Ministry Today magazine cover

Write Songs That Transform





Great songwriting doesn't happen by accident. These keys will help you unlock the doors to creativity ... and change people's lives.


I had just finished leading worship for a Promise Keepers event on the East Coast. I was exhausted as I left the huge stadium and couldn't wait to get some rest. I was on a huge spiritual and emotional high from the meeting, and the realization that I was in an unfamiliar city far away from home soon hit me pretty hard.

In my hotel room after the meeting, I struggled with the temptation to flip on the TV set that had quite a few channels I had no business watching. I finally prayed, "Lord, after all You've done for me I'm not going to do this." I committed myself not to turn on the television, period. No matter what.

It wasn't long before I picked up my electric guitar and started strumming. Suddenly, God seemed to be saying, "Well, here's your gift for honoring Me tonight." Words started to come, and I heard a song lyric: "That's why we praise Him / That's why we sing."

I grabbed some paper and started writing. I felt like God was telling me, "Look what I can do with a little act of obedience." It was one time when I knew a song was coming that would touch a lot of people.

The result was "That's Why We Praise Him"--featured on the WOW Green worship CD, Promise Keepers' Go the Distance CD, SongDiscovery Volume 17 and Christian Assembly's Live at Home double CD. I slept that night with a sense of having honored God. More important, many thousands of people have come to Christ's throne to worship Him because of a simple act of obeying God.

That song came to me with relatively little effort, but that usually isn't the case. Songwriting--yes, even writing songs that bring people into God's presence--requires discipline and purpose to achieve results. If you have the creative gift, thank God for it every day. Nevertheless, you probably have found that songwriting has a practical side as well--that is, mining gems from your creative ability requires work.

Here are a few practical keys I've learned that will help you unlock your creative doors and find those hidden treasures.

Make time for it. Writing a song is rarely a necessity. Very few people are fortunate enough to earn a good living as songwriters. Songwriting generally gets moved down the list behind studying for a test, buying groceries, attending your child's school play or going to work.

Neither does songwriting happen by accident. You have to be disciplined and purposeful about it.

One of my better-known songs, "He Knows My Name," was written from nothing but sheer discipline. My pastor wrote a sermon with this title and asked me to write a song to go with it. I wasn't inspired in any way. The song really didn't excite me as it developed and took form.

If I hadn't set the time aside to finish what I originally thought was a very mediocre song, I would have missed an opportunity for God to bring thousands of people to Christ through one of my songs. You do not know the eternally meaningful things that can come from a song you haven't created yet.

If you aren't naturally disciplined, then you should carve out some assigned time in which to create. Choose a specific time during the day or night when you know you're free to apply yourself to songwriting.

Commit to writing for a short period of time, say 15 minutes a day. Do nothing else during those 15 minutes. Even if you merely sit in your chair staring at a blank sheet of paper for 15 minutes, do nothing else but think about the song you're working on.

The first day you might write only a word or two or a note or two. Or you might write nothing. It doesn't matter--just stay with it for 15 minutes. The days following may produce the same results, but eventually you'll find that your 15 minutes ends with some progress that appears on paper or on your tape recorder. When it's easy for you to stay with it for 15 minutes, bump the time up to 30 minutes, and so on.

Realize songwriting is spelled w-o-r-k. Learn this fact early, because a songwriter's biggest enemy is unfinished songs--the ones you left behind because you got tired or lazy or discouraged by how a song was turning out. Force yourself to finish those songs that you aren't 100 percent confident with. The cold ideas eventually will turn hot--like water running through a faucet--if you don't stop the flow. Some of my best songs are the ones I almost abandoned.

In addition, I encourage new songwriters to get as much music-theory education as possible. Your ability to write great worship songs increases with the more you know about music, the more instruments you play and the more musical styles you become acquainted with. If you study, work hard at your music, apply yourself and have some ability, then you'll be ready when inspiration hits.

Let me assure you that I'm not suggesting you re-enroll as a music major at the nearest college. Actually, you don't have to know as much as you might think. Some of the really great songwriters don't even read music.

Some musicians, many times classical ones, are gifted at reading and performing a piece of music with exact perfection every time. Other musicians can't play a simple piece the same way twice but have a gift for creating new music.

That's where songwriters come in, and that's why you don't have to be extensively educated. There are plenty of musicians out there who can perform your song to perfection after you've written it.

My own formal music education is an accumulated total of about one full year of music school, plus an additional six months of private guitar lessons.

Develop a tough skin. Most creative people who are successful didn't get that way overnight. They received lots of rejection and discouragement on the way, but they persistently refused to quit. Some of the most gifted people I know have never reached their potential because they are too afraid of rejection.

I had a friend many years ago who experienced rejection after presenting a song to a band. He vowed to never try again. I felt my friend had a more natural gift for songwriting than I have. But he just wasn't willing to take the risk. He could have written songs that saved lives, but he gave up too soon because of fear, pride and self-concern.

As a teenager I played in a Christian band. I remember writing a song that I was convinced was absolutely awesome. I just loved it. The guys in the band were all my best friends, so I sang the entire song for them.

Every one of them almost died laughing. They literally told me it was the most stupid song they'd ever heard. I was crushed, but God enabled me to keep trying.

All artists risk rejection, but songwriting feels like one of the most risky of all art forms because writing good songs requires that you pour so much of yourself into it. But let me assure you, it is worth it. It is worth the time. It is worth risking failure.

Great songs aren't written but rewritten. Or so it's been said. Keep in mind, though, that it is possible to rewrite a song too many times. Be careful not to overwork a song just because you feel it could benefit from a rewrite. This is especially true if you are in a writing slump. The point is, it's better to have one imperfect but completed song in your files than an entire collection of forgotten and unfinished songs.

Those "imperfect" songs, however, may be better than you think. Be willing to ask someone else to listen to them. It's easy for "creative types" to get worked up about something that seems significant to us when, in fact, we're concerned about something that doesn't really matter. Let someone else's perspective help restore your objectivity. Proverbs 19:20 tells us to listen to advice and accept instructions and that in the end we will be "wise."

Songwriting is simply an art form, and art is all about creative possibilities. Who would have thought that God was presenting me with a creative opportunity that night when I was alone in my hotel room?

Therefore, be cautious that you don't overspiritualize how a song is birthed. Some songs are written in minutes; some take months. In the end it's about a gift and a call God has given you.

It's not as much about the song as about what God does through it.


Tommy Walker is a popular worship leader who has written songs for Promise Keepers and Greg Laurie's Harvest Crusades.

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