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Words First

Words First

by Sarah Harper

I’ve known that I wanted to write songs since I was in the second grade. For most of my life writing often came in the form of poems with melodies and music confined to my imagination. Up until the last decade, I was exclusively writing relationship/breakup songs.

In 2014, I began a 2-year program with the National Praise and Worship Institute (NPWI) at Trevecca Nazarene University. While there, I really became interested in writing music about God and my own personal relationship with Him. I knew I had some basic tools for writing a good breakup song (Thank you, Taylor Swift) but writing about and to God was very daunting to me.

During my time in NPWI, I took songwriting classes taught by Christian songwriter and worship leader Benji Cowart. Some songs that he has written include “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave, “Find You Here” by Ellie Holcomb, “The Story I’ll Tell” by Maverick City Music and Naomi Raine, and “Big God” by Terrian. He passed along a lot of wisdom that I carried with me and recalled during my writing sessions years later. The biggest tip of his that I’ve held on to is, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” This tip reminded me to make my verses count but to quickly point back to the chorus, which was our main idea to drive home.

I also had the privilege of working with Christian recording artists Tasha Layton and Micah Tyler. They helped me realize I could shake off my imposter syndrome. I struggled with imposter syndrome greatly; I wasn’t a pastor or someone with a Doctorate of Divinity, but I realized I did have the capacity to write a compelling song that incorporated my authentic relationship with God, and those songs were fit to be sung in a worship setting.

My songwriting style is always words first. When writing a worship song, I will often look to the Psalms for inspiration either thematically or within a specific passage. This method is not unique to me as the Psalms are songs themselves. It’s amazing how many times you can see throughout the Psalms that people in Biblical times struggled with many of the same challenges and emotions we face today. We see where the Psalms writers lament, praise God, and thank Him. Songs I write specifically for worship can be grouped into at least one of those categories (lament, praise, thanks), while almost every song falls into all three.

Sometimes, I try to write directly from something I am experiencing and look at it through the lens of scripture. I try to find God’s hand in it all and see how I can praise Him regardless of whether the circumstance is favorable or not. Songs that really dwell on the side of lamentation certainly have a place, but I do ultimately try to write songs that are more uplifting. Jesus gives us hope that the world cannot give, and I want that hope to be central in the songs that I bring to the table for worship.

I am really grateful for the collective of songwriters that are here at PCC. It is truly through their support of me as a person and as a musician that I started to feel comfortable to share my ideas for music for our church. While music prior to my time at PCC (before 2020) was predominantly written independently, my process now looks very different. There was a learning curve and it has been a lesson in trust, but I have shifted towards a collaborative songwriting process. I usually bring a half-baked idea to my collaborators and let the song become what it becomes. The team must remain committed to a central theme or message and work together to make the song singable, true, and musically interesting.

I do not take the responsibility of writing worship song lyrics lightly. Songwriting is one of the greatest gifts; however, the thought of unintentionally or unknowingly misrepresenting God or the Bible has certainly kept me up at night. Through prayer, my own study of the Bible, and team accountability I’m able to persevere through the fear and continue to pursue what I believe I was put on earth to do: glorify God and give others some language to do so as well.

Watch all the messages in our “What Did I Just Sing?” series here.

Categories: Faith  Self  

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Written by

Sarah Harper

Follower of Jesus. Wife. Cat mom. Songwriter. Worship Leader. Home cook. Left-eye dominant. Right handed. Soulful dancer.

Published June 18, 2024

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