Matching Your Setlist to the Word
By Jordan Cox
Picking songs for your worship service week after week is a daunting task. For many worship leaders, song selection comes down to preference or choosing the latest tune. But careful song selection can make the difference between holding two separate worship services and creating one cohesive experience that serves the Word. While it may take some getting used to (and the occasional sacrifice to your personal preference), following some of these guidelines will keep the congregation focused and you certain that you’re directing attention to Him instead of the music.
1. Read the Scripture. This, of course, assumes that communication is taking place between you and the pastor. But remember that you are a team and your responsibility is to serve the message.
2. Study the Scripture. As soon as you know the Scripture for that service, meditate on it and pull out the main themes. If possible, have the pastor share his outline so you know the main points to be shared. When in doubt, focus on the revealed character of God.
3. Pick Songs that Sing the Scripture. Once you know the main ideas to be shared, find songs that give the congregation words to sing about these themes. For instance, if the sermon is about Jesus as King, consider “Crown Him (Majesty)” by Chris Tomlin. This step must be done carefully. Going too far with this can sometimes be “cheesy.” If the message is about Jesus being the Light of the World, don’t pick five songs that use the word ‘light.’ That is too specific. You can also look for songs that directly quote the discussed Scripture, or related Scripture. If the message has an aspect of dwelling in God’s presence, consider “Better Is One Day” which quotes Psalm 84.
4. Give it time. Sometimes this process can take a few days. It is not imperative that the songs be selected immediately. Reflect on the lyrics. Use search engines on websites like Song Select and worshiptogether.com which will often link songs with their Scripture references.
5. When they just don’t fit. Every once in a while there comes a passage in which it is just difficult to pair up the songs. Consider two things: First, take another approach and consider, “What does the congregation need to know or understand before this message?” For instance, if the message is on trusting The Lord, consider choosing songs that will let the congregation sing about why they should trust Him. If they just got done singing about how God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and faithful, then when they are faced with the challenge to trust, their hearts will be softened to digest the Word. Another option is singing songs reflecting the previous week’s message as a transition to the next message. This not only reminds the congregation of last week’s message, but ties it together with what is currently being discussed.
6. Invitation. If your pastor ends the service with an invitation or a time of reflection, try to find out ahead of time how he is ending the service. Sometimes your study of Scripture will lead you to a different emphasis than your pastor. Keep the communication lines open and support the message that God has given him by keeping the focus all the way through the service.
7. Pray. Most importantly, pray over your song set. A worship leader’s job is not to provide musical entertainment, but to create an atmosphere conducive to meeting with God through the power of the Holy Spirit, directing attention and focus on Him. Let the Holy Spirit work and lead you to certain songs.
Obviously there are other considerations in song selection, i.e. special holidays, an ongoing series, leading in times of crisis, etc. Also, these steps work well when you have already weeded through many songs to find quality songs for your congregation. Don’t ever feel like you have to incorporate every song from the radio, even if it is the latest hit. You will probably find yourself adding lots of new songs to your repertoire, but when you get a good library of quality, Scripture-filled songs, you will find yourself reusing them as your pastor leads you through the Word.
Jordan Cox is the Worship Pastor at Fruitland Community Church in Jackson, MO and the Director of Choirs at Cape Central High School in Cape Girardeau, MO. Cox holds degrees in Music Education from Missouri Baptist University (BME) and Worship Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (MAR).