Singing a New Song to the Lord


In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul notes that there seems to have been a problem in church because too many people wanted to participate at once. (The professional priesthood seems to have put an end to that nowadays.) It seems that, among all of the tongues-speakers and prophets there may also have been many singers and song-writers. Wouldn’t it be great if new songs – written by local church members – became a normal part of church life? Let’s talk about how that might happen in a local church…

We sang a variety of songs from the Celebration Hymnal at our “service” this morning (June 12) that illustrate the basic techniques Christian songwriters use to craft new songs.

In the first, All Praise to Our Redeeming Lord, Charles Wesley basically re-uses the popular tune of O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing and puts new words to it. (Perhaps the most famous secular example of this is how the American national anthem originated from a popular English drinking song’s tune.) I used the tune from a Celtic song sung by the Rankin Family as the basis for O Lord My God You Live In Light.

In second and third songs, Bible passages are either paraphrased (Ah, Lord God ) or used verbatim from a particular translation (Seek Ye First). The rhythmic structure of the verse or paraphrase as spoken by the composer usually gives the passage enough of a musical phrasing that it inspires a melody. I did this in the choruses of Hallelujah, A Fire From the Presence of God and The Suffering Servant.

The fourth song, O Worship the King, was probably inspired by reflections on God’s greatness from both Scripture and theology. Scripture probably gave the writer some of the the language, and likely theology gave him the overall theme of the song. These songs are often used for both praise and teaching, so they tend to be longer and often have more verses. I did this for the song A House For God’s Name and the verses of A Fire From the Presence of God. The former song began as a mediation on God’s promise to David and its continuation in Jesus building up the church as “God’s Temple of Praise”. The latter song began as a theological reflection on the theme of fire from heaven in Israel’s and the church’s histories.

Notice that some of these techniques can be combined in the same song.

It is important to remember that once the initial inspiration for a tune or a lyric (usually a poem of some type) comes into your head, there is still much work ahead to craft it into a worship or teaching song.

First of all, we will need to remember it. For those of us not familiar with music notation (almost all of us here at Wascana Fellowship) that probably means writing down the words in poetry form so that at least the rhythm and meaning are preserved long enough for more work to be done. Another method is to have a (preferably portable) recording device handy to catch those moments of inspiration as they occur.

It is a good idea to consider working with someone else who has skills that complement one’s own. For instance, not many people can write good lyrics and also write a good tune. Combining talents with people we trust can work in unexpectedly great ways.

There are really good tips for how to start and finish songs for church at the following websites: ehow.com and ccli.com. Read them critically, of course. For instance, most of us literally cannot “write the melody” before writing the lyrics if our lives depended on it. Most of us can, however, write the lyrics first.

The most silly advice of all, however, is “add some scripture.” If you aren’t living and breathing the Scriptures already, why are you bothering? The Scriptures will be the bedrock and source of your inspiration most of the time if you are spending quality time with them and in prayer.

We finished our time together with a non-instrumental “jam session” on how we might make a song from a particularly inspiring scripture. We got as far as phrasing John 10:3 in this form:

He goes before them
And the sheep will follow,
For they hear (the sound of) His voice.

Let us hear His voice
Let us flee the stranger
Let us run away from this foe.

(As I hear this spoken I imagine hear Kenny Rogers singing a country-style melody…)

We eventually got side-tracked with songs already written and were unable to craft the above into a song together as I had been hoping at the outset. I was wondering once we got home if I had wasted everyone’s time on this experiment, when an e-mail came in from one of our participants. It contained three verses and a chorus, without score or melodic line. The writer wondered if this could be turned into a song.

A melodic line just jumped out at me from the words. It took less than an hour to turn it into a basic song, and about another half-hour to produce a lead sheet. Since I have no imagination, I just used the first few words as the title: O Thou Shepherd of Love

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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