The Preacher as Songwriter: Like a Rolling Stone

For years, I’ve pondered writing a book about the link between preaching and songwriting.  I’ve never gotten around to hammering out the time to begin the hard work of organizing my thoughts, writing drafts of chapters, and getting it done.  But the idea still haunts me. 

See, I believe preachers have a lot to learn from songwriters, beginning with the profound insight that all your songs shouldn’t sound the same.  In fact, they shouldn’t all come from the same place.  

Some songs are sung in the confessional or at the altar of shame.  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.  I’m sorry that I made you cry.  I didn’t want to hurt you.  I’m just a jealous guy.” – John Lennon

Some songs are blues.  Some are funny.  Some are happy.  Some proclaim triumph in the life of the singer.  Some protest social conditions.  Deep love, heartbreak, betrayal, reconciliation, sweetness, anger, irony, longing, passion, desire, and shame are the playground of the lyrical wordsmith.  Some tell stories of real-life characters.  Some tell stories that are allegories for part of the human condition.  Some are brags and boasts.  Some songs are stream-of-consciousness absurdity.  Some exist only to entertain.  

And sermons should work in the same ways.  In fact, it’s the variety of an artist’s work that makes us feel like we know that artist better.  A clearer picture of Elvis Costello emerges when you mix the achy tenderness of Alison with the jaded anger of a heartbroken idealist (What’s So Funny); when you place his whimsical tale of marriage and divorce (Everyday I Write the Book) alongside the darker Indoor Fireworks, and hold them up against the very real love song She.  

But let’s take a look at perhaps the most iconic song in rock and roll: Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan

It’s considered iconic because it broke all the rules.  It was a 6 minute single at a time when singles had to be under 3:30.  It was an electric song by a primarily acoustic artist, at a time when Dylan’s audience considered his break with the orthodoxy of folk music a betrayal.  It wasn’t a love song or a typical break-up song, or an entertaining piece of zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  The character to whom Dylan is singing isn’t just a character – he or she is a target, the recipient of his anger and vitriol.  It was filled with real emotion, real pain.  You can hear the hurt, anger, shock, bitterness, desperation, and desire for revenge in his repeated yowls of “how does it FEEL?”  The wound is fresh, the emotion is raw, the tears are salty.  He sounds like he wants to scream.  Or cry.  Or both.  

Other songwriters heard it and realized that the game had changed.  Nothing was off limits anymore.  Time limitations? Gone.  Bowing to the expectations of your primary audience?  Exploded.  Veiling emotion with a layer of metaphor?  NO!  

And why is it considered so iconic? So important in the history of rock?  Because it connected with people. They could relate to it. Dylan was giving language to emotions we feel and have difficulty expressing. A generation of rock fans breathed a sigh of relief when they realized that someone else gets it, somebody knows how I feel! The lyrics are ugly, sharp, bitter; yet ultimately relatable.  Anyone who has been betrayed or hurt knows what it’s like to hear those words and wish they could say them.  

Shouldn’t preaching be like that occasionally?  An honest life of discipleship is hard.  It’s filled with betrayal. Tears do happen. Wounds that leave ugly scars are inflicted upon us. Sometimes we all want to flail our fists in the air, punching at ghosts, hoping that connecting with one will satisfy our emotional longing. We all long to hear a voice who longs for love railing in anger against that which is not love.  

Now, a screed is not a sermon.  No matter how angry we might be. But it is essential that the preacher find a point of connection with the real emotions and experiences of the listeners in the congregation. We are up there at the pulpit to be (among many things) the voice of the voiceless.  To help give language to experiences that are hard to describe with words.  

So sing a song that makes the congregation say, “wow, somebody GETS IT!”  

Maybe sometimes the first question we should ask ourselves when we sit at the keyboard to compose our sermons is, “how does it FEEL?”

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Author: pastorwillie

Husband to a beautiful wife, father to four awesome children, Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, pastor of a great church in rural southern Illinois, guitarist, songwriter, ukulelist, blogger.

1 thought on “The Preacher as Songwriter: Like a Rolling Stone”

  1. Preachers can learn a lot from songs. In terms of memorability, I will be beat by a song any day. It’s no wonder that theology can be easily taught through songs and hymns. I learned this week that the Arianism heresy was able to spread very quickly through hymns. It goes to show the power of songs in educating people.

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