In many ways, the songs that we sing have become one of the major factors in driving how we plan and execute our worship services each week.
People cannot sing, if they do not know the songs.
Our choice of lighting, visuals, scripture readings, prayers and transitions all end up riding on our song choices. The songs we select, set the mood for the service as well, laying the foundation for almost everything else that’s going on (often this can, and does include the message).
Therefore, it makes sense that the picking of songs is very important, not only as we plan each individual service, but in the context of our churches as a whole.
Here are a few thoughts on the process that I use, to pick the songs that we use in our services.
1. Check the theology
I guess this one should go without saying, but the most important factor in the songs that we include as part of our services, should be the text of the song itself. There is a Latin saying, “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” which means “the law of prayer is the law of belief is the law of life.” In other words, what we pray (sing), is what we will believe, is then how we will live.
Each Sunday, we literally put theology into the mouths of our congregations, so we need to be sure that our songs will lead people to believe and live how we want them to believe and live. I would expand this thought to specific denominations or traditions.
Many popular songs may espouse theology that could be considered solid doctrine in one church, while not being acceptable in another. Just because a song is popular and resonates within a number of churches, does not mean its message is appropriate for your specific church context.
2. What does it sound like?
Similar to the theology issue, the musical content of a song could be very specific to your exact church context.
I have found a number of songs that I really liked, and maybe others on the creative team liked, but that did not fit in the context of our church for one reason or another. The music itself is actually my starting point for picking out new songs.
I remember back in the CD days, I would hear worship leaders say, “I don’t even pop in the disc, until I’ve read all the lyrics,” upon which I would always feel a little less spiritual for having listened to the music first. For me, though, I like to see if the song will draw me in musically, after which I check the text. Some songs have great music, but poor text, while others have great text, but poor music. Bottom line is, it does not matter how great the lyrics are, or where the song is rated on the top CCLI list, if it does not work musically in your church context, the song will not work in your church.
3. Don’t forget the old songs
Just as a previous generation might have argued that no good music has been written for the church since 1950, we should not be arguing that the only good music written for the church has been written in the last five years. Now, you may not be making that argument verbally, but if your setlists consistently only include songs that are very new, in some ways, this communicates that only new songs matter to your church.
Two thousand years of church history has given us a very rich catalog of songs from which to pull from, and 2,000 years has also weeded out many terrible songs as well.
The songs contained in any modern hymnal are in there for a reason, and the oldest of those songs are still in the hymnal, because they have stood up to decades (or centuries) of scrutiny.
You may also find new texts that speak to your current church series or situation in a way you really appreciate. Another upside is that playing older songs is a guaranteed way to help you win points with at least someone in your congregation, even if they already support what you do.
4. Play fewer songs more often
While we musicians quickly get bored with the same old songs played the same old way, the goal of the singing time during our services is to do just that: sing.
People cannot sing, if they do not know the songs.
We spend hours with the songs between selecting them, practicing, rehearsing, and multiple services, so it stands to reason that we will get tired of some songs very quickly. However, most of our congregations are not spending their days listening to our setlists, and therefore only really get to hear many of our songs on Sunday mornings. The solution to this is to simply play fewer songs, but to also play them more frequently.
I used to plan every week starting with a list of over 120 songs, and I did my best to make sure I was not overusing any of them. Now, I have a list of about 25-28 songs every four months, and many of those songs end up on the list for the next four months. Additionally, we only do 10 or so new songs each year. Since we began this process a few years ago, the results have been dramatic. I see more people singing, and with more enthusiasm than they were when we were singing so many different songs.
The other advantage to this is it makes planning for services music easier when you simply have less options to pick from, and you force yourself to stick through it. There are a few exceptions to this (like when your lead pastor asks for a specific song), but for the most part, I stick to this list.
5. Get help picking out the songs
What started as a good idea turned into a great rhythm for our team. Every few months I invite a small group of people from the Worship Arts team, and people completely uninvolved in worship, to help pick new songs. From there, the group works on making a list of songs to cover the next four months. Through this process, I have better learned what our people like and dislike, learned about songs and music groups that I did not know existed, and increased and broadened the ownership people have of our ministry.
I used to sit alone in a room picking out all the songs by myself, I am very glad I have found a better way.
6. Write something new
There is something to be said for your team writing music, that speaks the language of your people at a particular time. It can be a very exciting thing to hear your church sing a song that was created by your church!
These songs belong to your congregation and that sense of ownership gives even more reason to sing out. This does not mean you should necessarily release an album for the world to hear, but maybe God has specific words he wants your people to sing and He has tasked you to give them those words.
7. There is no excuse for bad songs
I know this one sounds silly, but if you follow the previous steps, this is the result. There are more than 300,000 songs in the CCLI database, and many more that have not ended up there, written by the church over the course of history.
Across such an expansive catalog of songs, many are just plain bad in my opinion, while so many others are fantastic.
Unfortunately, we live in the iTunes generation of disposable music, where people purchase singles, and then move onto the next exciting thing in just a few weeks. I see this same thing happening in the church.
Songs come in for a time, serve their purpose, and leave.
If we focus our attention on great songs, that have staying power, our setlists will not feel as temporary. Sure, we have brought new songs in that did not catch on, and they fell off our list, but many new songs stay for years.
For example, I see In Christ Alone, being a song that has come out of this generation that, among others, will still be sung by the church hundreds of years from now. Outstanding text, paired with a flawless melody, have created a song that resonates with churches all over the world.
The primary goal with picking out songs for our services should be to pick God-exalting songs that our people want to sing, in order that our people will worship the God who is worthy of our worship.
We should do our best to be sure that as many people as possible know our songs and want to sing them out as a corporate expression of our worship to God.