Tips for Worship Leading: Don’t “Settle” When Selecting Songs

You’ve lead worship on a regular basis for a while now. Perhaps you even carry the distinguished title, “Worship Pastor.” With      your experience in the discipline of music in a church context, you already know how important song selection is for a meaningful worship experience. Hopefully these tips will not only affirm what you already know, but also prove helpful and instructive.

Then there are those of you who are just starting out as worship leaders. Perhaps you are testing the waters for the first time this coming Sunday. Let me be straight with you; there is no such thing as dipping your toes in the shallow end to feel the temperature of the water when it comes to leading worship. You are about to be catapulted into the Bermuda Triangle, and you won’t have your floaties. Nevertheless, you need not panic. Good song selection just might be the most important swimming lesson you need to avoid drowning in a typhoon.

Here are five things to consider when selecting songs for corporate worship:

1. Lyrical Depth

Surprisingly, lyrical quality seems to be an afterthought for a lot of songwriters. One only needs to listen to a pop radio station for about 30 minutes to reach this conclusion. Unfortunately, songwriting in the worship music scene often follows suit. How often have you been rendered into deep theological contemplation by the words of the songs of a worship set? We talk a lot about the contents of great sermons we hear, convicting books we’re reading, even conversations with friends can keep our minds busy for days. Worship experiences, however, are often remembered more for the feelings felt than the theology taught. Emotion is certainly not a negative thing in worship; on the contrary, it is essential, but without lyrical depth, emotion misleads more than it directs the worshiper closer to Christ. The general rule should be: only pick a song for a worship set which you have analyzed lyrically, concluding that the words are Christ-centered, biblical, theologically rich, instructive, and helpful for those who sing it. There are plenty of worship songs, old and new, with outstanding lyrics. Find them, learn them, and choose them.

2. Musical Value

Lyrically solid songs without musical value weaken the strength of the words. I realize that while discerning between good and bad lyrics is fairly concrete, deciding on which song has good music and which song has bad music is significantly more subjective. However, while opinions and conclusions will differ from one musician to the next, here are some questions to ask yourself about the musicality of the song you are considering:

  1. Does the song present itself as a cohesive work of art?
  2. (If it is a new song) Is the song more likely to be timeless, or outdated in a few years?
  3. Does the song’s music strengthen the song’s lyrics or weaken them?
  4. Would you be proud of the song if you wrote the music?
  5. Does the music distinguish the song or blend it in with a million other songs that sound identical?
  6. Can you discern a level of accomplished skill and art in the musical composition of the song?

3. Contextual Appropriateness

As the person responsible for the corporate music of the church, you should be well informed about the cultural setting in which you live. Here are two crucial mistakes that worship leaders are prone to make in this area: 1. They reject the music of their culture and instead play music that is entirely irrelevant to anything going on in their churches’ cultural context. 2. They only imitate the music of their culture at the expense of their own creativity and innovation. The goal concerning contextual appropriateness is that your “church music” should be able to hold its own when matched against the music of your cultural setting. It should be influenced by and innovative in that culture. Additionally, you need to be aware that your local church is a culture within a larger culture. There might be a happening dubstep scene in your city, but that doesn’t mean a dubstep worship set will really connect with and inspire your congregation. Contextual appropriateness is not about picking a song because it’s cool. Be true to the culture of your particular church, but don’t be afraid to push the envelope either. Does the song you’re considering work well in your cultural context as a creative, engaging, and beautiful work of art?

4. Congregationally Relatable  

(This category is somewhat of a subset of contextual appropriateness; nevertheless, there is enough to discuss to treat it separately). Simplicity has become an unwritten value in the contemporary music of the church. This is probably due to the concern over congregations being able to quickly pick up the melody of any given song. Of course songs meant to be sung in a church setting should be conducive for corporate singing, but this doesn’t mean that they need to be really easy to learn. Instant gratification rarely satisfies for the long term, and music in church is no exception. This does not mean that simplicity is a bad thing either; it just shouldn’t be an intrinsic standard by which to judge the worth of every song. That being said, the songs you select need to be effective in a corporate setting where it is expected that everyone present will join in the singing. Don’t give up on songs that take more time to learn; rather, focus on instructing people well, so as to inspire the confidence in them that they need to master the song.

5. Your Personal Taste Matters

Give yourself the freedom to make your personal musical opinion a factor in song selection. This is actually a legitimate part of your job as the worship leader. Unfortunately, worship leaders are some of the most harshly criticized leaders of our churches. Don’t let this reality steer you away from your musical taste in order to appease the critics. You have been entrusted with the music of your church. Your musical opinion is important. Obviously, this can be taken to point of arrogance and stubbornness. Listen to other people’s suggestions, ask for feedback, and don’t view your personal opinion as set-in-stone musical law. That said, pick songs you like. Not everyone will respond positively to your musical taste, but you might be surprised at how many people will appreciate your efforts and worship meaningfully with the songs you present.

If you have finalized the songs in your worship set with these criteria, take confidence in the fact that you have thought intentionally about your selection. In that confidence, lead your church humbly in singing to our great God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is certainly worthy of thoughtful song selection.

Comments? Suggestions? What would you add to the list?

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