Worship leading essentials #4 – putting together a song list

One of the most rewarding and most difficult tasks of leading worship is putting together a song list. Do it well and it comes off seamless. Don’t do the prep work and it becomes a train wreck. It takes some work, but with some simple planning, you can put together a solid worship set.

First a look at a typical exchange gathering.

We begin the gathering with an opening song. I would like to think this is a highly spiritual time where people are swept into a realization of the presence of God and that they are transformed from the distractions of the day to becoming keenly aware of what God is saying. Truth is (for us anyway) that it serves as a trigger for people to finish their conversations and coffee in the atrium and come into the sanctuary.

Following the opening song is a welcome, some announcements, prayer, and teaching. We follow up the teaching with a 30 minute worship set. During the set, people are active. They come to the front to take communion, give their offering, pray at the altars, pray with friends, or spend time at some of our designated worship spaces.

Now that you know where we are coming from, on with the nuts and bolts.

Putting the worship set together is like dumping all your worship songs in a funnel. The ones that make them to the bottom become your set. There are some factors which will shape your funnel and determine which songs get passed through. Here is what I do in selecting the songs:

  1. Pray. I have to remind myself that I am leading worship, not songs. It is a serious position that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If my last Life Journal entry was 3 weeks ago, I shouldn’t go to step #2 until I get my grounding. If I throw up a quick prayer and hope for the best, I’m on shaky ground.
  2. Look at the master song list. I have a list of all of my song titles, in no certain order (note to self: get a grip on this list and organize it).
  3. Take a look at the theme/direction of the gathering. The theme could be anything from forgiveness to sex to serving. Every evening has a theme. I look at what we are trying to accomplish. This is deeper than the theme, this is the direction. Good teaching should answer these two questions: 1. What do you want them to know? 2. What do you want them to do? If I can answer these questions, I can get a feel for the direction of the music.
  4. From the master list, write down all the songs that fit the theme or direction. I write down every song that fits. Sometimes the list is short, sometimes very long. Don’t worry about tempo, key, or anything with this list. If it touches the theme/direction, I write it down.
  5. Make the final list. After I have narrowed the big list to say 15-20 songs, now the real work begins. Sometimes this step takes me 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes me an hour. In this step I have to look at a ton of factors. My lists are typically 8 songs. Here is where I start to number 1-8. I look at the following funnel factors to get to the final list:

Theme. Are there songs in this list of 15-20 that have a stronger theme than others? Choose the ones with the closest ties to theme/direction.

Band. Who are my musicians for the gathering (we rotate different musicians)? Sometimes the band members determine what songs we can pull off.

Tempo Flow. Typically I try to start with some slower songs and build the set into intensity, sometimes into a frenzy at the end. Songs 1 and 2 are slower, 4 and 5 build a bit, 6 even more aggressive, and 7 and 8 are usually flat out rockin’. I favor lists that flow like a loose medley of songs.

Key flow. Making a change from the key of D to the key of Bb can be like taking a sharp left when your passengers think you are turning right. Key changes between songs are necessary, but I try to keep them smooth. When I do change keys, I try to make it flow from one to the next.

Rehearsal. Sometimes what looked good on paper in my office in step 4 sounds like trash in rehearsal. We adjust. Many times I will switch the order of songs or throw a song out after rehearsal.

In short, it’s about taking a big list and making it smaller, keeping in mind all the parts that make up the funnel.

Other stuff:

I typically choose 2-3 songs as extras. Sometimes the night goes a different direction than I anticipated. I may go to these songs as a backup. Sometimes the Spirit moves differently in the middle of a gathering than it did in the middle of your office. Don’t let this throw you, just adapt and go with it.

Follow these steps and you will have a flawless worship set. Nice wish. Every week I find things that I should have done different. A look at my weekly evaluations will prove that. Live and learn. Don’t fear making mistakes. Fear making mistakes and not learning from them.

Stop in next time when we will explore being the spiritual leader of your worship musicians. Until then, may your next worship set serve to point people to the Creator.

Even more stuff: This article was submitted to Darren at Problogger for a group writing project. Check out the great submission and learn some creative how to’s ranging from How to Simplify Your Life with Technology to How to Beat Auto Dealerships at Their Own Game.

[tags]worship leading, guitar, song list, church, Jesus, God[/tags]

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This post has 21 comments

  1. I used to lead worship and I found that the way I prepped myself for a set was often like you. However, I differed in that, after I got a big list that hit on topics, I would just sit down by myself with my guar or on the piano, whichever I felt like using at that moment, and begin with one song and worship myself. As I would play each song and worship, I sensed a direction in the music and would just go between songs that fit.

    When the set was on, I\’d have that big list but I\’d also have a list of the songs from my own time. Essentially, flexibility is the key.

    Nice list. Found you from Problogger.

  2. Generally if you plan out your transitions and generally keep in mind the progressions you prefer to use, you\’ll be just fine. Of course if you want the whole band to participate in that transition, you\’d better define the chords for them, as they seem to have other ideas half the time.

  3. Great comments here guys. Aaron makes a great point in using a musical instrument as you put together the list. Sometimes I do that, and sometimes I don\’t. I do find that when I do that early in the process, I make fewer adjustments as time goes on.

    Mamaduck is right as well, if you want the whole band in transition with you, better give them a heads up. Nothing transitions worse than a five piece band making 5 different transitions!!

  4. Thanks for the great write up. I am a Bible College Student at Destiny International. I am at present taking a course on Worship. Your experience has benefited me in understanding how a worship service flows. Yes in the Spirit, but also through preparation. God Bless you.
    In Christ,

  5. thanks for the advise.. I\’m 17 years old and I have been leading praise and worship in our church for about a year. I\’m really confused at times cause I have not been given orientation on these things. I really need to learn more. Thank you for this tips. I\’m in the middle of thinking for the song set and I saw this article.

    Thanks again and God bless.

  6. Great stuff. May God richly increase your ministry.

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