Choosing songs is hard. It’s especially hard if you’re indecisive. Or if you’re falling asleep or something.
Ultimately though, choosing songs is difficult because it is arguably among the most important things that a worship leader does. The crucial nature brings spiritual and shepherding weight to it, and the weight brings difficulty. Fortunately in this case, as with most things in the Christian life, this difficulty is really “difficulty.” With quotations around it. It’s the beautiful, sanctifying, only-if-self-imposed-and-self-dependent-for-too-long kind of difficulty.
Choosing songs is extremely important for what might be too obvious of a reason. It’s determining the truths that the congregation will sing, rehearse, be reminded of, worship through, and use to empower and contextualize to the other aspects of biblical fellowship that are taking place in the corporate gathering. The songs themselves may have no magical wonder-working power to them, but the truths enveloped in tune carry (hopefully) the truths and principles of the very Word of God. Important.
Understanding the importance is definitely just the beginning, but it gets you most of the way there. The principle behind the importance drives the practical.
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast best way to choose songs. But here are some guiding principles that help me when I choose songs:
#1 Choose songs that are entirely truthful and often truth-filled.
The big one. Truthful, as in consistent with biblical truth. That’s the obvious part. To dig a little deeper perhaps, some truthful songs are going to belabor one specific truth, while others are chock-full of biblical truths (truth-filled). Use both types of songs. Ebb and flow with your congregation’s ability to sing, comprehend, and respond to different concentrations of truth and choose appropriately as time goes on. My personal preference: tending toward as many truth-filled songs as much as possible and scaling back from there.
#2 Choose songs that you know.
Another pretty obvious one, but it’s too true to not mention. Songs that you know well, you can lead well. If you can’t lead certain a song well (because you don’t know it well), I’ve found that that’s often a helpful indicator of when you might be choosing a song for the wrong reason. Key words “might be.”
#3 Contextualize the worship set to the entire corporate service.
The songs have got to fit in with the rest of the service. The music and truths should flow in a way that is helpful to the congregants. Friday night on a college campus should maybe start out differently than a Sunday morning. A service with a sermon on repentance might end differently than a missions night. But more than anything else, songs chosen should help the corporate gathering as a whole achieve the goal of biblical fellowship.
#4 Consider your congregants.
Assess the appropriateness of your songs to the people you are leading. Consider prioritizing the objective-Christian-helpfulness a certain song(s) can be for others just as highly as your own musical tastes and preferences. Most often, my tendency is to sing the songs that I’ve been listening to in the past week, that have been most helpful to my worship with the Lord lately, or that are my all-time favorites. Sometimes I just “feel like” doing a song. Those things aren’t bad. You can’t/aren’t/shouldn’t get rid of those influences. They’re not evil. It’s just that often these principles far outweigh what songs might be most helpful to the congregation, whether in regards to specific struggles you are aware of in your ministry or with things that are helpful to Christians in a situation-transcendent way. On a long-term level as this develops week by week, this is part of what I would call building a “relationship” or “culture” with your congregants (but that’s a post for another time).
#5 Use a blend of song types.
There are SO many different types of songs in worship music today. By “type,” I’m referring to difference in what each song is meant to help the typical congregant do. Some songs show victory in Christ, some fight doubt, and others point heavenward. And so on. Although sometimes it may be appropriate to choose most/all of your songs to thematically lead your people in a certain direction, most often it is helpful to sing a variety of song types within a given service. When I talk to people about this, I usually give them the example of singing the same song 7 times in the same service. Would that be helpful? Maybe. How about for a year, every Sunday, that same song 7 times every Sunday? Helpful?
Maybe not. That’s the extreme version of the scenario, we can all realize. But what about 7 songs of the same “type” that shepherd the typical congregant in the same way? 7 “It Is Well”-type songs, or 7 “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us”-types? Such a week might not be particularly unhelpful or distracting to the average congregant, but to relegate song types to non-distinguishment because of a lack of thinking through the “types” of songs would be to ignore a great part of shepherding that is leading worship. And in this case, specifically, choosing songs would be the shepherding tool.
#6 Picture the Gospel.
This is something that is greatly missing in worship music nowadays. Thankfully Bob Kauflin has picked up the slack in championing what he calls “Gospel sense” in worship services. Google one of his worship conference messages or workshops or head over to Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship for some strong Biblical reasoning behind this idea. You won’t be the same.
Suffice it to say: understanding the significance of the corporate worship gathering is a concept that both worship leaders and church-goers often grasp conceptually but don’t allow to practically hit home. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ were the unrivaled and repeated anthem of Christian gatherings, I believe the modern believer’s life might look a lot different than it does now. Just as much with the songs chosen to outwardly (and inwardly) proclaim these truths!
#7 Zoom out big time.
Perspective-ize. Contextualize. Obviously (hopefully), the songs chosen in a corporate worship service in the context of a congregant’s life is only one really small slice of the pie.
But understanding that that really small slice of the pie is the worship leader’s weekly feast is of paramount importance. Increasing this understanding is not to puff up the importance of what he gets to do from week to week, but instead to correctly see and grapple the shepherding opportunity that it is to choose songs for the time of corporate singing.
Choose to the glory of God!