What Chris Tomlin’s New Album Taught Me About Songwriting (Plus CD Giveaway)

David Santistevan —  — 31 Comments

It’s nearly impossible to talk about modern worship at length without the words “Chris Tomlin” entering into the conversation.

His catchy, universal songs have made their way in the worship team repertoire of nearly every evangelical church across the world.

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Chris Tomlin’s music is accessible to every generation. It’s not particularly groundbreaking musically, which isn’t his goal anyway. He writes simple, catchy, Godward songs for the church. And He’s succeeded at that with every album he’s released. His new album, “Burning Lights” is no exception.

Rather than post a review, which you can find all across the internet, I’ve decided to distill song songwriting tips that I’ve gleaned from Chris’s writing. At the end of this post, I’ll show you how you can enter to win 1 of 5 copies.

Songwriting Lessons

1. A Solid, Central Idea – Chris’s songs are definitive. You know exactly what they’re about. He has a way of writing the definitive song for a particular theme. It’s almost as if he catalogs his writing for worship leaders.

It goes to show you that clever is not always better. Sometimes the simple decisions can make songs more “sticky”.

2. Catchy Chants – Most of Chris’s songs are chant-like, which make them easy and fun to sing. He doesn’t try to cram a ton of words into abstract phrasing. He serves the common person with a simple, yet insanely catchy melody. This is what cause his songs to be so popular.

3. All Around Simplicity – The first time you hear a Chris Tomlin song, it’s stuck in your head. It’s not just the melody that’s simple. It’s also the theme. Chris doesn’t write about deep theology or abstract ideas.

For some, this is what they criticize about Chris’s writing. It’s very plain, easily digested. This is great for worship songwriters because we want our songs to serve the church in their worship of God.

4. Easily Adaptable Arrangements for Worship Teams – A couple years ago, I would be the guy criticizing Chris Tomlin for his lack of musical innovation. I mean, is “four on the floor” and “chimey eighth note delay” all there is? But I believe that has been a factor in Chris’s success with worship teams.

His arrangements are easily broken down and duplicated in teams of all skill levels. Whereas some other artists, like Gungor and Israel Houghton, require a deeper level of proficiency to figure out. Again, the simplicity factor.

5. Co-Writing – most all of Chris Tomlin’s songs are co-writes. Community is important for songwriting. This isn’t just about isolated artists trying to hit the charts. Songwriting is about you and your community pursuing Jesus and living for His kingdom together. The best songs will always come out of a thriving community.

As you pursue your songwriting goals, apply these tips in your own writing. Might I also recommend you pick up my new book, “The Worship Songwriter: A Step by Step Guide to Crafting Your Best Songs.” I cover many more additional tips for writing worship songs.

Winners!

1. Josh Wagner

2. Don Simpson

3. Andrew F

4. Bren McLean

5. David Lindner

Question: Why would you like a copy of Chris’s new album? Let us know in the comments!

31 responses to What Chris Tomlin’s New Album Taught Me About Songwriting (Plus CD Giveaway)

  1. I’m with you on #4. Sometimes I feel like Tomin’s songs are all the same. As a musician, I like some variety. BUT, they are so easy for almost anyone to play, which is great for all worship bands.

  2. I love your blog, David! And I would certainly appreciate a free CD. But either way, I’ll still enjoy the blog.

  3. Simple. I completely agree that this is one of the secrets to Chris’ success. Some of my favorite worship tunes are off his first album. His songs just stick in your head. I lead worship for Celebrate Recovery at our church and we did ‘Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)’ last night. We had done two songs prior to it and I could hear just a bit of the folks in the crowd singing. But we get to this song, especially Chris’ ‘My Chains Are Gone’ bridge and I was blown away! I had them sing it 3 times, backing away from the mic, and asking the band to settle down and just diamond the chords… excuse the pun, but it was as amazing moment of worship!

    I’ve tried and tried and tried to write songs, but all I get are confusing lyrics. I picked up your songwriting e-book last week… hopefully I can learn something. Point 5 in your post got me thinking though. Maybe co-writing is the best place to start. Hmmm.

    D

    • Damon, co-writing may help get you “unstuck”, though it’s not the answer to everything. I would challenge you to write a lot and test your songs a lot. Don’t let them stay in captivity :)

  4. The words that we are to speak are supposed to be “Near the Lord our God day and night” That does not leave a lot of room for hidden or multiple meanings or abstractions (Distractions?) All I know is that in our blended service there are still a few in the pews that would rather not see guitar, bass, and drums in a church, but they still happily sing a chorus of a Chris Tomlin song and most have no clue who he is. I chuckle when people come up and say “What does “As deep cries out to deep’ mean” when we have done “All who are Thirsty”? I don’t believe it is coincidence when one of our iconic and most identifiable early contemporary songs “Awesome God” has only the chorus sung in most (And many) churches to this day. Most of us don’t do that song very often any more but if we look at it objectively that chorus is just plain brilliant. Chris Tomlin songs have similar qualities.
    Also, of the top 25 contemporary songs done in churches last week 16 of them had Dan Galbraith’s name on them somewhere. There are many people with many gifts.

  5. It’s the simplicity. The ease. But I think it’s the passion and emotion that comes through the most in his songs.
    Saw him at Soulfest and what a talent he is.
    I’d like a copy to share with the Northeast of Canada. Lights need to burn here too.

  6. Marc Daniel Rivera January 8, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Basically, Chris is one of my favorite CCM artists. His songs are really amazing and has a depth that stirs up any listener’s soul. I agree in all you have said, he has this certain attitude of simplicity in arrangements that let’s the worship team to easily cope up with. In my two years of worship leading, I have seen that Chris’ songs really imparted a big message of passion to everyone. Some of my fave Tomlin’s songs are Sing, Sing, Sing , How Great is our God (which is one of our church favorite, and which is lined up almost every week) and Amazing Grace my chains are gone.

    Thanks Bro! :)

  7. I have resisted listening to music like Tomlin’s for some time, with the result of becoming a bit of a music snob. I’ve started coming around to just deciding to enjoy it.

  8. Christopher Banks January 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Chris Tomlin is overflowing with the election an favor of God. David Santisteven as well! God has used you both in my life. Thank you!

  9. I am not a song writer, but I love his songs. As a praise band guitarist, I find the form in his songs logical and easy to follow. The road map to his songs take less time to figure out, therefore the band is more secure. In contrast, there was a song we did once from another artist that took an entire page if instructions to follow the form. It was a nightmare. Genius is not doing the most complex thing, it is finding the simplest way to achieve a given result. Chris has a genius for song writing. I am glad he writes Christian songs. I am always happy to see one or two of his songs on the order of worship.

  10. I will say that, being 24 and an idealist, that I’m still in the boat with Tomlin’s songs being more like water vs. wine. However, he’s done a great service to the evangelical community. His writing (and guitar parts) showed me quite a bit about not just catchy songwriting, but EFFECTIVE songwriting. Very good post. Very good reminders.

  11. I would love a Chris Tomlin CD because I absolutely love listening to my boys sing along to his songs. Learning to worship at a young age… makes my heart smile. :)

  12. I resisted chimming in to this discussion but I couldn’t resist. Tomlin has done a lot for the church commutity with simple catchy anthems that appeals to the masses. He is like the Celin Dion of worship; epic, cheesy but yet your ears can’t resist. However as an artist he gets the “White Flag” (see what I did there) for not growing and stretching his musical talents. I would love to see him take a risk with his music it just might burn… i mean turn on the lights ;)

  13. Worship Musicians; at risk of sounding “Sappy” it sounds to me as though your churches/audiences are blssed to have each and every one of you. As my 7 year old neice use to say; “You make me feel good in my heart”. Bless you!

  14. Great points David, though I’m not sure I’d say the theology of his songs is shallow, in fact, compared to much of what came before him, it is rich – he has a lot more objective truth in his songs than the previous emphasis on personal expression. I agree that his simplicity is good. Perhaps it’s easier for me, given that my day job is ‘high art’ (opera) but I’m happy to have congregational music be much more ‘pop’ or folky (in terms of the approach, not necessarily the genre) in that it is easily accessible by everyone. That’s not to say that simple cannot be artistic, but that being servants is a higher priority than being creating innovative art, to my mind, when it comes to songwriting for the church.

    On the point of co-writing , any tips for encouraging others to write, who may not think of themselves as being writers?

    I’d happily take a free CD if one came my way ;)
    Blessings.

  15. I have a love/dislike (not hate) relationship with the all around simplicity of his music. I love that the simplicity makes the songs easy to sing and catchy for people to remember, and since it’s important to me that we give people resources to help them worship throughout the week, that’s a good thing. I would like some more depth sometimes, but there are other songwriters great at those songs that don’t write simple. I think that’s one reason it is important to draw from a number of sources when selecting music for our congregation – so there is variety and so you can meet the different needs of people.

  16. I would like a copy of his CD because I want to give it to my friend who can use some God songs – that way, we both can dance on His great dance floor. :) Thanks for writing your thoughts, David!

  17. Brooooo! Hope you’re doing well. Lets hang out soon! Then you can give me this cd I’m going to win ;)

  18. One of my new year foals is to to write worship songs. I’ve recorded rock and folk but worship is a whole different animal. Awesome blog post. I definitely will look back on these as I try to write.

    p.s. I would LOVE to win the CD!!!

  19. At first I thought this was going to be another review. Relived it wasn’t-ha.
    Thanks for the songwriting lessons. Particularly relate to the co-write (5), which is becoming more and more common.
    On a downside, I find Tomlin’s lyrics are more generic (God focused v Christocentric), which is also a disturbing trend in global praise and worship.

    • Bren – can you elaborate on the ‘God focused vs Christocentric’ comment? Just curious to hear your thoughts…

      Thanks!
      D

      • Here’s a short version:
        ‘God focused’ are songs that a Mormon, Jew, Muslim etc could sing. Eg. How great is our God.
        ‘Christ focused’ specifically mention either Jesus or the characteristics of Jesus, making the song uniquely Christian. Even reference to God as Trinitarian (again unique to Christianity) works for me
        Ok?

        • Yep – very OK. We have always maintained a strict ‘Scripturally sound’ approach for all songs we do. You’re taking it a step further, and I like it. Thanks for sharing!

  20. I would love to have a copy because Chris’s music has always been one of the greatest anyhems to my heart. I would love to add some of his new songs to my church’s lips.

  21. Hi. I’m a fairly new worship leader. I stepped into the role in a moment of need and have stuck around. I enjoy your insight into this new world I feel called to. Thanks for your tips, one of my resolutions of the year is to write a worship song and I’m sure they will come in handy. Many blessings to you.

  22. I agree, he has mastered a forumla for writing songs that work well in a corporate worship environment. And I do appreciate the simplicity of the arrangements, so that I can walk in to practically any church, and for the most part the worship team will be familiar with his songs!

  23. Hi David,

    I’m from Davao City, Philippines. I subscribed to your emails on “Next Level Worship Leading” your blogs have really helped me alot in leading my team in worship. One of your blogs spoke to us as a team as I shared it to them. That is why beginning this year, we are focusing on 3 areas as our win… 1. Vision 2. Learn 3. Relationship.

    Thank you for your insights David. I’m personally blessed with how God is using you to empower lead worshipers like me… God bless you!

    Tom Arellano

  24. Co-writing is the one that stood out for me. When I think about co-writing and working as a community for God’s purpose, I know it something I want to learn about and practice more.

  25. Nice Post David, if you don’t mind posting something here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfM-WR5WF1E – From Chris Himself.

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