Selecting worship songs is one of the most important ministries of a worship leader. If you’ve never done it before, it’s hard work! No, it’s not simply a matter of flipping open the hymnbook and randomly picking a few numbers. Most worship leaders select songs deliberately, prayerfully, and carefully, recognizing the significance of the worship time that they are planning.
Sometimes, however, even the best of worship leaders can have some blind spots in choosing the rights songs to sing. Here are five of the most common issues that a worship leader faces when planning worship. Try to avoid them.
1. The New Song Syndrome.
Worship leaders especially are drawn to new songs. There’s nothing wrong with newness, of course. Yet, keep in mind that just because the song is new doesn’t mean you need to use it in your worship. The writer John Updike once wrote, “Americans have been conditioned to respect newness, whatever it costs them.” The cost of new songs is a steep learning curve for some.
Choosing new songs is great, but choosing new songs exclusively can be tiring. Dig back in time and explore the older hymn texts by songwriters such as Charles Watts, Horatius Bonar, John Newton, and Charles Wesley. Many of these centuries-old songs have been updated with modern melodies.
Suggestion: Try to create a blend of songs in your worship. For example, you can introduce a brand new song, sing a popular contemporary song, and choose an old hymn. The more diverse your song selection, the richer and more engaging it can be.
2. The Old Song Rut
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the new song syndrome is the old song rut. Instead of fleeing to the glittering world of new songs, these people run the opposite direction, assuming that older is better. Surely, the thinking goes, songs written in the 1890s are better than something written in 2009. Actually, there are a lot of really good songs that came from the 1890s. But Christians of the 1890s didn’t have a monopoly on the songwriting skills. There are some good ones today, too. Rather than enjoy a tiny portion of the gifts and blessing that God gives his church, open your arms to the bounty. Christians have been writing great songs for centuries, and that hasn’t recently stopped.
Suggestion: If you’re accustomed to using only old songs, try adding a new hymn to your congregational singing. Many of the new songs by Keith and Kristyn Getty are very hymnlike and easy for congregations to sing.
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3. The Variety Paralysis
Some worship leaders live by the mantra, “variety is the spice of life.” For some of us, however, we don’t like it that spicy. If you sing five songs in each service and have three services weekly, you’ll have to sing nearly 800 different songs in any given year. I have no doubt that Christendom has produced such a vast number of songs, but you don’t have to sing them all. Many people prefer to sing some of the tried-and-true time-tested hymns and worship songs, as mentioned above in number one.
There’s something to be said for a few heart-warming stanzas of “Amazing Grace,” even though you sang it three weeks ago. And, somehow, singing “Bless the Lord O My Soul,” week after week doesn’t get old. It just gets more endearing, more meaningful, and more personal.
Suggestion: Instead of picking a totally new set of songs each week, settle in on one song. Sing it every Sunday for at least a month. By the end of that month, your people will own that song, and they’ll probably be humming it around the house, belting it out in the car, and thinking about the words wherever they go.
4. The I-Wrote-It Awkwardness
Many worship leaders are also songwriters. Praise God for the skill to blend melody and words together in a way that allows us to express praise and adoration from our hearts! If you’re a songwriting worship leader, then please continue exercising this gift for God’s glory. At the same time, be careful and deliberate about introducing your new songs. If you wrote a song on Saturday night, don’t introduce it on Sunday morning. Instead, allow your work to ruminate for a while. Share it with a few people. Get some feedback. Practice it with friends. Make sure that the song you wrote is something that will work well for your worship environment.
Suggestion: Keep up your songwriting ministry, but introduce only one of your songs a month at most.
5. The High-Notes-Are-Impossible Problem
Let’s just come out and say it: Chris Tomlin can sing some really high notes. And let’s just all admit it: The rest of us are not Chris Tomlin. So, you hear that new number on the radio, and think “Holy Wow! We’ve gotta sing that for worship this Sunday!” Check yourself. Can you hit all the notes? Can most normal people sing it?
We’re not just talking about high notes. This point also has to do with fast songs, complex melodies, intricate musical maneuvers, and other flights of artistic amazingness. This problem manifests itself when a worship leader chooses a song, any song, that is hard to sing.
Just because an artist sounds stellar on a recording doesn’t mean that the song is meant for congregational use. Not every Christian recording is a suitable worship song. Toby Mac, for example, is a really great songwriter and singer. But can your congregation sing “Lose My Soul” just like Toby, Franklin, and Mandisa (especially the part that goes “Since I got that call, no more Saul, now I’m Paul”)? Probably not.
Suggestion: Rather than choose songs simply based on their artistic value, choose songs based on their congregational viability. Do your musicians have the skill level to play this song? Does your congregation have the ability to sing this song? If not, you can just keep that blessing of a song to the radio waves.
Song selection is a great privilege, but it has its pitfalls. Keep prayerfully aware of your own penchant to pick just new songs (or old), or really high songs, or whatever the case may be. At the same time, know your people — their singing ability, comfort level with new songs, love for old songs, etc. Finally, bring it all together in your planning in a way that focuses not just upon tone, harmony, rhythm, and time period, but upon the very object of our worship.
Choosing worship songs isn’t an end in itself. It is the means to an end. The goal is worship — adoring, enjoying, and praising God.
Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.