Russ Hutto explains his writing process:
Songwriting, to me, is a discipline. It’s a set of skills that you have to continue to hone. You have to work out your songwriting muscles regularly to keep them from atrophying. I’m sure there are those who write gold and platinum hits with every pen stroke, but for the rest of us songwriting commoners we have to work at it.
I write faith-oriented songs for worship. Well, technically, I write other stuff, too, but for this post it’s all about writing songs to be used in worship settings.
Most, if not all of my worship songs come directly from scripture. There’s a plethora of ideas and in my opinion the best source for writing songs for worship. So, I try and read scripture. A lot of it. I don’t mean legalistically, but it’s a great idea to soak in it, to meditate on it. You want to write from a place of experience and familiarity with Scripture. Don’t just throw a dart at a random Psalm and make a song out of it.
1. Take a short scripture passage
…that has been speaking to you. Boil it down to one theme. I usually try to keep it to 4 verses or less. I’ll be using Psalm 63:1-4:
1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.
Theme that I’ll focus on: God fills, quenches, and satisfies us in desert seasons.
It might take a while to actually boil it down because sometimes you’ll see more than one theme jump out at you. Which is actually a good thing. Use a songwriting notebook and catalog those ideas for later use. You can actually write multiple songs from even the shortest passages.
2. Paraphrase and Rewrite:
You’ll want to reword or paraphrase some of the scripture lines for singability. Sometimes you don’t have to. But for me, I tend to like to actually “write” a song and not just lift* it directly from the pages of Scripture.
Using Psalm 63:1-4 and the theme of “satisfied” as my example:
I might rewrite this phrase: Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you
Your love is so amazing, I can’t help but praise You with my song
Because of Your amazing love, I’ll sing my praise to You
We will sing our praise to You, You’ve loved us more than we could know
The point is that you can say basically the same thing many different ways. I believe, that depending on the translation you start from, it might actually benefit you and those that hear your songs to actually hear different versions of the same concept. Why? Well, for one thing if you’re writing for an environment that hopes to include those who are far from God, you don’t want to be “churchy” sounding with all of your songs.
There’s a time and a place to sing “Majesty, worship his majesty, unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise…” but there’s also a time and a place to sing the same concept but more like “We’ve come to celebrate the greatness (majesty) of Jesus, we give him all of our praise!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Majesty, it’s a great song. Probably one of the most popular contemporary worship songs of the 20th century (and with good reason).
Just make sure that you are conveying the concept in a clear and concise way.
Question to ask yourself when writing from Scripture: If I didn’t grow up in church, wasn’t on staff (paid or volunteer), or had only been in church for a very short time would I still understand the wording of this song?