How to Be a Song Receiver

Featuring Dennis Jernigan Posted on May 12, 2008

When people refer to me these days, it is often in the context of ‘you’re the guy who wrote that song we sing in our church’. While this may be true on the surface, I do not think of myself as being a song writer. I know. It sounds crazy coming from a guy who has written several thousand songs! A much better moniker for me – one that better describes who I am – is that of song receiver. How did I get to that place of self-identity? What does it mean to be a song receiver?

I grew up struggling with same-sex attractions. I needed male affirmation, but I was too afraid of rejection to allow any man to get too close to me. To allow someone access to my heart would have meant humiliation. My only recourse? To excel at whatever I did so people would think well of me. I learned to perform for the affirmation, acceptance, and approval of others. This was what being loved meant to me – I had to earn it! I was a starter on my high school basketball team all 4 years. I was church pianist from the time I was about 10 years old. I was valedictorian of my senior class. You get the idea. When I performed well, people gave me the approval and acceptance I craved. The only problem was that no one can keep up the pace of performance this requires. Sooner or later one’s performance just simply does not measure up!

Long story made short, I was given a brand new identity at a Christian concert by the band 2nd Chapter of Acts in November of 1981. Suddenly I realized I no longer had to perform for the acceptance of others. God’s love was extended to me regardless of my performance. It soon became apparent to me that most people struggled with understanding this most basic of Christian concepts. As I set out to walk away from a performance-based identity, I began to learn to walk in a real and living relationship with the Lord and this translated into my song writing! The term song receiver first came to my attention from the pen of Annie Herring, lead singer of 2nd Chapter of Acts. She always referred to herself as a receiver and not a writer (so I can’t really take credit for this term!).

Rather than write songs and hope they would be accepted by others (which, being translated, means ‘if people like my songs they will like me’), I simply began to write out of my relationship. As I walked with God in ever-deepening intimacy, songs would be born out of that relationship. I no longer felt I had to sit down and write something every day. My goal became ‘I will seek Jesus and not a song and not a ministry’…and songs (and ministry) began to pour out of me! I soon discovered that His Word even painted this picture in a musical sense. Psalm 32:7 says He will surround me with songs of deliverance. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that He rejoices over us with singing. I sing to the Lord…but He sings to me! What a cool picture of what relationship looks like! Relationship survives when both parties give and receive. I decided that attitude needed to be the foundational attitude of every aspect of my life – song writing included. To be a song receiver means I never feel the pressure to have to write – ever. This makes the times of receiving and writing down what I hear very meaningful, fulfilling, and purposeful.

That attitude also extends to my earthly relationships. As I pour my life into others, I tend to get involved in the messiness of the lives of those I walk with. As I intercede for them, my prayers tend to happen musically. I also ask the Lord to allow me to hear what He is singing over those I am in relationship with. Songs are received during the course of my earthly relationships in this manner. I simply write what I am praying and I write what I am hearing Father say. I also write the history of each and every song so that others will be ministered to by the story behind the song. Because relationship equals life, I seek out relationships with others because I know that’s what the Lord did when He walked on earth. I believe the best song writers/receivers are those who pour themselves into the lives of others. It was in the mid 1980s when I first learned this concept and began to put it into practice. During that period, the Lord told me He would give me a song a day if I would listen. I literally received hundreds of songs during this period (marriage and nine children have had a way of slowing down the daily writings!).

How did this play out practically in my life? I had to re-learn some things. I had to skill myself to be a receiver. Relationship is work. To clear my head of the performance mentality, I decided to cut out all the unnecessary voices in my life. From 1981 until 1993 I did not listen to radio, watch TV, or listen to recordings (either secular or Christian). I desperately desired to learn to hear the voice of my Father. It was during this period that I  discovered the truth of Psalm 54:1 – I wanted my heart and mind to be the tongue of a ready writer. In other words, I learned that the Lord was more than willing to pour out His music on me. He is more apt to do that when He knows we are listening! (Incidentally, in 1993 the Lord released me to listen again.  So I went right out and bought 2 albums: Amy Grant’s, "Heart in Motion" and Whitney Houston’s, "Bodyguard" soundtrack!).

If being a song receiver means relationship, then as with a marriage relationship, work is required. With my wife I never want to feel I have discovered everything about her. We are always striving to grow in our intimacy. That same attitude must permeate my song receiving relationship with Christ. Therefore, I am always learning more about the crafting of the songs I receive. I want them to communicate my heart as powerfully as possible and I want to share the songs I hear from His perspective in that same attitude. Any ability I have was given by Him. He has called me to be a steward of those gifts so I want to give Him a good return! He is the Giver of Music. It may come through me as the vessel, but any success I have with my music ultimately comes from Father and from those who use it to glorify Him.

Being a song receiver means walking in relationship with God and others and simply writing down what I hear. Being a song receiver means being ready in an instant to write down what I hear. This means I must be prepared at all times. I carry manuscript paper wherever I go. I have a small digital recorder for those times I am driving. (I received the entire 2004 National Day of Prayer theme song, "Let Freedom Ring" while driving down the road!). I have received songs on flights, on horseback, in crowded restaurants, in worship services and any number of wild and wacky places, because my relationship with the Lord extends to wherever I happen to be! The only place I have not figured out how to be prepared is when I am scuba diving! Being a song receiver means I am always learning how to communicate what I hear in the best possible form to communicate that song. Being a song receiver means I no longer feel the need to perform or write for anyone’s acceptance or approval. As a song receiver, I simply write down the communications  between me and the living God of the Universe…and extend that same attitude towards those I walk with on this earth.

Relationship is life. Why would you not want as much life as possible in your song writing? Yes, I am a songwriter…but my attitude is what makes the difference between simply performing and walking in utter joy. Learn to see yourself as a receiver and watch this simple attitude change transform and revitalize your writing…or your ministry…or your marriage…or – you get the idea!

This article was first published in the May 2008 issue of iLevite and at