How to Choose Songs

Whenever I teach on worship leading, one of the most common questions I am invariably asked is: “how do you choose the songs?”

I think a lot of people presume that the songs are found in a special room in my apartment called “the secret place” where I go “beyond the veil” to “download” the “songs from heaven”. Some people think that worship leaders only come up with songs after an extended time of prayer and fasting.

I hate to burst bubbles, but the process of song selection is not as mystical as some people think. In fact, it is quite a natural process.

For me anyway, the process can be quite varied.

// Sometimes, I might come across a song that really speaks to me and I feel that it is the right song to be sung on Sunday and then I just start constructing a song list around it.

// Other times, I am worshipping at home on my guitar and a flow of songs just comes to me and that becomes my song list.

// On occasion, Wednesday night rehearsal is rolling around and I’ve got nothing. So I just cobble a few songs together in faith and hope for the best! If I’m really desperate, I might pick up a songbook and skim through it to see what appeals to me.

At the end of the day, there is no “hard and fast” prescription.

In this post, I want to share with you some of the parameters that I use to help me choose songs for a Sunday worship set. The important thing to note is that half of the work of a worship leader is already done well before Sunday, and in fact, well before rehearsal.

A well-constructed songlist can often “work itself out” so that the worship leader can almost step into the set and go on “autopilot”. That way, when the worship leader is actually on stage, far less concentration is required to make sure the songlist is executed properly to focussing on what the Holy Spirit might want to do during a meeting.

So here are some guiding principles to choosing good songlists:

1. Pray!

It might sound like a given, but so often, we take the process for granted. I remember when I first started worship leading, I used to put a lot of effort into praying and seeking God and worshipping before I could come up with a songlist. Looking back, I realised that I was just being overly religious: going through particular motions in the hope of getting a particular result. My notions of God have changed since those days: now I believe that God wants to speak to me in every moment and in any place, so I don’t really need to go through a convoluted ritual to somehow “birth” a songlist. The risk in this approach, however, is to becomes so blase that you don’t even involve God in the process.

A friend of mine utters a very simple prayer as he prepares: “Lord, what is it that you want your church to express to you this Sunday that will really bless your heart?” I love that childlikeness and I believe that God honours our approaching him with boldness and simplicity.

Such a prayer also makes us think about the congregation and how to pastor them into God’s presence: something we need to remind ourselves of more and more as worship continues to risk crossing the line into consumerism, entertainment and a musical showcase.

2. It’s Not About Me!

Quite often, we can construct a songlist around our preferences. We can become so conceited that we start thinking: “does this song suit my vocal range?”, “I don’t really like that song” or “this song will really show off my guitarist’s awesome skills”.

We need to set aside those preferences. Often, I will do a song because I feel that it captures the heart of the church towards God in a particular season even if I personally don’t like the song or I don’t sound good singing it. My job is to capture the church’s expression of praise to God, not to show off or pander to my own likes and dislikes. In fact, worship shouldn’t be about me at all! That’s the furthest point we can be from the throne of God.

3. Focus on Flow

This is a lost art! When I started learning about leading worship, Hosanna! Music put out lots of worship cassettes which captured the flow of a worship meeting. Kent Henry used to record albums where the starting song flowed seamlessly through free worship, prayer, Scripture reading all the way through to high praise without interruption.

These days, worship albums are more about showcasing artists than capturing the atmosphere of worship.

We should approach a worship set like a seamless journey that tells a story of our approach to God. So for example, there should be thematic unity. God is so infinite and varied that we could never sing about every aspect of His nature in 30 minutes. So choose one or two thoughts to centre around, e.g. the love of God, intimacy, his power and might, his presence, comfort, healing etc. Just make sure that the themes aren’t diametric opposites because a sure way to kill the atmosphere is to go from “Jesus Loves Me This I know” to “Mighty Warrior”.

Key selection is also important. Choosing songs in the same key allows you to move seamlessly into the next song without having to rely heavily on clever musical interludes. It allows the worship leader to have various entry points into the next song and to even move back and forth between two songs if necessary.

Once you have chosen the songs, you should be able to pretty much visualise the flow of the worship service from start to end. This also helps you to communicate better to your team during rehearsals so that you can plan your transitions well.

4. Give Room for the Holy Spirit

We can be clinical and plan everything to a tee and then hope for the Holy Spirit to move. Or we can “plan to be spontaneous” by not overloading the set so that there is some inbuilt time buffer within which we can allow and expect the Holy Spirit to move.

When I first started leading worship, I thought that on average a song might last 3 to 4 minutes so for a half-an-hour set, I could probably fit about 7 songs in there easily. Boy, was that a mistake! I just ended up rushing through everything without giving anyone (let alone the Holy Spirit) any chance to breathe.

For a 25 minute set, I recommend about 3 to 4 songs (or at most 4 songs plus one short chorus to finish). Within that, allow for free worship; allow for times for the music to play; allow for the Holy Spirit to inspire you to give a word, exhortation or prayer.

5. Include Various Expressions of Worship

When I first led worship on a Sunday, I had a disdain for fast songs. I thought they were shallow and emotional. No, the real spiritual songs are the slow songs. That is when you really pour your heart out to God.

I have since realised that, in fact, all songs directed to God in worship are spiritual! The Psalms indicate that it is just as valid to worship God with dance, shouts and celebration as with intimate cries of the heart.

So now, I don’t shun fast songs. In fact, I think they are necessary and to not do them is to deprive the church of a very real expression of praise.

Further, fast songs are an important tool to engage and bring people with you, especially because when people first enter the sanctuary, they are not emotionally prepared to engage with God. A fast song will often help get them onto the same page before releasing them to express worship to God in their own way!

Of course, there may be times when you might feel God doesn’t want you to do a fast song, but I have the fast song on as a default setting unless directed otherwise.

So those are some of the parameters that guide me when I choose songs for a worship set. I hope they have been helpful! Remember, if you can put together a good songlist, half of the work is already done!

6 thoughts on “How to Choose Songs

  1. Hi. Im Trextan from Philippines. If you may, can you assess my lineup? In order: (Lord Most High, Alas and Did My Savior Bleed, More than Wonderful). My theme is the surpassing worth of the Christ. Im struggling with my ministry and music head, because they seem to not like the More than Wonderful to be a last song. One of them also commented that there is a problem also in the lyric progression (i dont understand) of my songs. I really need your honest comments on these. Thanks.

    1. Hi trextan. Thanks for your comment. Whilst I have set out some principles about song selection in my post, they are not meant to be rigid rules. Sometimes it is difficult to follow all the principles. It is good to have lyrical progression by which I understand to mean that the lyrics flow together around similar themes and ideas. They shouldn’t be too contrasting. But that isn’t always going to be easy and you can always try to link disparate themes with appropriate prayers or scripture readings. Regarding your songlist, unfortunately I don’t know any of the songs so I can’t comment on your song choice. I would say though that if your ministry head is suggesting you to change the songs, you might ask them for clarification. If after talking to them they are still insistent, then you will probably do well to agree to the changes. These days, even though I put a lot of thought and prayer into my song choices, I am not precious about the songs and if my leaders ask me to give them up or change them, I’d be happy to do it. I would rather preserve the unity of the ministry. I hope that helps you somewhat.

      1. Thank you very much. That helped. Actually, I have this attitude of being argumentative, I thank God that He is dealing with it.

        I am frustrated, they have suggestions that are not that good in my own opinion or according to my own personal worship. The problem is, they think they are giving right suggestions, but for me its the opposite. There is this war between individual style of worship, individual transition thought, individual leading of the Holy Spirit. One of my head also commented that the final song should be a “giving God all glory” type of song. I agree to that, I really like that endings. I’ve been implementing that often times, but now, I only want to dwell or focus on my theme and not force to insert “pattern line up should be” songs.

        I am struggling with the idea that the final say comes from the head instead of the song leader who will actually be the one to lead. I can overlook this thing, its been 2 years of this inward war, but it happens all the time, it is frustrating. Yes, I would want to preserve the unity of the ministry, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past n times that I am leading in the worship. But thank you very much for that reminder, maybe I am being selfish or what.

        If you dont mind, I will paste here the lyrics of my songs.

        Lord, Most High ( D )
        From the ends of the earth
        From the depths of the sea
        From the heights of the heavens
        Your Name be praised
        From the hearts of the weak
        From the shouts of the strong
        From the lips of all people
        This song we raise, Lord
        Throughout the endless ages
        You will be crowned with praises
        Lord, Most High
        Exalted in every nation
        Sovereign of all creation
        Lord, Most High, be magnified

        Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed (A)
        Alas! And did my Savior bleed
        And did my Sovereign die!
        Would He devote that sacred head
        For sinners such as I?
        Was it for crimes that I have done
        He groaned upon the tree?
        Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
        And love beyond degree!
        Well, might the sun in darkness hide
        And shut its glories in
        When God, the Mighty Maker, died
        For His own creature’s sin
        Thus might I hide my blushing face
        While His dear cross appears
        Dissolve my heart in thankfulness
        And melt mine eyes to tears
        But drops of tears can ne’er repay
        The debt of love I owe
        Here, Lord, I give myself away
        ‘Tis all that I can do

        More Than Wonderful ( D )
        He promised us
        That He would be a Counselor
        A Mighty God and the Prince of Peace
        He promised us that He would be a Father
        And that He would love us
        With a love that would not cease
        Well, I tried Him and I found
        His promises are true
        He’s everything He said That He would be
        The finest words I know could not begin to tell
        Just what Jesus really means to me
        For He’s more wonderful
        Than my mind can concieve
        He’s more wonderful
        Than my heart can believe
        He goes beyond my highest hopes
        And fondest dreams
        He’s everything
        That my soul ever longed for
        Everything He’s promised
        And so much more
        More than amazing
        More than marvelous
        More than miraculous, could ever be
        He’s more than wonderful
        That’s what Jesus is to me
        I stand amazed
        When I think that the King of Glory
        Should come to dwell
        Within the heart of man
        I marvel just to know He really loves me
        When I think of who He is and who I am

        Im sorry for the hassle. Thank you!!!

  2. Hi Trextan
    Thanks for sending through the lyrics. I realise that I actually do know the first song (although it’s been a while since I have sung it). From a lyrical flow perspective, songs 2 and 3 flow well; going from song 1 to song 2 might be a bit of a leap, but as I said previously, you can cushion this with an appropriate prayer, scripture reading or even a short exhortation.
    I also like to use a “high praise” ending so we have an emphatic finish to the worship time, but I agree with you that we cannot be so formulaic. Sometimes, it is nice just to have a quiet ending and linger a bit. But of course, if your leader doesn’t agree, you might need to follow what they say.
    I think your heart is in the right place because you are aware of your own attitude. I can also understand because I have been in a situation like this before. The most important thing for me is for trust to be built between you and your leadership. Once there is that trust, things get very easy. I am now in a situation where I trust my worship pastor and he trusts me completely, so we never second-guess each other’s motives. When we give feedback to each other, we don’t take it personally – we simply either take on the suggestion or agree to disagree. It’s wonderful to experience this sort of working relationship.
    You may need to work on winning your leadership’s trust but that will also take some time. If the frustration gets too much, then you might need to really pray about whether you are in the right place for this season.

  3. Praise the Lord! I think I have more than enough answers to my concerns. I’ll take note of these. My heart is rejoicing, knowing that someone from somewhere, with a heart for God and His church, can be reached and be asked of some questions. God bless brother Lester. May God bless you, your family and your church.

    Soli Deo Gloria.

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