Local songs for local churches

On the 1st September 2022 a new season of the Resound Worship ’12 Song Challenge’ starts. This set of monthly songwriting challenges – and the amazing online community which has formed – is “working together to grow in their creative gifts and serve their local church”.

I’ve been a member of this community for a couple of years, and find the people incredibly generous with their time and talents, wonderfully supportive, and truly gifted in the songs they are writing for their local churches. Of course, I’ve signed up for the new season.

But what does that mean: ‘songs for the local church’?

What is ‘the local church’?

For the purposes of this discussion the local church refers to a gathering of worshipping Christians in a localised geographic area. Often this will be centred around a specific building – but the building is not the church, the people are! – or a collection of related fellowships.

Crucially, the local church is made up of people who know each other – who are involved with each others’ lives on a regular basis, both during scheduled worship times and during the rest of the week. The extent of that involvement will vary from church to church and person to person, but we’ll see later why this ‘knowing one another’ is important.

Also, before we move on, I should point out that the slightly tongue-in-cheek title of this post (which is, of course, a reference to ‘The League of Gentlemen’) is meant with no disrespect!

What is a song?

In our discussion a song is lyrics set to music for use in congregational worship. That is, words written for the church to sing together. The only limits for these songs (past the obvious ones of theological accuracy and singability) are practical, based on style and arrangement. Each church is constrained by the musicians and resources available to them. A song which only works with a string orchestra won’t sound great with two recorders and a banjo, so in my experience churches have to be incredibly resourceful in how they use what they have.

So, what are ‘songs for the local church’?

We’re talking here about songs written by and for the local church. Songs written by members of the local church, for use in their own worshipping context (although some songs may get more widely shared).

The by and for bits are important: these are songs which reflect the life, struggles, hopes, dreams, prayers, and vision of the local church. They are songs which, while they may not name specific people in the fellowship, are about subjects familiar to the local people.

Here are a few examples of subjects local songs may tackle, although there’s no limit to what local songs can talk about, and human experience is often very similar across the world.

  • Social issues experienced locally: e.g. poverty, deprivation, crime
  • Particular physical or mental struggles experienced by church members: e.g. grief, depression, cancer
  • The aims of the local church: e.g. to reach out to the hurting, be a place of hope, plant more churches in nearby areas
  • Express aspects of worship relevant to the local church: joy, wonder, confusion

The bottom line here is the songs should be representative of that local church – even if the song is equally applicable to other local contexts. After all, a song named “Praise the God of creation” might represent a congregation with a focus on ecology as well as many other fellowships.

Songs in the Bible

If we look in the Bible we can see dozens of examples of songs which were written specifically about local issues of the time. The very first song in the Bible, in Exodus 15, was a song of thanks and praise after the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt. In fact, it almost looks like it’s a co-write between Moses and Miriam. The song names specific things about what happened – the waters closing over their enemies – amongst exclamations of praise and wonder, and declarations of the power and nature of God.

The book of Psalms is also chock-full of context-specific songs. We can see that by the inscriptions given to many of the chapters. Some of these are specific to the writer:

Psalm 3: A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.
Psalm 102: A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.

Some are about specific events or times in the life of the community:

Psalm 30: A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.
Psalm 92: A psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day.

And many are for specific people in the fellowship:

Psalm 85: For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.

I’m no Bible scholar, but I suspect many of the Psalms reflect what was happening to the writer, or in the context in which they lived, at the time of writing. That’s to be expected: songs are mainly written from the personal perspective of the writer. As humans we have to work hard to see other perspectives to our own.

Before we look at the New Testament, there’s another example of local context-centric songwriting. In Judges 5 a song is sung by Deborah (who sounds like a formidable lady) which is utterly full of specific references to events that have just happened. The words in this song, like so many others in the Bible, may have meant something quite different – and probably a lot more personal – to the people hearing them at the time, than they do to us.

In the New Testament we are also encouraged to use music in worship. Both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are clear that ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ are to be used for the benefit of each other. While the early church had the Jewish scriptures to draw on, I suspect there were new songs being written at the time which expressed the fresh truth about Jesus. Those songs would have been almost exclusively written and used by the local church – there wasn’t much of a publishing industry back then!

Sing a new song

We are also exhorted in Psalms 33, 96, 98, 149, and in Isaiah 42:10 to “sing to the Lord a new song”. Even in the book of Revelation new songs are being sung (Rev 5:9, 14:3). It’s clear we shouldn’t rest on the laurels of previously-composed songs.

But why? Does God have a short attention span, constantly needing something fresh to liven up the boredom of being eternally worshipped? Of course not. I believe new songs are required for us. Writing new songs encourages us to remember what God has done for us, to put it into new words, to dig deeper into our understanding of his nature and love for us, and to express the full range of human emotion in ways that keep us sharpened.

New songs – particularly new local songs – help us to re-connect with ourselves, the world around us, and with God. So I believe that new local songs are vital for the worshipping life of a fellowship. I have three specific reasons why.

Why we should encourage local songwriting

First, it’s Biblically appropriate. We have seen many examples in the Bible where songs were written to celebrate specific events, express deep emotion, or draw together a worshipping community in vision and faith. It seems clear that songs written within the context of a local worshipping community can do the same today.

Second, local songwriting is culturally authentic. We don’t have to use songs where the musical style or language doesn’t suit our local context. We can write songs which are by us and of us.

Thirdly, it is pastorally encouraging to give people in a fellowship the opportunity to write songs which will be used in worship by that community. For some of us, songwriting gives us a way to engage with the Bible, our own beliefs, and with our context at a deeper level than thinking alone. Sometimes the fruits of that writing can be beneficial for the wider congregation.

It’s “and”, not “instead of”

None of what I’ve said is meant to be taken as a call to “Reject Redman!” or “Boycott Bethel!”. Worship leaders should draw on the best songs that meet the needs of their congregations, whether they were written by professional musician in a Californian mega-church, or by a teenager in your local church. Likewise, we shouldn’t be constrained by the age of the song – we have hundreds of years of history in writing music for worship, and we should draw on it all – whatever is appropriate to our local context.

We should also take care to ensure the quality of songs – whoever they are written by – is high. By quality I mean ensuring that they are theologically accurate, linguistically coherent, and musically pleasing! There is also a direct and sobering warning in Amos 5:23 that God will reject sung worship if the heart of the worshipper is not set on the right things. Encouraging local songwriting is not an excuse to pander to dreams of international fame.

What does seem strange to me is the common assumption that we should only use “proper”, published songs in our churches. While there are undoubtedly anointed songwriters who work professionally in the Christian music industry, deferring to only using their songs should be as strange to us as a world where we only use prayers centrally published, or only give sermons written by celebrity preachers. Let’s unlock the potential in our local churches to use songwriting as a way to express ourselves to God, and to share His love with the people around us.