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Songwriting Workshop 1: Who are you writing for?

You probably remember from grade school - especially if you are still in grade school - the importance of knowing your audience.

  • What do they already know about this topic?
  • Are they experts, or have they never heard anything about it?
  • Are you reinforcing something they already believe, or are you challenging them to examine and perhaps change a belief?

Knowing your audience is critically important in Christian music.

Just what is Christian music?

This is an excellent time to ask exactly what 'Christian' music is. Is it music for Christians? Is it music to magically turn people into Christians? Is it music for people who used to consider themselves Christians? What if there is nothing overtly 'Christian' about the song at all?

These are easy questions to ask, but not always easy to answer.

Rather than trying to come up with one comprehensive definition of Christian music, let's make it personal to you and your songwriting: Let's say 'Christian music' is any music containing a message from God.

When we think of all the prophets God spoke through in the bible, he didn't just provide them with the message, he also told them who the message was for. Whether it was Moses being given the message for Pharaoh, or John being given the messages for the seven churches in Revelation, there was always an intended recipient.

Now the very fact that the messages are recorded in scripture means that they have value to others too. God can use a prophecy - or a song - to touch the lives and hearts of many people. But it seems there is pretty much always a primary intended recipient.

So let's refine our definition of 'Christian music' to say that it is any music containing a message from God, that he has told you to deliver to someone.

So you don't just need to know the message, you need to know who it's for. Don't push this too far: Sometimes God just says speak, and then you need to obediently speak, and you may never know who it was really for. Most of the time, you'll probably find there will be a designated recipient for your message in song.

You will find that asking 'Who is it for?' is surprisingly valuable in focusing your song.

We can look at two examples to help you answer this key question for your own song.

Example 1: Praise and worship songs

You might say your song is intended for a congregation to praise God. But is your message for the congregation? Or is your message for God?

Depending on the answer, you will have two completely different songs.

  • A song for the congregation might encourage them to remember praise or thank God, and remind them of some great reasons for doing that. But the song is to the congregation, not to God. It is a song of exhortation, not actually a song of praise or thanksgiving.
  • In contrast, if the song is a message to God that is being sung by the congregation, it might be truly a song of praise or thanksgiving because it is directed to God.

When you look closely at many songs we might consider songs of praise, worship or thanksgiving, you'll see that many are in fact songs encouraging us to praise, worship, or give thanks. These are really songs we sing as a congregation to each other, not to God. There isn't actually any praise, worship or thanksgiving there. That's not a bad thing in itself, but we'd certainly want to follow a song where we tell each other to praise God with a song that actually does praise God.

So especially if you imagine your song being sung in a worship service - make sure you know who is your song really addressed to: Is it to God, or is it to the congregation?

Sometimes of course a song may be addressed to more than one person. Some of the psalms are great examples of that. You can almost picture the psalm like an actor on a stage, first listening to the soul and all its woes, then explaining God's greatness and goodness to the soul. Once the soul is convinced, it turns and praises God. Psalms often provide a complete play in only a single chapter.

Your song can do that too. But make sure at every stage you know exactly who that part of your song is addressed to, and make you don't lose your listeners in confusion along the way.

Example 2: Listening songs

You might say your song is for someone to learn about God's love. Do they already know God? Do they already love God? Maybe you see your song being performed by a soloist in a worship service.

But perhaps your song about God's love is for people that currently hate God. They think they know him, though they don't, and what they know of him they have rejected. Perhaps the message in your song is so subtle that it is on the radio without many people really realizing it is Christian at all, even though the truth is hidden in plain view.
Maybe you imagine your song being heard 'accidentally' on the radio, where the Holy Spirit will use God's word in your song to melt a hurt and hardened heart.

What you will say in your song - and even more especially how you will say it - is going to depend a lot on who your audience is.

What is more, the 'worship' version of your song for Christians might be rejected outright by the person that hates God. And the song as done for the person that hates God may be rejected by the Christians because it is not overtly 'Christian' enough.

Being all things to all people can be a good goal. But it may not be a realistic goal for your song.

Considering the audience is not only a matter of the actual words.

There are of course many other style and genre factors. A song written in a style that may be perfectly suited for the radio may not be considered appropriate in the context of a worship service. That could be because there's a big dynamic range, the music or vocals are very 'showy', or a dance or rap track doesn't fit in with the general musical style of the service (the same might be said of a great hymn on the radio that might be out of place in a very rap-y style of service). And for some worship songs, there can be a 'you need to be there' element that means the song doesn't really work when it is not sung live.

Where does your song fit?

It's wonderful to hear of the amazing songs that defy categorization, or create entirely new genres. Songs that completely transcend demographic or cultural groups. But they are very much the exception. Unless your song is exceptionally strong, your audience won't follow you if the song is too far out of their current comfort zone.

So for most of your songs, you need to consider who your audience is, and broadly what category your song is in.

Christian music is sometimes divided into 'church' songs and 'listening' songs. We think of 'church' songs being praise or worship, usually sung by a congregation. 'Listening' songs are sung by a practised performer or group. It can be a useful distinction, because songs that will be sung by a congregation may need to be much more constrained musically.

However, as we have seen, some 'church' songs are not truly praise or worship songs at all - they are songs to help each other learn. Similarly, there can be songs of praise that would be impossible for a congregation to sing, so they might be 'listening' songs, but nonetheless they are really intended for singing as part of a worship service.

So another distinction relevant to Christian songs might be between 'praise' songs, and 'learning' songs.

Praise, worship and thanksgiving songs always need to be directed to God - there is simply no-one else that can receive our praise, worship or thanks. Whether sung by one voice in church or on the radio, or written for a choir in a stadium, the song will always be a praise song. We could say all other Christian songs are 'learning' songs - they are songs from one human to another, helping the listener learn to change an attitude, deepen their trust, or something wonderful about God.

Exercise 1.3

Using your workshop song, select or complete the following statements. If you need more than a sentence, maybe you need a more specific focus to your song.

  • My song is intended for...
  • My intended audience knows/doesn't know...
  • My intended audience has experienced something that will help them connect with this song, specifically...
  • Select one:
    • My song is a praise, worship or thanksgiving song, and it is directed towards God.
    • My song is a learning song, and it is directed at fellow humans.
    • My song is a complicated song that talks to both people and to God, but I promise to be very careful and avoid confusing everyone along the way.
  • Select one:
    • My song is mainly for group singing, as in a worship service, bible study, or camp.
    • My song is mainly for singing by a practised solo singer or group.

That's the end of session one. We'll continue on in July with session two, where we look at lyrics. If you have ideas on how to improve the workshop, please contact us.

Just what is 'Christian' music, and who are you writing it for?