The first time I led worship was when I was 14 years old. I was in a small youth group with 6 guys and a token girl. The girl didn’t hang around for too long because all the guys ever wanted to do was play basketball.
Back in those days, worship cassettes were getting really popular. I had my copy of The Lord Reigns by Bob Fitts. It was my only worship cassette, so I learned every song on it.
One day, the youth leader asked me to lead worship. I was secretly thrilled, whilst maintaining all the air of humility expected of a good Christian.
The guys used to carpool (actually, van pool) to youth group and so I had my first and only rehearsal with the guitarist on the ride to the old Perth City Mission building, where the youth group met. I gave him a list of 10 songs (all extracted from The Lord Reigns). I didn’t realise he didn’t know about six of those songs.
When I got up to lead, it didn’t turn out like anything on the cassette. We did a song a couple of times each, sometimes acapella because the guitarist didn’t know the song. I couldn’t even remember which song came next. It was a disaster, but it was a learning experience.
It’s been awhile since that first worship leading experience when I was 14 and with the 20 or so years that I have had the privilege to lead worship, once in a while I get the opportunity to teach on worship. 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.
Sometimes, I might come across a song that really speaks to me and I feel that it is the right song to be sung for a worship set 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, the worship session 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” rule.
In this article, I want to share with you some of the parameters that I use to help me choose songs for a worship set, whether it’s for a Sunday service or for a cell group. The important thing to note is that half of the work of a worship leader is already done well before the actual worship set itself.
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 leading, far less concentration is required to make sure the songlist is executed properly to more importantly focus on what the Holy Spirit might want to do during a meeting.
So here are some guiding principles to choosing good songlists:
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 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 become so blasé 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 or cell group 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! Sacrifice Personal Preferences
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 beautiful voice”.
We need to set aside those preferences. Often, I will do a song because I feel that it captures the heart of the people 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 session from start to end. This also helps you to communicate better with your musician(s) during rehearsals so that you can plan your transitions well.
4. Create Tension and Release
Our culture is one of story and narrative. A good story starts with an introduction, followed by a complication, climax and denouement.
Similarly, a worship setlist should bring the congregation on a narrative journey. The songs should tell a story with increasing intensity before giving way to encounter and resolution.
- Long, wordy songs (such as hymns) create tension. Short, simple songs bring release.
- A new song brings tension as the congregants concentrate to learn it. A familiar song brings release as they close their eyes and sing without concentration.
- Songs in a minor key create tension. Songs in a major key bring release.
- A lot of structure creates tension, but creates a springboard for the release of free, open worship.
Too much tension creates stress; too much release leads to disorder. A right balance of tension and release in a worship set will engage and lead the congregation into a spiritual journey of encountering God.
5. Make 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.
6. 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 come to a meeting, 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!