Choosing the right worship songs is probably 50% of all what good worship leading is all about—if not more!
When we talk about worship inside the church, songs are the primary language of the soul to express worship.
So you see, one of the easiest mistakes we can make is to choose the wrong set of songs.
In this guide, we’ll look at how to choose songs for worship. This guide will serve as a practical blueprint to construct effective worship set-lists that facilitate engaged congregational worship in your church.
A worship set-list or set is the planned list of songs in a definite sequence that a worship team intends to use in a worship session. – The Worship Kenbook
Let’s think about that for a moment.
A set-list is carefully planned before the session (yes, planning on stage is not a smart option, no matter what you think the Holy Spirit is telling you)
Based on musical and logical parameters (more on these later), it needs to be in a specific sequence that supports our worship
This means we have to think like an artist bringing together different colors on a canvas to create a beautiful picture; or a story-teller narrating a story in a manner that draws the listener into it and brings it to life.
A good set-list engages the congregation, encourages participation, places appropriate prayers in the hearts of the people, moves them to intimacy with God and invokes a love response towards Him.
How to choose songs for worship that actually engage your congregation
Develop a Song-Base to get quick song ideas when you need them
A powerful set-list doesn’t materialize out of thin air just when we sit down to plan for an upcoming worship session.
It requires a regular habit of collecting usable songs whenever we come across them, and storing them in an easy-to-access manner.
My preference is to put them into an Excel spreadsheet cataloguing them with these fields: song title, song theme, key, tempo and rhythm.
Here’s a quick sample for better understanding:
You could also include more fields if you wish like a related scripture verse, name of the songwriter etc.
The habit required is this: whenever a song inspires you and something in your spirit tells you it’s a usable one, add it to the list.
This becomes yo song-base: a master list of possible songs for congregational worship.
The hallmark of a good song-base is the variety of songs in it; fast songs, slow songs, medium tempo songs, songs with different time signatures and so on.
Thematically also, an ideal song-base would have something for every occasion with diverse themes like the Cross, redemption, spiritual warfare, repentance, healing, deliverance, evangelism, communion, fellowship, creation, mercy, love, forgiveness, thanksgiving, power, surrender, faith, hope, resurrection, judgment, second coming, mission, justice etc.
And btw, don’t just stick to contemporary songs. Choosing hymns for worship is a great idea too—have something for everyone and serve your entire church—not just a particular age group.
If you haven’t done so, kick-start your song-base today, it’s the first step to building effective worship set-lists. If you already have, read on.
Choose worship songs by theme
Learning how to choose songs for worship should begin with the question “What is the subject of the session?” This is important because without a theme, we lack direction and without direction we lack focus. A lack of focus is… well… a surefire route to making a mess of the worship!
The point is that a set-list for Good Friday should be different from a set-list for Easter.
So make choosing worship songs by theme a priority.
With the theme in mind, start praying to the Holy Spirit and find out what’s in His heart. A useful question to ask here would be, “Lord, what should our Church be praying during this worship session?”
Now, start writing down what you believe the Lord is placing in your heart. Sometimes, we may come up with a few focus words; other times, titles of songs. This is more of a ‘brainstorming session with the Lord’—so just jot down everything without evaluating it too much—this is just a preliminary draft.
This method also prevents us from picking worship songs just because we happen to like them or they happen to be the current favorites with the congregation.
We will instead consider what our Church needs to be singing as opposed to what we want to sing. Too often, we simply pick a song because it’s known, popular, and people like to sing it. While it’s okay to consider the congregation’s comfort, need outweighs want any day.
The best songs are songs that speak directly to what your congregation is experiencing. – David Santistevan
If the theme happens to be something like, “the armor of God”, it would be difficult to fill an entire set-list with songs around it. In such cases, we could pick at least one song that highlights the theme. For example, for a theme like “the armor of God” we could look at something like “O Church Arise” (Stuart Townend, Keith Getty) as the highlight-song in the set.
We are called to be enablers of truth-filled worship. Constructing a session only filled with people’s favorite Christian tunes is entertainment, and not worship. So start with the theme, consider what we should be praying and build the habit of picking worship songs, which are lyrically close matches to it.
Coming back to the theme of ‘the Passion of the Lord’, once you have the initial list of possible songs, consider session time to decide on the number of songs.
Let’s say we’ll be leading worship for about 30 minutes, choosing 4-5 praise and worship songs would be more apt.
The process of pruning the draft list down to 4 or 5 songs requires us to consider these two important concepts:
Speed up your set-list creation using worship progressions
A progression can be defined as the sequence or order of songs in a worship set list based on their tempo. – The Worship Kenbook
Knowing progressions is the key to decide which songs can be used at the beginning, middle or at the end of a worship session.
Here’s an example of one progression (for the rest of the progressions, please get The Worship Kenbook):
The Standard Progression
We’ll continue with the theme “the passion of the Lord” and plot sample set-lists using the standard progression.
In this progression, we start with up-tempo songs, move to medium-tempo songs and then close with slower, more intimate songs.
This is the most common worship progression out there and works in most situations such as regular prayer meetings, Sunday worship, morning sessions in a retreat etc.
Standard Progression: Fast – Medium – Slow.
The Same Love
You Alone Can Rescue
Oh to See the Dawn
Amazing Love (You Are My King)
When choosing praise and worship songs using the Standard progression, what works well for me is a 3-stage approach: Stage-1: Invitation Stage-2: Story Stage-3: Response
When we say ‘Invitational’, we only tend to think of songs like “Come Now is The Time to Worship”. But check out these lyrics from “The Same Love” by Paul Baloche:
The same love that set the captives free
The same love that opened eyes to see
Is calling us all by name
You are calling us all by name
The same God that spread the heavens wide
The same God that was crucified
Is calling us all by name
You are calling us all by name
You’re calling You’re calling
You’re calling us to the cross
See how it’s got ‘invitation’ written all over it? Moreover, it also serves as a great launch pad to worship around the theme of “the passion of the Christ”.
The second song “You Alone Can Rescue” starts telling the story of saving grace and leads us to reflect on our own helplessness and how much we need Jesus.
“Oh to See the Dawn” completes the story with precise details of what Christ accomplished on the Cross.
“Once Again” calls for a personal, grateful reflection of the Passion and the set ends with another personal response, “You are my King.”
While this only completes the Standard Progression, it’s not the only progression available for worship. The Standard Shape itself has 3 variations and there are two more extremely important progressions that you need to know. All of these are covered in detail with examples in The Worship Kenbook.
Produce continuity and flow by considering song keys when choosing praise and worship Songs
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate progression for your session and zoned in on the songs, another very useful practice in choosing praise and worship songs is to group the songs by their keys.
To understand this better, let’s refer couple of set lists by Alastair Vance, worship leader at Story Church, Durham, NC—the keys are mentioned in parenthesis:
See what he’s done? You can visit his blog for more set-lists and you’ll keep noticing this: the songs are always grouped by key.
A song in the key of ‘B’ is almost always followed by another song in the same key. This makes it easier to move from one song to another seamlessly without distracting the congregation.
Think about and plan what songs fit together based on key transitions. Try not to be all over the alphabet by singing in multiple keys that do not compliment one another. – Jeremy Armstrong
So next time you choose songs for worship, try to group the songs by same or related keys—it’s a vital element in creating a sense of flow in your set-list.
Having seen how to pray through the process of choosing songs for worship while integrating useful best practices, let’s look at a few more tips to build a powerful worship set-list.
Choosing songs for worship—8 tips to create the best possible worship set lists
1. Pay attention to the theme of the day
Start with the theme and list down possible songs around it. A useful rule-of-thumb is to have at least one song in the set-list that highlights the theme.
2. Keep the focus on God
Psalm 100:4 teaches us that when we worship God, we are entering His gates, His courts and into His Presence. So ideally, we must give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
If our worship leading is not bringing about a sense of reverence for God, something’s amiss!
Worship must be about God—so fewer songs about ‘us’ and more songs about and to Him are better.
3. Prioritize familiar songs above new songs
Worship leaders/musicians get tired of songs faster than others. While I totally get that, 99% of the times, known songs lead to better participation than new songs.
So a few new songs coupled with more familiar songs would be the way to go.
4. Don’t ignore new songs
It is one thing to take known songs to keep the congregation comfortable, but we shouldn’t stop there!
Learning how to choose songs for worship also requires developing an open ear to discover those fresh prayers in song, and challenge people to move out of their comfort zones. Introducing one or two new songs in a month helps in this regard.
5. Look at the song, not the songwriter
No matter how brilliant a songwriter is, not every song written by him/her will be a winner in congregational worship.
When choosing songs for worship, it is necessary to assess a song based on the strength of its lyrics, melody, ‘singability’ etc. and not just by the name/reputation of its songwriter.
6. While songs need to be congregation-friendly, they should also be ‘our’ congregation-friendly
Songs that work in the United States may not work in India and vice versa. While evaluating congregational accessibility of a song, it’s essential to also consider local cultural accessibility.
Consider who is our congregation (teens? young adults? elders?), and pick songs accordingly. Remember to keep it simple—a typical congregation consists mainly of regular folk rather than highly skilled musicians/singers.
7. Consider musical elements
Can the song be sung at a comfortable key? Are the tempo and rhythm blending smoothly into the overall set-list? Is the style/complexity within the range and ability of the musicians and congregation?
If the answer is ‘no’ to these questions, the song should most likely not make it to the set-list.
8. Listen to the Holy Spirit
It does not take a genius to figure this out, but the temptation to finalize a set-list based on our experience and skill always lurks around.
Praying to the Holy Spirit, waiting on Him and obeying His inspiration is probably the most fundamental responsibility of a worship leader while choosing songs for worship.
Another good practice is to run the entire set-list in a time of personal worship, gauge what works and what does not and edit accordingly. This refines the set-list further.
“Those who are most prepared are the most led by the Spirit of God.” – Chris Tomlin
It’s your turn now
Well, it’s time to actually apply these proven practices into your ministry while choosing songs for worship.
To make the process easy for you, you could also get The Worship Kenbook, which contains the following valuable additional content that’s not included in this article: