Publisher of the Year, Stephen Duncan, joins us from Nashville to discuss the ins and outs of writing great, God-honoring worship songs for your congregation. Every congregation is unique and is walking through a unique set of experiences and circumstances. It is vital that we as the worship leaders give our church the language and words to express their prayers to God.
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Songs are time-capsules, altars, weapons and medicine. – Tweet That!
Songs meet people where they are at and yet move them one step closer to Christ. – Tweet That!
Our job is to put the truths on our people’s lips that they need to be singing. – Tweet That!
Alex Enfiedjian 00:11 Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the worship team podcast. My name is Alex Enfiedjian, and I am your host. Hey, thanks so much for being a listener to this podcast. If you’ve been a longtime listener, we love you, we thank you. And if you’re new listener, thank you for listening and welcome. I hope you find this episode to be enjoyable. And I hope you’ll check out some of our older episodes from the previous year, we had a lot of great topics, so check it out, you can go to Alexon music.com slash episodes, I believe I might be wrong, whatever, go try it, you might get a 404. Anyway, today is Episode 16 of the podcast and we have the great honor and privilege of talking to Stephen Duncan. Stephen is a publisher songwriter out in Nashville, Tennessee, actually Franklin, Tennessee, and he has just an incredible wealth of experience. In five short years in the music industry, he has gotten cuts from artists that I mean, you know, every single name, they’re all over the radio, they’re all over, you know, top charts. He is the man who took the song from the songwriter and got the song cut by the artist. He is also a professional songwriter. So he knows a lot about a good song. And last year, Steven actually had the privilege of winning publisher of the year, which is a huge deal. And that’s just how good he is at recognizing a great song and getting it into the right hands. And so I’m excited to have Steven on a podcast today to talk to us about writing songs for your church. Why should we write songs for our church? How do you write a song for your church? How do you know when it’s finished, we get into the nitty gritty, the practical tips and steps that Stephen takes and that you know, you can take to one become a songwriter and to improve your songwriting. And three to just write great songs for your congregation that hey, maybe one day we’ll be used across the globe to bring people closer to Christ. So I’m really excited about this episode. And I think you’ll really enjoy it. So enjoy this interview with Steven Dunkin.
Alex Enfiedjian 02:33 Hey, everybody, I’m here with Steven Dunkin, a friend of mine, but I’m honored to know, Steven, thank you for being here with us today. Yeah, thanks for having me. Steven, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and what you’ve done in the music industry, maybe five years from today. And now what you’re doing in the music industry?
Stephen Duncan 02:56 Yeah. So I’ll back it up even the six years ago from today. Six years ago, I graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. belmonts, known for music, business and songwriting. And so I graduated as the first songwriting major from their program in December of 2009. I was their test child, I like to say, of the program, they experimented a lot on on me, so I got to enjoy some of the benefits of being the first one and some of the downfalls of being the first one. After that, I went home for just a very, very short, short bit, back to Iowa. Then I went on tour with Don Williams, who’s a Country Music Hall of Fame artists doing merchandise for him. That got me a job on the Matthew West tour, doing merchandise for him as well for the story of your life tour. That’s where I met my wife, Mary Elise. After that, after we got married, I got into publishing with de wind, which is Southern gospel record label. I started the contemporary division of publishing there, signed, my first writer, had a slew of cuts that first year was kind of starstruck and had a great time and just got my feet wet into publishing and pitching songs and working with writers. Then one of my mentors in the industry, he called me up and said, hey, you’re getting a lot of cuts over there. I’d love for you to come work for me. So I got a job offer at centricity records. So I went to work at centricity in the publishing division. That’s where I helped him create a company called centric worship, which is a worship publishing and record label at the same time, mentoring, worship writers working with churches, creating a lot of songs and resources for the church. Fast forward to this last year in March, I started Out of that, to be a full time mentor for songwriters, I do mentorships and song critiques and retreats, as well as I’m a full time songwriter myself. So I’m writing for the church, I’m writing for radio, I’m writing for just about everything. And even more recently, in the last maybe four or five weeks, my wife and I have just started to consult with churches, where we partner with worship leaders and pastors on helping train their worship teams, help with them and their vision, casting, worship, riding, supplying resources to them and covering leadership and prayer everything under the sun that has to do with worship. So that’s really a really quick nutshell of who I am. There’s a lot that happened in those last six years. But that’s just a glimpse into who I am and why I’m we’re talking today,
Alex Enfiedjian 05:55 man, that’s awesome. And Stephens very humble. So he didn’t brag, but I’ll brag a little bit for him. Because Steven has worked with amazing songwriters and amazing artists. And as he’s gotten songs cut, that you’ve heard on the radio, he’s worked with Lauren Daigle, I mean, all these huge names that that you would know, you know. And, Steven, I’m going to make your head real big here for a second. But Steve, actually one publisher of the year was it two years ago?
Stephen Duncan 06:23 It was at the beginning of this year, it was for last year. Okay. But it was at the beginning of this year.
Alex Enfiedjian 06:29 So he went publisher the year. So why is Steven on the podcast because Steven knows what a good song is. He know, he knows that when he hears it. He knows how to get it cut. So we’re super thankful for you to be on the podcast, Steven. And the purpose of this episode, Steven is really to one encourage worship musicians and worship leaders to begin writing songs for their congregation. And to to help them do it well. And that’s why you’re here to give us some practical tips and guidelines. But before we get into like the practical how tos of songwriting, I wanted you to give us like a 50,000 foot philosophical perspective, like the why of songwriting. What is a song? I mean, tell us like, what is a song? What does it do? And why do you think songs are important for our lives in our culture?
Stephen Duncan 07:21 Yeah, that’s a really good question. That’s a really tough question to answer. But I’ve had a little bit of time to think about the answer to this. So I’ll give you my best short description of what a song to me is. I’m sure everybody has their opinions on it. But for me, songs are time capsules. First. Second, they’re altars. They’re also weapons and their medicine. To me songs, recognize the promises of God fulfilled truths that we need to believe that we don’t yet believe they serve as weapons against the enemy, and healing medicine for the broken songs, meet people where they are, but hopefully, they can also take those people one step closer to God, after they they hear that song.
Alex Enfiedjian 08:19 thing does, there were like, a lot of tweets in there that so so that’s, that’s awesome. That’s a great philosophical reason, an explanation of what a song is in the Christian context, what it does. And so with that kind of description in mind, tell us Steven, why should churches consider writing songs for their congregation, instead of just using all of the great songs that are already out there? Yeah. Well,
Stephen Duncan 08:46 let me start by saying, I love Hillsong I love Bethel Church. I love Chris Tomlin. I love all these worship writers that are also putting out records. There are a lot of amazing worship songs out there. So should we as churches be using those songs? Absolutely. I can’t tell you that we should only be writing our own songs. But I do think that like I said earlier, songs are altars I want to zone in on that for a second. Because if you and I Alex have talked about this, before, the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River at one point in time. And and God called them to step into this raging river, it’s at flood stage, this thing will destroy them. He didn’t park the waters for them until they put their foot into that Jordan River. And then all sudden would they didn’t see was that God upstream was making the river pile on top of itself. And so then eventually the riverbed goes dry, they walk through, they get to the other side. What do they do though, before they get to the other side They start dragging these giant rocks and boulders into the middle of this river. Why? If you’re afraid of this river in the first place, and you don’t have a clue as to what’s going on, why would you take the time to drag boulders and stack them on each other in the middle of this river? It’s because that when the river starts to come back, and the water just starts to rise again, when they’re on the other side for years to come, not just then but for decades and generations afterwards, people come to this river, and they look in the middle of this raging river, and they see this giant Stone Tower. And they go, Wow, that is where God was faithful. To me. That is the key to worship, writing worship songs. And that’s why I believe that churches need to be writing songs for their own church. There are things that that church, each individual church is going through, that maybe Chris Tomlin or Hillsong, might be able to cover on a broad basis, but cannot speak to the depth and the magnitude of how God was working in that specific body. And that’s why it’s so so important that people write songs for their congregation, those truths get son over that body over and over and over again. Let’s say like for Marion, myself, what happened was when we got to when I stepped out of centricity, and I went into full time music ministry, I needed songs about God being my provider. I didn’t know yet the power of what that meant. I didn’t know that truth. I was very afraid of where it was my next paycheck coming from what was going to happen, God, what are you doing here, but I wrote songs about God’s provision. And so we wrote the songs, we sing them over ourselves, and then that becomes a truth in our life. Not because it was a truth, then but that’s because it’s, it’s always been a truth about God, that we needed to believe we sing them over ourselves, then we believe that then at that moment, that song becomes an altar in our life. And we can go back later and go, remember that time that we didn’t believe that God was the provider, but that song helped us get through? Yes, he will always was a great provider. Now we can rejoice in that fact, in that truth.
Alex Enfiedjian 12:30 So you’re saying like, we should be using the songs, the great songs that are already out there. But because no one knows our churches and the body of our congregation like we do. We need to be writing for our people to give them words to sing, that they need to sing that they might not even know that they need to sing yet. You’re saying that we need to provide a voice. And the words put words on their lips, that they that particular group of people in that particular place need to be saying so?
Stephen Duncan 13:01 Absolutely, absolutely. Because I think I think the outside songs are supplemental. But the core foundation of the movement forward in in that life of the church needs to come from a unified song that describes and take them through that season. I was just talking with one of my worship friends, Kevin linebarger, who just moved to Virginia. And he was talking about how this church that he’s serving at an amazing church, the the core at the church is such a strong Christian Foundation, they’re growing at leaps and bounds with the Common Core, resounding idea in the church is that they’re still they’re still fear. They still have experienced the presence of God, they know how magnificent he is. But there’s some sort of underlying issue of fear, whether it be the economy, whether it be, you know, the wars that are going on, and ISIS and all these different things that can attribute that. But Kevin is looking at it as an opportunity to write a song and introduce a song that says that God is bigger, that God is greater, and that we should not fear.
Alex Enfiedjian 14:21 That’s good. Okay, so now these people are listening. Hey, everybody listening and they’re thinking, Oh, okay, we got to start writing songs. Let’s let’s figure out how to do this. So yeah. Now there are many kinds of songs, there are pop songs, there are personal songs. There. I mean, there’s so many genres and songs, but tell us like, what’s the fundamental difference between a congregational song something to be sung in church and something that’s like, for the radio, like, I mean, obviously, we shouldn’t sing any song that one of our team members writes in church it might not be the right fit. So give us a Give us some qualifications for what makes a great worship song for the church.
Stephen Duncan 15:05 Sure. First thing would be I use the word vertical worship songs are very vertical. What do I mean by vertical? We’re talking directly to God, we’re talking about God, it’s very heaven focused. You talk about pop songs and other even just christian songs. They’re very horizontal. They’re talking about situations, they’re talking about relationships, they’re talking about fears and problems and things like that. They might give the answer to those problems, which is God, but they’re focusing more on the present situation and getting out of that, or describing a story or something like that, rather than having that direct connection to God. I touched on it just a little bit, then but situation versus feelings. And that would all be that horizontal focus, you shift into the vertical and worship filled focus. And that goes into never changing truths, promises of God and His character, you’re always trying to focus on who he is. I tell a lot of writers who are writing worship songs, a lot of times when they get started, it’s about us. And thank you, God for doing this for us. And I try to get at them very quickly off of that on to who is God and what what has he done? In spite of us? Yes, we are the recipients of Jesus go into the cross and dying. But did he die for us? Yes. But is the worship song about thank you for doing that for us? Or thank you for who you are. And you are love. And you are good. And we are the recipients of that? Yes. And we’re grateful for that. And we need to put that in songs. But we need less of the focus on thank you for doing things for us, and put it more on the focus of God’s character. And he is that no matter if we’re in the picture or not, he was love before we even existed. But those are the real basics. vertical, horizontal, and situational and feelings versus unwavering truths, promises and the character of God.
Alex Enfiedjian 17:24 That’s, that’s good. Now talk a little bit maybe about melodically and structurally like, what do you look at what there is, is a good congregational song. Yeah,
Stephen Duncan 17:37 it’s got to be accessible, people have to be able to sing it. If you’re ever standing in a church for long enough, you realize that there’s one guy standing behind you that can sing all of about five notes, before his voice starts to crack. And then you’ve got the soprano that can sing through the roof, and she’s singing all over the place. And she’s classically trained, you have to cater to everyone in that range. Because you want every one of those people to experience the presence of God and be ushered into that presence. So, melodically the melody has to stay right at about an octave. If you really are getting feisty, you can do an octave and a third. And that’s about it. Some of the songs nowadays that you’ll notice, you might get some listeners commenting back to you and saying, will I sing this Matt Maher song The other day, that’s like two two octaves, yes, what he’s doing and what some other people are doing these days are if the artist can sing it, then they sing one octave, and then they jump that perfect octave and sing the same melody but up an octave. That’s okay to write to. Because the, the congregation can still stay in that original octave if they can’t flip the octave with you. And so that’s okay, but you’re just not trying to expand your melody to two octaves and then come back down again. If you’re going to do it, then jump the jump the perfect octave. I would say rhythms need to be accessible to really cool, intricate pop rhythms are awesome to listen to. But if you put yourself into the shoes of somebody who’s never been in music, never ever really sung outside of church or their shower or their car before. Now they’re standing in a group of people trying to communicate with God, they, they need something that is very simple that they can latch on to does that. Am I telling you to not be creative? No, I want you to be very, very creative. But that almost puts you even into a smaller box that you have to be even more creative than normal to try to get something that is compelling. That is catchy. That we can latch on to from note one to the end of the song and remember it. I tell a lot of people with worship songs from the beginning. If they can’t catch on to the rhythm and the melody, and repeat it back to you after you only sing it to them once, then it’s probably not accessible enough. It’s not easy enough. Because the songs aren’t for entertainment value, these songs are ushering people into the presence of God, that is so important that it should not be overly complicated. It shouldn’t be overly theatrical, it should just express an emotion, an idea, and take them directly into that, so that the rhythms and the melody then don’t become a distraction that becomes a very integral part of this process. You asked a great question, I want to make sure I follow up on it on, you know, should any song that a worship team member writes be attempted to use as a congregational song? No,
Stephen Duncan 21:01 no, no, no. I would say a lot of that has to be filtered. We, at our church have 30 or 40, professional worship writers at our church, it’s phenomenal. We have you know, people who wrote I am redeemed and you your great name and revelation song and people like that, that come to our church. That’s amazing. But with all that our 30 to 40 writers are writing five songs a week, all year round. There’s so many songs to get through. So our worship pastor really has to crack down on the number of songs that we’re introducing, so that people don’t get bogged down with new songs. And he also has to have the vision to see those altar songs and how to step our congregation through that process. So I usually default to the worship pastor or the worship leader. And I would also throw out there, people who are more experienced, then you go to them, befriend them, get their help in listening to the songs and critiquing the songs, and really just hone in on what you’re doing. But man, I think worship pastors, I think, worship team members need to be fostering a songwriting community, within their church, within their region, their city, whatever that looks like. And really just connect with other people who are also writing for their churches so that they’ve got a solid foundation, they’ve got community, they know what the standard looks like. And then they have a support system that they can draw from, and get ideas help refine their songs, etc.
Alex Enfiedjian 22:47 I think that’s really good. And I kind of want to hone in on two things you said, accessible melodically rhythmically, you know, easy to, to hear, understand, respond. Like it’s not, you don’t have you don’t want people to have to think about what they’re singing, you just want them to sing it and for it to feel right and be the right emotion and not have to like, okay, what’s the next little weird syncopated part, but that’s coming up? Like how do I sing that, like, you just want people to get into the moment and sing so accessible? And then I think what you just said at the end here, which is like theologically filtered, you know, make sure that all the songs that you’re writing are getting looked at by a pastor and, and looked at by a leader who’s saying, No, you know, that’s actually not biblically accurate, like, you shouldn’t sing that song in our church. So I think both of those things are really key in, in writing congregationally it’s writing vertical songs for the people to sing. So it’s got to be accessible, but it’s got to be checked, because the last thing we want to do is put wrong things on our people’s lips. So that’s very, very good. Thank you. So as someone who sees I mean, you’re saying you have you know, 40 professional writers in your church, you’re seeing tons of songs, hearing tons of songs. What What do you wish you saw more of in the current generation of worship songwriting? Like maybe it’s a theme or maybe it’s I don’t know, what what do you feel like is lacking in the current churches expression of, of worship through song?
Stephen Duncan 24:20 First of all, I want to say this is probably the best question that you’ve come up with. This is a fantastic question. And, but what you just said about themes, it’s really interesting for me, I want to go on a tangent here for one second, and say that when people are really in tune with what God is saying, and they’re really waiting on God to reveal himself in his word to them, the same theme pops up in a lot of people’s, in their songs. In their spirit. They latch on to an idea and they run with it. The songs about fear like like Kevin’s Churches going through his church is not the only church and I’m not calling them out. There’s so many churches and people going through fear right now. It’s okay to have that feeling. But it’s not okay to stay there. And so there are a lot of worship leaders that are writing songs that overcome fear. So I would say the first thing is what I wish I saw more of were worship leaders and worship writers that waited for a revelation from God. It I can’t, you know, I can’t express that enough. When you’re reading the Word of God, it needs to be revealed to you, there’s a certain depth when you when you first look at a scripture, you can read it and for face value, you can gain a lot from that. But as you get into a deeper relationship with Christ, you realize, as you’re reading that scripture, as you’re seeing the songs, he starts to reveal another layer to you. And it becomes more practical for situations that are right in front of you. And there’s a depth that is in measurable that happens with that. And so that it’s so important to wait on God. There’s so many great writers that put people put great words on people’s mouth. But but they haven’t had that revelation with God themself. They know it to be true. they’ve read it in Scripture, they put it out there, because that’s what the Word of God said, great. But their songs lacks depth, because they haven’t had that experience themselves with with God. And so the first thing would be revelation of from God. The next thing, this is the only other thing that I would say is just raw and honest desperation for God. We have a lot of really nice, polished songs that are perfect. When you look at them on paper, when you listen to them, and production and, and lighting and everything, you just see perfection. But the thing about being a Christ follower, is that his power is made perfect in our weakness. So that raw, deep broken desperation for him, creates an even bigger, more perfect picture of who he is, through the lens of this broken world that we live in through these broken vessels in our bodies that we live in. And just us recognizing how desperate we really are for him. I don’t think a lot of people think about just the sheer desperation that we really should be having for him because he his life. And without him we were dying. And, and so that’s what that would be. That would be the second thing. It’s just desperation.
Alex Enfiedjian 27:54 Yeah. And I like the word use at the beginning of that raw desperation, not polished, not clean cut raw. And that I agree with that. I think one of the things that’s lacking in worship, writing is pure prayers, like, pure, not trying to be something, do something, make a hit, like just a pure prayer. And it’s even better if it’s a pure, well worded prayer, you know, those, I think those are the songs that the church can latch on to because it’s so authentic, and it’s just a simple prayer to God. And it’s raw, and it’s, you know, real. So thank you for that. Okay, Steven, let’s let’s just talk a little bit practically now. Like, we’ve got the why we should write, what we should write how we should write, but maybe help us refine how you know, our writing skills. Let’s say that some of the people listening are like, Alright, I want to start I don’t know how to start. So where would you tell them to begin, like, give some really practical next steps, even from like, starting a song? Or maybe talk about like, capturing ideas? Like, how do you know what to write about? And then all the way through to finishing it? And obviously, that’s going to be too much to cover in three minutes. But where do we start?
Stephen Duncan 29:11 Yeah, the notes section in your iPhone, voice memos. You know, Word documents, journals, wherever you’re capturing ideas, you’re putting them down. I would say the first thing that I would ask is God, what are you trying to say to me? And what are you trying to say through me to someone else, when when you get that transformational idea that he’s trying to say to you or through you, you put it on the top of a page, a real actual piece of paper, not in a notebook, not in your laptop, go right to a piece of paper, and put that at the top of the page. This is what God is trying to tell tell me or say through through me to someone else. Then I do something what I call is burst writing. For 10 minutes you set like a timer on your phone. Or an egg timer in your kitchen for 10 minutes. And what you do is you freeform write for 10 minutes, and you don’t let your pen stop on the page. What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to focus your thoughts around that one theme, you’re trying to really just energize that idea, latch on to it, go for it, get creative with it, let your brain go to weird places, let your songwriting get really weird for a second and creative. And then, and then after the end of 10 minutes, you highlight the things that stand out to you. Maybe there’s a line that you really loved and you want to put in the song, maybe there’s an idea that you’d like to expand upon things like that, then I would take that from all that, then I would write out a precise outline. What is that first verse gonna say? What does that second verse gonna say? What’s your chorus really trying to say in this song, third verse, then it’s going to come back to your chorus again, and then bridge, what’s your bridge going to say? You’re going to keep it really specific to that one idea. Make sure you’re not regurgitating information, make sure you’re not repeating anything twice in there. But that you’re really just honing in on an idea and unpacking that idea, the best that you can. Then you write the song, you start to plug in some of those ideas from your burst writing into those slots, you start to write a little bit more, you make it all kind of symmetrical. And then you’ve kind of finished your song and in a sense, but then you need to go back and rewrite, you need to edit. In I have a workbook where it has a checklist of things of rewriting, you need to write your own checklist of what you need to look for. Have you wronged face with grace and made an easy rhyme that you probably need to be a little bit more creative with? Are there things that are said that you need to describe in kind of a visceral sense, rather than just saying, you know, I love you, God, you say something like, God, you’re the breath in my lungs, and you’re the, you know, you’re the fire in my soul, and I love you know, can you describe love without saying love, you know, things like that. And then I would say, most importantly, community and feedback from other writers or more experienced creatives, you need to be able to bounce these things off of other people, even the greatest book writers, and the greatest business men and women, they have people in place to check them. They have publishers that are editors that edit them, they have managers and vice presidents that they run ideas by just to make sure Hey, is that good pastors for theological advice, but on the music side, other musicians and publishers and different song critique services. That’s, that’s what I would say, for that.
Alex Enfiedjian 33:04 That’s so amazing. Like, I’m so inspired right now, like, I want to go write a song. Here are some of the things that I do that maybe it will be helpful to someone but I have a little Evernote folder that just it’s called song phrases. And whenever I like, if I hear a sermon, and it sparks a line in my head, I put it down in that song phrase notebook. And, like, sometimes if I’m, it’s just like one word, and I hear I’m like, that would be an awesome theme to write about. Or it’s a combination of words, two words. And so I put all those in that notebook. And, and now lately, when I’ve been reading scripture, like if, if I feel like God’s got a phrase for me, I kind of just immediately hum, sing it, sing that phrase with the melody. And sometimes it’s really cool. And I record it on my iPhone. And sometimes it’s really lame, and I just let it be a prayer. You know, so kind of capturing those ideas when they’re fresh. And then, like Stephen said, sit down and really start to refine that idea and add a whole bunch of meat to those bones. So that’s but here’s the here’s the hard part. Stephen and I wrestle with this a lot. How do we know when a song is done?
Stephen Duncan 34:21 That’s an impossible question to answer, and I will do my best. You don’t? The short end of that answer is you don’t. I wrote. Um, I’ll read you a paragraph from the workbook that I created for the mentorship program, because I want to, I just want to encapsulate that a little bit. Because I’ve already thought about this. It says, The question that comes up the most during the rewriting process is how do I know when the song is finished? Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a writer is to separate yourself enough from the process that you can be objective about your own song. So how do you know when to stop editing your song and just let it stand out? On its own merit. That my friend is the question of all writers every last one. And unfortunately, there’s no answer, you can be confident in knowing your song is finished, and is well written when you’ve gone through the rewrite checklist thoroughly and honestly, and that rewrite checklist is in the workbook. And, you know, again, you should be creating your own rewrite checklist of you know, when they have copped out on an easy rhyme, when have not elevated an idea high enough, and just make make sure you have those checklists have I have I repeated a word more than once, have my, the pronouns Am I saying you, and then I’m saying he later about God, they should all be you directed at God, or they should be about him, they shouldn’t be about him. And then to him, and then about him, again, things like that. That’s in the rewrite checklist. And then I say, over time, you will develop better and quicker instincts until you reach a point where the rewrite process and the writing process will actually become one seamless effort. And then I say stay focused and have fun, that’s really, the key to all of it is, if this becomes too much work. If it becomes more work than mission, and fun, then Game Over, you’ve already you’ve already know that that song is not going to be a great song. So have fun, make sure you’re transforming somebody’s life, whether it’s your own or somebody else’s. And it’s okay to be like we said raw, but we do have to be excellent at what we do. So we have to give some checks and balances in our equation to make sure that we’ve done the best job that we possibly can do, because this is this is our gift back to God. This is our contribution to the kingdom. And so it really should be excellent in its nature, even if it’s raw and honest. And sometimes the edges are unrefined, you know. Yeah.
Alex Enfiedjian 37:04 So when I went to your your songwriting retreat in Nashville, one of the things that I was struck by in writing with the pros, we have these guests, professional writers that we write with the amateurs, and one of the things I was struck by in writing with them was how their word choices were so perfect. Like there wasn’t an extra word they have, they omitted all unnecessary words, every word was in its proper place came at the right time was the right word. And there were no extra words. And I feel like when you can get to that level of songwriting, you’re definitely done. Yeah, but those don’t come that often. And that’s why, like you said, once you’ve done your very best you can be done and just say, All right, I’m done. I’m gonna, like you said, this is a time capsule, this moment of time. At where I’m at in my life, this is the best I could do. I’m done, right?
Stephen Duncan 38:00 Yeah, it’s the economy and the power of words, the economy of words, like you only have, in most instances, like with a radio song, it’s three and a half minutes or less. So in three and a half minutes, can you say everything that you need to say in a powerful way to make one effort towards that goal of whatever you’re saying in your course. And if you waste words, then you haven’t put forth your best, your best foot forward your best effort. And that’s really all we’re asking. And in worship songs, it’s like four, four and a half minutes unless your worship leader then goes into spontaneous worship and just keeps going. But in the actual writing of the song, if you just sang it from front to back without any ad libs, or repeating sections, you’re looking at about four and a half minutes, maybe max. And so in four and a half minutes, Jenny riddle said this, to me one time, I’m going to try not to butcher her quote, but she says, You have four and a half minutes to take someone in the congregation and put them on the path to the kingdom of God, and to the feet of Jesus. And so if you have four and a half minutes, to just get them on the path closer to the feet of Jesus, then why would you want to put in extra buzz and, and, and, and, and just words that don’t put context and depth to to what you’re saying?
Alex Enfiedjian 39:29 That’s really good. Steven, I don’t want to take too much more of your time. I do want to kind of talk a little bit about improving songwriting. And this is where I’m actually going to kind of speak a little bit for you. Because all the people listening to this podcast who now say yes, I want to write I want to get better at writing or even if I’ve been writing a long time, I want to give God my best. So I want to improve what I’m currently doing. How do I do all that? So here’s here’s my answer. to that question on Stephens behalf, Stephen is not just a good friend. But he’s a mentor to me, he has critiqued my songs and has taken me under his wing and taught me some amazing things and allowed me to come to his songwriting retreat in Nashville, and it was such a blessing. And I can say, like, with 100% honesty that this guy one loves the Lord and two knows what he’s doing. And he offers his services to anyone and everyone who who would ask. And so um, Steven has a company, a website, it’s called next level songs. And I believe it’s next level songs about comrade Steven. Yeah. So if you go to next level songs, calm, you can actually take a song that you wrote, and pay a small fee, and send it to Stephen, he will critique it, I’ll send you a real thoughtful, helpful critique of your song in a very timely manner. And you can take that and learn from from his critique, and I actually sent seven songs to him and he sent seven critiques back and they were fantastic, helpful. pushed me helped me stretch me taught me things about songwriting that I did not yet know, and really helped me as a writer to grow. And so I would encourage anyone listening, if you’re starting songwriting, or if you’ve been songwriting for a while, but want to know where you’re at, or how you can improve, I would encourage you highly to go to next level songs comm do the song writing critique service? And if that’s helpful, Steven has other options to learn, you have a mentorship is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about the mentorship?
Stephen Duncan 41:44 Yeah, mentorship is great, because it’s kind of a combination of song critiques, in kind of like a consultation time, all kind of wrapped up into one, they also get the workbook. It’s a six week program, it’s one to one and a half hours. Every week that we meet for six weeks, and it’s over Skype or over a phone call, I critique three new songs a week, they’re writing a lot, intensively throughout that process, I don’t want anybody get scared about how many songs they have to turn in each week, they can turn in up to three songs a week, and then they get the critiques back, they can rewrite those songs the next week, we can go through them again. And it’s a process where it can turn into up to 18 songs over six weeks, and unlimited rewrites during that process. It’s a great way, like, like you said, you don’t know what you don’t know, right? So there are habits and pitfalls that you fall into, that you don’t even know or that exist, or rules that the industry kind of goes by or that the church gravitates towards, that you really need to know, or put in the context, what that really means. And so I tailor each mentorship right to you. And with with any of your strengths, I push you even harder with any of your weaknesses, we gracefully approach that and just walk through it together. I’m not above you, or you know, or anything like that. I’m just right there, trying to be another set of eyes for what you’re doing and put into context, what you really need to be doing. The other thing is retreats on the website. Those are big things. Right now we’re doing a retreat at the end of March in just south of Nashville. And Alex even went to, you know, you went to one of my retreats. This one is an open call for anybody who have any songwriting ability from beginners who haven’t even written one note yet to people who have been professional for years can come to this retreat and get get your hands dirty, and writing some songs, getting some critiques, live feed back riding with other people who were in the same genres and things like that. And you just get to build community. It’s a really great community builder, because we all need, we all need people to link arms with. And just to help keep us going when times are tough. And when we don’t believe in ourselves, somebody else believes in us and and that feedback is really helpful as well. So those are the kind of the things that I offer. And then going forward, because we’re talking about worship. This isn’t on the website, but my wife and I are consulting with churches, really helping cast vision with worship pastors come in will lead worship but will also train worship teams, give you resources connect you with the right people help you with Planning Center, or you know, see ccli or any kind of tools that you need help training on sound lighting, all those things, but more importantly, we’re linking arms with worship pastors praying over them being that support system that they don’t really have not a lot of work. pastors have that, that help and that thoughtfulness from somebody outside the church. So that’s what we’re trying to be for the church right now. Yeah.
Alex Enfiedjian 45:09 So I would highly encourage you guys to check out next level songs.com. Or you can email Steven at next level firstname.lastname@example.org. Right. Yep. Okay, so check him out, get in touch with Steven. Steven, any final words for our listeners just encouragement about songwriting for the church?
Stephen Duncan 45:28 Yeah, a couple of things, one would just be go out and do it. create space for it, if you’re just writing 10 minutes a day with that burst writing exercise. Or if you’re writing one hour a week, even. Just taking that next step. And that momentum will give you that that confidence, and that that, that energy and creativity, that you’ll be more confident in writing more and more and more until it becomes a natural part of your of your week. But it’s not going to be natural until you make space for it. So create space and give yourself an excuse to lock yourself in a room or to go right with somebody. That’s the first thing is create space for it and give yourself an excuse. The second thing would be just the depth of your songs. And the depth of your worship directly correlates with the depth of your relationship with Christ. And a lot of songwriters come to me going, why aren’t my songs making the impact that they need to make? Lots of times it’s because they don’t have that time and that intimate revelation with God. So that’s what I would encourage you to do to create space for songwriting. But more importantly, create space for God to really speak in your life. And everything will change. I guarantees
Alex Enfiedjian 46:51 awesome. Hey, Steven, thank you so much for taking the time to bless us and our listeners. And we love you guys. And we’ll be praying for your ministry and hopefully people will reach out to you after this podcast. Yeah, thank you so much.
Alex Enfiedjian 47:09 Well, that’s it for today. I hope you are encouraged, inspired, and that you go get a pencil and a guitar or a piano and make some music for Jesus and for your church and put the words in their mouth that they need to be singing to God. So God bless you as you write. God bless you as you lead your churches in worship. And I know he’s pleased with you. Even if sometimes you think he’s not he is because Christ did all the work for you and has made you right in God’s sight. So enjoy that freedom and go lead with confidence in this weekend.