This is the second post in a two part series (you can read part 1 here) from some of Trinity’s songwriters and musicians who contribute their gifts to leading us in worship. We got the chance to hear from a few of these folks to get a sense for what the songwriting process is like and how their work serves the church. Today’s interviewees are Jim Richards and Katie Ribera.
Can you walk us through your songwriting process? What inspires you, where do you start, and how do the pieces come together?
JR: I don’t songwrite very often, so I can’t speak with much authority on the process. But when it has happened, it is usually in response to something that is happening in my life, where God is speaking to me (or Amanda) through the text of a Hymn. Usually the music (chords) come first as the bones. Then some sort of a melody comes next, and then the words go to the melody last.
KR: Recently, I’ve enjoyed the process of writing an anthem based on the sermon text and liturgical elements for a specific Sunday. These parameters help to create a framework I can embellish, which has proven to be more productive for me than waiting for inspiration to strike in starting from scratch. I read through the passage and see what stands out to me – is there a story being told? A theological concept to unpack? A truth or promise of God to highlight? I’ll jot down some concepts, maybe a few rhyming lines, and then grab an instrument and try to sing the words – sometimes finding the next line falls out of my mouth while I experiment with the melody. I make recordings on my phone of the pieces so that I can try different things and find what fits best – maybe change the key from major to minor to see how that impacts the way the song feels. Once I have 80-90% of an idea, I play it for my husband, Mark, and get his feedback and ideas on how to improve it, make it more creative, or more intuitive for others to sing along. On more than one occasion, I’ve brought it to rehearsal on Thursday night and the worship band has helped to give feedback and make it better than what we started with. I really enjoy the process of engaging with Scripture in this way, of the personal illumination it brings, and the collaborative process of working with others to make it meaningful on a corporate level.
When someone “writes liturgy,” what does that mean? Can you walk us through the process (big picture level)?
KR: The liturgy has a few static components that have different content each week – the call to worship, confession of sin, receiving of grace, prayers of the people, confession of faith, and the benediction. Writing the liturgy involves crafting these elements to integrate with the songs and liturgical season to create a cohesive worship service that culminates in the preached word and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes these elements are verbatim or paraphrased Scripture, ancient prayers of the church, or composed by the liturgy writer.
Do you worry about your own personality being a distraction as you write and lead? How do you fight against that or fight against other insecurities?
JR: Absolutely. With leading, I fight my own desire to be liked and approved and adored by just seeking honest communion with the Lord, and with the congregation. Usually the words and music are enough to pull me away from myself. But it is always a potential distraction. Luke and I have a way of only mildly complimenting one another after a given Sunday, while trying to pass the glory to God. It can be a funny line to walk, to want to encourage someone in their God-given gifts and let them know they are doing a good job, but not stroke their ego. With writing, I don’t worry about my personality as much, as I don’t really have a gift for writing. (Not false humility, just truth.) Anything that comes while I’m writing has to be inspired by God, because it happens less than once a year.
KR: This is definitely a balance to strike – I want to offer my gifts to God and my favorite way to use my voice is to sing praise to the Lord and glorify him. I also want to be a catalyst for the congregation to participate in worship without being distracted by me or by anything I’m doing well or doing poorly. I try to be well-rehearsed and prepared so that I spend less time worrying and can engage in worship authentically while leading others into God’s presence (this is always my hope!).
How do you experience personal worship as you write? How has God grown your faith and love for his church through your participation as a worshipper and worship leader?
JR: Being a worship leader is a true gift. I am always encouraged by listening to God’s people raising their voices in praise. It is a unique position (physically speaking) to be in front of the congregation, because you are able to hear all the voices at the same time. It is such a beautiful and moving experience. Also, it is a privilege to be able to listen to the Holy Spirit to try and discern if the congregation needs more time with a certain set of words – if we should sit on them for a bit longer.
It wasn’t always that way for me, however. Around 7 years into being a worship leader, it started to feel more like a chore than a blessing. I took a few years off, and wasn’t sure that I would come back. I was sort of ‘tricked’ (in a loving way) into leading worship again, but I soon found that my relationship with leading, and with the congregation was different. I realized the privilege it is to lead and felt the blessing of leading. It has also made me appreciate being a worshipper more as well, and to appreciate those that can lead worship by showing up with all of their talents and skills, and still step out of the way enough to let God be glorified. It can be a tough balancing act, but when people do it well, I really appreciate it.
KR: I love to sing with God’s people, whether leading or not, and I also experience worship personally in the process of preparation and practicing on my own. Sometimes I’ll write or lead a song with someone specific in mind, but I have been so blessed when the Lord speaks to someone through a song who was going through something I knew nothing about – when the Lord met them and used what he put in my heart to communicate something about himself and his love to them.
Do you have any tips for how the congregation can participate more fully in the worship process?
JR: Sing out. Don’t be afraid to be embarrassed. Our church needs to clap more, raise our hands more, give more audible “amens!,” and worry less about looking silly or standing out. I know that we are a fairly reserved church with people that are both reserved and who don’t want to be too showy. I’d say to try letting yourself go with an ‘amen’ after a particularly moving worship song, and see how it feels. You might be surprised how that small act can feel like authentic worship, and it may come easier the next time.
KR: Hide the word of God in your hearts by reading and meditating on it regularly. It has enhanced my worship experience so much to be able to recognize the words of Scripture or biblical themes and language as they show up in the hymns and songs we sing. This is a beautiful gift to growing our understanding and love of Scripture’s truths and promises.