Carefully Curating Your Congregation’s Song Catalogue

 

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?

Your Presence is Heaven to Me

We often prepare songlists for church services which go for 25 minutes. It gets quite easy and routine. You do four songs, two fast, two slow, maybe have a scripture reading somewhere, a bit of open worship after the first of the slow songs and finish up with some enthusiastic applause.

But how do you prepare for a 2 hour worship set with 6 worship leaders? And also make sure that it spans the generation divide?

This is what I’ve been struggling with as we prepare for Global Day of Worship in Perth.

I can tell you now that I think I bit off more than I could chew!

Here are a few things I learnt in the last couple of days about the process (in no particular order except where this is obvious):

// Focus on God first!

// Then focus on the journey of worship.

// Make sure your songs help people to worship (a timely reminder from Pastor Yoy)

// Make sure there are some newer songs that are currently relevant.

// Make sure there are some older songs that aren’t so old that no one remembers them.

// Work on tension and release – break the tension at key points.

// You don’t need as many songs as you think. Give some time over for “soaking”.

// You don’t need to do all the songs that you like. Remind yourself this is not the last time you’ll do something like this.

// Cull, cull, cull again!

// Worship lots in the process, lest you lose focus again and start thinking through the unending variables.

One of the songs young Derwin suggested, which is fairly new, is “Your Presence is Heaven to Me” by Micah Massey and Israel Houghton. It’s an amazing song and I think God will really use it to draw people to His presence.

Here is the video:

And here is another version which medleys “Forever Reign”, “There’s Just Something About That Name” and “Your Presence is Heaven”:

I worshipped a lot with this song as I was preparing – and it helped bring in the focus.

In Exodus 33, Moses prays a prayer of desperation. “God, You might get us into the promised land; you might bring us victory, success, prosperity, wealth, but if Your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t take us from this place”.

There’s something about worship that invites and invokes the immediacy of God’s presence (Ps 22). How we need His presence more and more!

I can tell you now that if we do the Global Day of Worship just for the sake of playing music, or even getting churches together (whilst all good reasons), it would be in vain if God’s presence didn’t show up.

How important is God’s presence? The whole Biblical narrative is about the loss and recovery of God’s presence. The fall is about banishment; the law is about hosting God’s presence; the Psalms is about inviting His presence in song; the Prophets are about not taking God’s presence lightly; the Gospels are about God’s incarnate presence through Jesus; Acts is about God’s empowering presence through the Spirit; the Epistles is about God’s presence being manifested through the church and Revelation is about the permanence of God’s presence in the new Jerusalem.

Lord, we need Your presence!

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!