When a friend recently asked me how I choose songs for the Sunday worship service, she probably didn’t suspect the rabbit-hole awaiting her in my answer. I’ve been planning and leading evangelical worship services regularly for the last three years and intermittently for the last ten, so a lot of my process is on auto-pilot, but get me started on the topic and I could talk all day. If any of you are interested in the geeky details, here’s the inside scoop on how I prepare for a worship service.
Our church does not, for the most part, follow the church calendar, so for my first step, I talk with the pastor about his sermon topic for the coming week. I sometimes have only a scripture passage to go on, sometimes a tentative title, sometimes a detailed plan. I think and pray about the topic and I try to pick songs that relate to the topic while accomplishing some important goals:
- The songs should guide us through at least a few key components: praise, thankfulness, meditation on God and His work, meditation on scripture, confession, devotion toward God, and active response that leads us back into the world.
- The entire set should contain a solid blend of old and new songs, from very old hymns to very new modern praise songs and representative songs in between.
- The songs should be true. That means they should line up with orthodox Christian doctrine. Because these are songs and not dissertations, I leave room for matters of poetic interpretation, but if I’m unsure, my pastor and I have a chat about it.
- The songs should balance one another out in terms of theological depth and emotional response. The best songs have both, but most songs lean toward one or the other. I always try to have a good balance, so that the worshipper is encouraged to meditate on deep truths and then respond with fullness of emotion toward those truths.
- The songs should have musical variety. It’s morning. Most people lose interest without some changes in tempo and style.
- While the songs should have variety, they should also make sense when played as a unit. That means being smart about what keys the songs start and finish in, how the introductions and conclusions flow together, and how well the songs “fit” together, musically.
- The songs should be singable. This means the melodies need to stay within about an octave. The rhythms shouldn’t be too complex. The words shouldn’t move so quickly that they are difficult to spit out.
- The words should make sense grammatically. The metaphors should have integrity. The imagery should feel fresh. I leave some wiggle room here for matters of preference, but in addition to being a worship leader, I’m also an English teacher, so certain things really bug me.
- The songs should suit the musical gifts of our band of volunteers. We are not a big rock band with a light show or a gospel band with a choir, but a small, folk-rock ensemble. Some songs are made for rock bands, and don’t work well with acoustic interpretations. I’m an idealist, so sometimes I push the envelope here, but I’ve learned from experience to try to play to our strengths as a band.
On top of all these considerations of song choice, I also choose responsive readings, scriptures, and sometimes videos or special music that relate to that week’s theme. I also make considered decisions about personal presentation, and I choose not to indulge myself in vocal gymnastics if they distract the congregation from worshipping. Then there are questions of lighting, display options, and service order, all of which contribute to people’s overall experience of worshipping God.
Now that you know more than you’ve ever wanted to know about the process of planning a worship service, these words of Jesus summarize what matters most: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
My goal is to design worship services that make space for whole humans — with bodies, minds, and emotions — to offer praise and adoration to God both in spirit and truth.