I love the word “curate”. It used to conjure up images of stuffy old men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches carefully displaying artefacts in a museum. These days, the hipsters have taken hold of the term, and you can curate almost anything you like – magazine articles, photographs, ideas, images, conversations, recipes.
If you are in charge of your worship ministry at your church, hipster or otherwise, you have the job of curating your church’s song library.
What do I mean by this?
In the past, we used to give the worship leaders at our church free hand to choose whatever songs they wanted to sing. About a year ago, we introduced a catalogue of 30 songs for congregational use. Our worship leaders were told that, for a 25-minute Sunday worship set, they had to choose at least 3 songs from the library.
Ideally, the songs on the catalogue should be carefully curated, to take into consideration a variety of tempos, expressions and themes which reflects the current state of your church’s sojourn. We didn’t have that luxury, so we just identified 30 songs that we were singing at the church at that point in time. Then, every three or four weeks, we would introduce a new song, but as we did, we took out a song from the catalogue so the list always remained at 30.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure we’ve got it right. Maybe 30 songs is too few or too many. Perhaps it is too constraining.
But looking over the last year, I’m really glad we went down this route.
Here are some reasons why I think it’s important for worship leaders to responsibly and prayerfully curate a song catalogue:
1. Consistency and Unity
Our church has an interestingly broad demographic. Being traditionally a migrant church, with an unusual bias of Methodists, many people were asking us to sing hymns and older worship songs (circa 1990). And yet, there was a group who had grown up in the Australian culture who would have never heard of those older songs, let alone be able to engage with them. This latter cohort listen to Planetshakers, Young and Free, Hillsong United, all replete with electro-beats and midi sounds.
Having a catalogue of songs wiped across, and wiped out, issues of preferences and preferential treatment. It was a means for the worship ministry to bridge the generational gap. Whatever your personal preferences, the church would be committed to singing from the catalogue.
What we found was that we began to move from a culture of singing my songs, to singing the church’s songs.
This also went for our worship leaders. I personally like the worship songs of the 1990s too, because this was a critical period in my own spiritual formation. But having to choose from the catalogue eliminated my own personal bias as a worship leader.
2. Increasing the Band’s Skill Level
Before we introduced the song catalogue, as a musician, you would never know where next week’s songs would come from. You hoped that you knew the songs, but there was a pretty good chance you wouldn’t, because a worship leader could choose an obscure song which was written before you were even born (such as Rich Mullin’s “Awesome God”, with verses!).
That meant that musicians would often have to learn new songs, even if they were in fact, old songs.
Having a catalogue means that musicians can target their practice towards a set of songs they know will likely be used on Sundays. Once they’ve got the 30 songs under their belt, they can continue to learn the new songs which are introduced over time. This levels the playing field, so to speak.
3. Training New Worship Leaders
One of the most difficult aspects of a worship leader’s craft is song selection. I have always taught that if you can master this skill, then most of the work of Sunday worship is already done before you even step into your rehearsal.
But, in a landscape where new songs are being proliferated all the time, plus all the songs that have already been written, the different permutations of a Sunday songlist are virtually limitless.
On the other hand, if you are required to choose only from 30 songs, some of which naturally go together, and others which don’t, your choice becomes much more constrained. By limiting the permutations, choosing songs becomes a much easier exercise.
This means that as we train new worship leaders, we don’t have to worry so much as to whether their songlist is going to be a train smash. I have watched worship leaders create really bad song lists by the way. Train smash is the right term.
Instead, we can concentrate on worship leaders garnering their skills in stage presentation, flow, exhortation, prayer and leading the band. We remove one of the more time-consuming aspects of preparation.
As a seasoned worship leader who has to lead worship several times a month, having a compact song catalogue has also made it easier for me to choose songs, because I know what songs the church is singing and what they respond well to.
I have said that we are asked to choose 3 songs from the catalogue. Using a songlist of 4 songs, this means that we still have one free choice, just to pay homage to those of us who like to keep a bit of personal freedom!
Curating a song catalogue is therefore not just about putting together a beautiful list so that we can all gather around it, admire it and then quietly applaud. Curating a song catalogue is about cultivating a song culture in your church, right across a broad spectrum of generations, your band and your worship leadership.
One final thought. The old word “curate” also refers to a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish. To “curate” a song catalogue is therefore in essence a pastoral task, ultimately, helping your congregation and worship team to bring their best offerings in praise before the Lord. Have you thought about curating a song catalogue for your church? What songs would go on it?