people to respond in singing, shouting, clapping, etc. (Psalm 47:1-2). So it’s important when arranging to think about what kind of engagement you want a song to demand. I typically always start with rhythm. If lyrically the song calls for declaration and energy, then it’s important to have a solid groove that clearly communicates, “this is a celebration song.”
- It’s okay to search for inspiration outside of the Christian music bubble. Often times we can get stuck in a rut with the way we are writing. If we don’t explore all kinds of different music than our creative tool box is going to be very limited, and more than likely we will become more and more disconnected from our context. Although most music out there doesn’t worship Jesus, it would be foolish to say that there isn’t something to be learned from the way secular artists write and arrange songs. After all, the gifts they have originate from God. When we become Christians, it’s not the gifts that change, it’s the regeneration of our hearts and the desire to no longer worship ourselves but worship Jesus as Lord.
- Have a clear vision for how you want the song to go. Most people in your band probably aren't great at arranging, even if they are talented musicians.You have to start teaching them your language and help them to learn how you think when arranging. As time goes on, the people in your band will begin to be able to take your ideas and help enhance the arrangement, making it a better song overall.
- Record all your ideas, constantly. I have almost 900 voice memos on my IPhone with about 40 of them being different versions of the song “All Creatures Of Our God and King.” Honestly, I have probably only used 3 of them but some of those ideas have wound up being inspiration for other songs. I don't know if your mind is like mine but I’m constantly thinking of stuff. Praise Jesus for technology that allows us to not forget ideas.
- Take risks. Not every arrangement will work and some of them will be absolute fails or sound like a total rip off. I can’t tell you how many times we have played a song that sounded more like a cover of a pop song, or was so busy that it left very little room for the congregation to participate. We shouldn’t pursue failure, but it’s important when it comes not dismiss it. Failure has a way of providing insight not only into our musical mistakes, but also our sin and our hearts tendency to make the focus more about us than Jesus.
Zach Bolen is the leader of the band Citizens, and worship leader at Mars Hill Church U-District in Seattle, Wash. Visit: http://marshill.com/music/artists/citizens.