It's fun to write songs. I mean, sitting in front of a blank page and essentially making something out of nothing is pretty wild. But when we write for the church, we invite responsibility and holiness to the party, and kick good ol' ego out.
Songwriters are first of all image-bearers (Genesis 1:27) and gift-bearers (1 Corinthians 12:1-11), invited to take part in God's creativity as it continues to be expressed in His world. In western culture, armed with a handful of keys and a limited variety of popular instruments, you'd think we would have exhausted this creativity by now - but we haven't, and we never will. That's why the Psalms (Psalm 96:1), Isaiah (Isaiah 42:10), and Revelation (Revelation 5:9) all implore us to sing the new song that God has given us (Psalm 40:3), doing so joyfully and with great skill (Psalm 33:3).
Just as any member of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) or season of life (Ecclesiastes 3:1) has its purpose, so does each song we write. Even within sacred music there is a distinction between songs for inspiration, songs for reflection, and songs for worship (Ephesians 5:18-20). Obviously, songs can fall into any or all of these categories, but I'm specifically addressing songs for worship here.
We know that worship can happen any time, anywhere, with any prompting. Any song can invite people to worship God, but in a church setting, there are some general rules of thumb that help a song reach a more general population in congregational worship:
Our One True God is the only source of truth, and His living Word is revealing that truth to us each time we engage it. Songwriters have to fight the tendency to include personal opinion, perspective, or experience in these songs, as those elements are rarely universally true. Scripture is jam-packed with themes and stories for the taking, so why would we ever have to create our own? Through our songs, we're helping to form the congregation's beliefs, so let's do that with great Biblical integrity.
If we want our churches to sing the songs we write, they have to be physically capable of doing so. It's nearly impossible to know what your congregation's vocal boundaries are, but in general, try to keep the low notes above low C and the high notes below high D. Men, women, boys, and girls all have different comfortable vocal ranges, but this is at least a good place to start. You can always write your songs in whatever key is comfortable for you, and simply transpose it when sharing it with the church.
Also, melody lines can't been overly complicated and jumpy. Hymns actually have a bad reputation for this. though we don't notice it much as many of us have been singing these for years with our noses buried in the graphical ups and downs of the hymnal clefs. On top of that, the music behind each hymn is typically the melody and harmonies pounded out clearly for you to follow. Unless you're using hymnals in worship, or want to display a follow-able melody graphic on the screen, or want to change the music behind your song, it's best to keep melody lines simple and predictable.
Further, please keep the melody line consistent. If the first verse has a set melody, please don't totally change it up in the second. The goal is to keep the congregation from getting lost as much as possible, and a shifty melody is a sure-fire way to get them flustered. We don't want to keep the congregation guessing; we want to keep them worshiping.
Some (perhaps mostly musician-types) might complain that these restrictions make congregational worship songs "boring". OK, maybe, but I believe God would rather have "boring" and worshipful than entertaining and lost. Besides, there are thousands of other ways to spice up your songs. It's worth noting that, over the years, the best songs haven't always been the most complex - they're the ones we feel part of. We're not out to get street cred for muicality
As a songwriter, if you like singing the song, chances are the congregation will, too. We want to write songs that don't just communicate, but stick. If you can get somebody to be excited about singing your song in church, that's a win!
Songwriters really need to be in touch with their specific congregations and communities, because that's the context from which the truest and most relevant messages will come. Stylistically, think about what genres your congregation listens to, and write for that. Thematically, think about what issues your community is facing, and write to that. Perhaps there's a gap in theology your church needs to step into a bit more: social justice, the Holy Spirit, creation, the Triune God, evangelism, spiritual integrity, and so on. Press into these topics, armed with scripture, and even if your song doesn't leave the living room, it has still invited you to deepen your understanding of who God is.
It's no small thing to ask our churches to sing our songs for 30 minutes each week. There's a lot of trust in that. So let's use the songs we write to engage, disciple, encourage, and guide our congregations to a true and lasting connection with the One True God.