My home church had a hymnal. As a curious child I would thumb through its pages during the sermon (it kept me sitting still) and was fascinated by the number of songs contained in this single book. In my hands were hundreds of songs, spanning centuries, many of which I didn’t know.
But the hymnal is changing. If your church is like mine, you might find yourself singing a 9th century hymn followed by a praise chorus written just last year, and everything in between. With sites like Hymnary, SongSelect, Textweek, Indelible Grace, and more, we are just a few clicks away from hundreds of song ideas, scripture texts, or sermon themes for a given week. With instant access to these resources, we live in one of the best times to be a worship leader, but infinite options can lead to decision paralysis. Like the kid in the candy shop, sometimes our job is to pick the best option over dozens of equally good options. How do we navigate the seemingly endless options and choose the right songs for our specific congregation, in each specific moment of the Christian year? In short, how do we discern?
Continuity: Cultivate, curate, and protect your song list.
Shorten it. Think restraint. Though you may sing these songs three times in rehearsal, a couple times in a sound check, and once in each Sunday service, remember that your congregation is singing them once. You will have an urge to do a new song that perfectly fits the sermon theme, but for the sake of your congregation’s confidence, favor the familiar over the new. Limit your primary song list to 100-150 songs.
Protect it. Resist the urge to add new songs.A shorter list means more repetition, and repetition writes words on our hearts. This might mean saying no to some song requests from congregants, band members, choir members, or visiting preachers.
Track it. If you don’t already, begin tracking your set lists and tally how often you sing which songs. Planning Center Online does this for you, but I find an excel spreadsheet more flexible and robust. A detailed catalogue that includes scripture references, themes, church seasons and dates can be a valuable go-to resource specifically tailored to your congregation. With detailed notes you can use this data to reflect on your congregation’s musical diet. Make sure your songs include a balance of objective (God you are…) and subjective (I feel/am…), glorification and edification, transcendent (worshipping God as holy other – Heb 12:28-29) and immanent (worshipping Jesus who dwells within us – Eph 3:17), and many more “healthy tensions”¹. Also, whoever leads worship after you will be grateful!
Contrast: Keeping it fresh while keeping it good
Wait, what? Didn’t you just say to keep the song list short and choose well-known songs over new songs? Yes. But there are times when you’ll want to introduce a new song to the list or present a special song in reflection of the day’s text or theme. When you do introduce something new, you must have a compelling reason and the song should be sturdy enough, in text and tune, to withstand the scrutiny of even the most skeptical congregant.
Know why you sing it. It may fit a particular theme or scripture, or it may be filling a needed theological gap in your repertoire. Know the song’s theology and scripture references and be ready to explain them.
Let it speak to your congregation. And to do this you must know your congregation. Are many in the congregation struggling with sickness or grief? Pick a song that comforts and reminds of God’s goodness. Are they struggling with division? Pick a song that unites and breaks down barriers. Apathy? Pick a song that convicts and calls to action. Of course, every Sunday there are people in the pews who reflect these perspectives and dozens more, but you should be in tune with the particular needs of your community. This makes song choice less about your own personal preferences and more about what will bless, comfort, and convict the congregation.
Teach it well: to your staff, pastoral team, or small group. Perhaps you have a weekly staff meeting or prayer time. By teaching the song to the leaders of the church, the song will already have some weight on the first Sunday you present it to the larger church. Discuss the lyrics and ask what part of the song speaks to them.
Teach it well: to your music team with an a capella rehearsal. Your drummer or bass player might not like to sing, but it can be refreshing for the band to put down their instruments during rehearsal, circle around the piano, and just sing together. By singing the song as a parishioner does, without holding an instrument and reading a chord chart, we can experience the song in its simplest form and contemplate the lyrics.
Teach it well: to your congregation.Prepare a 15-second spiel to introduce the song if that is appropriate for your church. Ask the congregation to listen and not sing when you first introduce a song, then ask them to join in for the final refrain. If your church is connected through an email newsletter or facebook page, use those channels to push recordings though YouTube or Soundcloud so people can hear the song during the week. If you plan on working the song into your regular rotation be sure to repeat it for the next three weeks and come back to it frequently for the next season.
How do you curate your song list? How do you introduce new songs? Let us know in the comments!
¹Bob Kauflin has a great list of healthy tensions to consider in his book Worship Matters (Crossway, 2008)