It’s kind of a tired discussion – setlists, songs, and how many new songs to lead. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just that my world revolves around picking setlists and finding songs. If I’m honest, I look forward to days I don’t have to pick out a setlist. It feels like vacation.
But this one activity we do day in and day out is something we can’t lose interest in or give up on.
Songs are important. Church aside, consider the prominence that songs have in our culture. Movies wouldn’t make sense without them. Sporting events would lack energy without them. Moments rarely pass without hearing some type of music. From department store background music, to wedding ceremonies and concert halls. From iPhones to elevators, dance clubs to churches, songs are the single most important vehicle of communication and connection in the world.
All of a sudden, “What songs are we singing on Sunday” carries more weight, doesn’t it?
From a Biblical perspective, songs tell the story of the Gospel and frame our worldview each week. And while I don’t buy the argument that every worship leader is a theologian (don’t give us that much credit, unless you are one), we are influencing the theological framework of our people on a weekly basis.
When a young couple has a miscarriage, our songs give them voice.
When a elderly woman is widowed, our sings give her voice.
When a 9 year old boy is diagnosed with cancer, our songs give him voice.
Songs of lament, songs of faith, songs of truth, songs of hope.
While it’s rather common to daydream and zone out during a sermon (sorry preachers), songs stick in your psyche even when you’re not actively listening.
Music is powerful. Friedrich Nietzsche himself (who said ‘God is dead’) states:
God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true.”
Guiding Principles in Choosing Songs
So what are some guiding principles we can abide by in this continual act of picking out songs to sing?
1. Realize the Power of Familiar
What is the sweet spot of how many new songs to lead? When is a song finished? How do I know if my congregation is sick of a song? You may not know the answer to these questions, but one thing is sure: there is something powerful about familiar music.
I know we artistic types value being “different” and “creative”. But that very well may work against you in your local church.
There are actually scientific studies related to the power of predictable and familiar music.
John Seabrook, in his book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory says,
Familiarity with the song increases one’s emotional investment in it, even if you don’t like it.”
If people know a song well, they feel more invested in it emotionally and will respond more. You and your team might be sick of a song, but just realize that your congregation is just catching on and the song might give you the most traction after you’ve sung it 17 times.
2. Sing Songs that Say Something
There’s just not enough time to sing lame songs. I know that’s probably not my most tweetable statement, but it’s true. Sing songs that lead hearts towards the mystery of God. Sing songs that help the human heart gaze in wonder. Sing songs that people can belt and declare with fiery passion.
Cool isn’t good enough. Different isn’t reason enough. Unique isn’t an adjective we need in worship music. We need truth. We need heart. We need feeling. We need Gospel. We need passion.
3. Give Voice to Poor & Average Singers
It’s frustrating when worship music can only be sung by gifted vocalists. I think this is main strength and opportunity of worship music – giving voice to poor & average singers. We are writing the songs of everyday saints. We are penning anthems for plumbers, doctors, moms, executives, and chefs to sing – songs they can make their own. It’s sad when our churches become a concert hall for the gifted worship leader to be adored.
Worship leader, it’s not your fault that you’re gifted. I don’t want to degrade your talent. But let’s strive to give voice to our people, not just create a platform for our own fame.
Let’s sing in singable keys. Write and choose songs with phrasing that is comfortable to enunciate. Sing songs that resonate with people’s heart, intellect, and ear.
4. Consider the Generations
One of the most important questions you can ask yourself as a worship leader is, “Who am I leading?” Is it a room full of elementary kids? Young twenty-somethings? Families with small kids? Senior citizens? The answer to that question makes all the difference.
Rita Springer recently challenged us with a word she received from God. It’s as if God is asking you and me: “Can I trust you with this congregation?”
In a multi-generational church, you want to reach the generations. You don’t want to cater to the preference of the worship leader. In our church, we call ourselves a multi generational church with a bent towards the next generation. Every generation is represented, but we want to cater a little more towards young people, while not alienating the rest. It all comes down to casting vision and loving your people.
What would you add to this list? What are your guiding principles for choosing songs? Feel free to chat it up in the comments. That’s the best part anyway.