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What Song do I Pick for My Worship Service?

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Someone recently asked me, “What kind of songs do you pick?”. That phrase ‘what kind of songs’ could mean anything: Personal vs. Corporate? Fast vs. Slow? Musical genre? Theme?

I asked for clarification, to which they responded, “You know, do you sing songs by…”, followed by a moment of silence as they tried to remember the name, “…by Chris… Tomlin?” – Finally the question became clearer and I briefly explained my thought process behind selecting songs for praise. But let’s take a moment to pause so that you can think about how you select songs for Sunday.

I have been leading worship for about 12 years and am incredibly blessed to have been able to pick the minds of many worship leaders during that time, hearing how they go about their “setlists”: Paul Baloche, Charlie Hall, Todd Fields… to name a few. But you should know that there’s no perfect way to pick songs. There’s no formula. There’s no blueprint. But there definitely are factors to consider:

Church Demographic

This is actually a great place to start. I always take into consideration who I’m leading into a time of praise. This will help me determine what “era” of songs I can select from. Realistically, no matter how much a song like 1984 Maranatha’s “As The Deer” has ministered to you as a youth student, there comes a point where a very old song actually becomes a new song to the younger generations. The plus side is that in today’s day and age, there may be a modern version of an old classic you grew up with, or at least a song with a similar theme.

Song’s Content

Music today has taken an interesting direction. Call it a generation gap if you will, but current radio music is influencing how badly you need to hear that beat “drop”. So before saying yes or no to one of my church teams’ new song suggestions… before giving into how “relevant” or “catchy” a song sounds, I always review the lyrics first. Does the song make sense? Does it connect within itself? What is it saying? Is it supported by scripture? Which leads to:

Congregational

You may really connect with that one Shane & Shane song in your devotional time. Or maybe that one Jesus Culture song really hits home with you when you’re praying. But these songs may or may not work on an average Sunday morning. What makes a song congregational? Ask yourself these questions the next time you look at a song: Is it God-centered or me-centered (side-note: does the song explicitly address “God”, “Jesus”, etc.)? Is it singable? Does its music help draw the picture of the lyrics? Such questions will help separate songs that are better for corporate worship at church and songs that are better for a Christian concert or personal times of worship at home. Paul Baloche says, “Instead of making Sunday morning worship a concert, I’m interested in making Sunday morning the un-concert.” Many songs are great for our growth with God but, taking a step back, does it fit with our goal for Sunday morning worship?

Theme

Much like a song being congregational, its theme is also part of the “big picture”. When picking the order of the songs, I always think & pray about where we are heading, if there is an overall idea or direction, and what songs we can sing to meet God in that place. Rather than worrying about picking a song order based on key or tempo, I’m more concerned about how well it will flow together. As an extreme case, you wouldn’t want to sing about Jesus’ birth (such as the Christmas song “Angels We Have Heard On High”) and jump to a song about Jesus’ death & resurrection (such as Matt Maher’s “Christ Is Risen”). Theme is also very important if you want to prepare an appropriate response song to reflect the sermon.

God’s Plan

Ultimately, what it comes down to is how God is moving you towards these songs. A lot of the song selection process may feel like what we want to sing or lead, but if we align that with what God wants to do with these songs then we can plan for how God can effectively use them in our church (more on that in a future post). Pray through the songs and see if they are usable by God in your ministry. What we plan and what God plans should go hand in hand. I never go through with a setlist that I’m sure about unless I’m sure that God is behind it.

The Set

Now that we’ve thought and prayed about what songs we can choose from, we can start working on the order. It helps to be in tune with all of the above because it makes creating the flow a lot easier. Charlie Hall once told me, “Get inside the story of the song and try to see it from God’s perspective.” What journey has God planned for this week with the songs that have been on your heart? I begin to narrow down the list of songs from there to the 4 songs we sing on Sunday (maybe more/less for your church) and organize them in a way that will help people focus in on God.

Throwing new songs into the mix can be a bit confusing but easing them into a semi-frequent rotation in the beginning will quickly make them a regular choice in the future. Plan out exactly how many new songs you would want to introduce in a year. Note which familiar songs you are pairing with them so that you’re not overwhelming the congregation with too many new songs. (This includes any original songs you’ve written that have spurred out of what God’s been doing in your own churches. More on that here.)

It’s important that as leaders we lead intentionally – this stems from the very beginning when we select the songs to how we decide to actually lead and connect these songs. Tim Hughes once said that we are more than song leaders. We’re not karaoke machines; let’s not just “set it & forget it” and simply sing the songs. We’re the ones who are leading these songs, so lead your church on the journey that God led you on when deciding on them! What kind of songs do you pick?

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5 Responses to “What Song do I Pick for My Worship Service?”

  1. Terrific post. Often what has helped me in choosing songs is knowing ahead of time what the pastor will be preaching about, so that I can have some or all of the songs thematically line up with the message. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a good start. (Right now we’re doing a sermon series on End Times, so it’s a more difficult topic to find songs for.)

    Keeping things in prayer is also always good. Listening to where the Spirit guides things is important. And I don’t mean in the “spontaneous worship” sense. This happens way before. A well curated set list that speaks into the hearts of the congregation and reinforces the message can be a wonderful thing that leads people into worship (aka “proskuneo”) outside of just singing songs at church.

    • Absolutely! Tying in the sermon series theme or the particular season your church is going through can be a great factor to consider in our song selection too. Especially when it comes to the post-message song(s), I try to keep the pastor in the loop to make sure we’re on the same page.

  2. I’ve found it helpful to study concert set lists as well. While we aren’t putting on a concert, the planning that goes into those set lists is often for the long-term (a whole tour). Taking some time to look at how the music connects (tempo, key, etc), how the experience is received, and how the producers may have catered to that specific crowd can be a great exercise for thinking through some of these concepts.

    Great post, thank you for writing!

    • Good point, Ryan! I know churches that encourage their teams to regularly go to concerts to experience how “live music” is done outside of church. We aren’t putting on a show, but these sort of transitions, order of songs, etc. can be beneficial to us in how we pick songs for worship.

  3. Definitely. Well written and very heartfelt. Thanks for this post Ryan.

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