As we near the 6-year mark at HRF, it may come as a surprise that we have sung over 250 unique songs! One of the most challenging but rewarding responsibilities I have as deacon of worship is choosing Sunday’s songs for corporate worship. The songs we sing help to shape the state of our hearts for long after the service is over, often into the tail-end of the week. It also shapes our culture. What we sing about (or don’t sing about) says a lot about who we are as a local church, and what we value. So what needs to be considered when working on the set list for a given week?
The main reason I felt compelled to write this article was out of necessity. I have had many conversations with members over the past several years, where the topic of song selection comes up. Often I summarize it by saying something to the extent of “there’s a lot to it” realizing that answer is not very helpful or enlightening. That said, I hope to shed some light on the topic by providing a general overview of the types of considerations we want to make when selecting songs.
When planning songs choices, I find it helpful to organize considerations into three areas:
Worship Team Considerations
Is the song true and honest? This is the most important consideration. The words we sing should accurately reflect the true character and nature of God. They should harmonize with what we already believe as a church. We want to sing songs that are gospel-centered and Christ-exalting. We sing these truths because singing has a way to affect and shift the desires of our hearts in a way unlike any other. For that reason, we want to be intentional with the words we sing as the wrong words can cause distraction or confusion. Sometimes a song may not be untruthful, but it may be vague or contain language that worshipers find distracting or irreverent. Corporate worship is not the time to have to explain what a song really means.
Can the congregation sing it? We love to sing loudly at HRF, so it’s really important that a song be evaluated by how singable it is. We want everyone singing because ultimately we are all leading worship as active participants, whether on the stage or in the pews. While there are compositional methods (like changing keys) to make songs more singable for the average person, some songs are clearly not designed for congregational worship. These songs are best left as a solo (for example during communion) or for private enjoyment, but not for singing corporately.
Does the congregation want to sing it? With all of the above considered, there have been times I believed a new song was going to be loved and sung loudly and it fell flat. The opposite has also happened. There is no formula behind what is going to be a new favorite song to sing as a church. That’s the beauty of worship in the local church. We don’t have to sing the same songs that the church next door sings. We have our own worship culture, and we sing songs that serve our body well. But still, how do we know when a new song is going to be for us? The only way we know is by giving it a try. We might need to try a new song several times to enter into it and discover whether it belongs in the rotation. Over the years, some songs have woven into the fabric of our culture.
What is the message for the week? The scripture of the week is one of the more obvious considerations. Often times, there are songs that lend themselves well to a particular passage. Additionally, it’s not uncommon to have an overarching theme being communicated over multiple weeks that can also be referenced. We want to tell a story throughout corporate worship. We don’t want the service to feel segmented, but rather have a clear flow. For this reason, it’s important to consider how the songs relate to the message.
What part of the service is it? Our order of service is very intentional. We start with songs of adoration, after the sermon we have a song of thanksgiving, we transition to communion with a song of reflection. We conclude the service with a song of celebration. Throughout this are sprinkled opportunities to tie in an element that precedes or follows using song. We look at the worship service as one big story, and the songs often work as connective fibers from one stage to the next. It’s always helpful to consider how a song is going to work with what we just did, as well as what we are about to do. You’ll notice that if you pay attention over time, there are some patterns to the types of songs or the way we present songs at particular points of the service. The first few songs of adoration I call warm-up songs because we come in with cooled hearts and singing is a great way to “warm-up” or prepare ourselves to receive the word. Communion is a great point to introduce a contemplative or introspective piece. A song may be well known and loved by the church, but if it’s placed in the wrong point of the service, it can create awkwardness in the flow. Thinking about where a song falls in regards to the position in service is a big consideration.
WORSHIP TEAM CONSIDERATIONS
Who is serving? One of the aspects of scheduling that I enjoy is the opportunity to vary who is scheduled for a given week. Every musician or singer has unique qualities which, when placed in the context of the team provides creative options in pairing people together. We like to use this to our advantage, like an artist would with a palette of paints. The more colors available, the more new and exciting things we can create. Different color combinations yield new and unexpected outcomes. For instance, we can vary the number of instruments we have on stage, one guitar, or three guitars and a piano. Or we can use two singers who complement or contrast one another to get different sounds. Thinking thoroughly about who is scheduled and what they bring takes time, but it can yield beautiful results.
What is the team capable of? Finally, it’s vital to consider your team’s skill and experience. Keeping track of where people are and what they are capable of during the song selection process mitigates unnecessary frustration on the team and unwanted distraction on the congregation.