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What I’ve Learned About Picking New Songs for Worship

 
 
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Author: Mark Cole
 
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Posted July 29, 2014 by

By Mark Cole

 

Picking great songs for worship is one of the most important skills a worship leader needs to learn. There are many different kinds and levels of songs. Some songs are written about God, some songs are written to express our feelings, some songs are sung prayers, some songs are upbeat praise songs and some songs are pure worship to God.

There are fast songs, medium songs and slow songs. There are difficult songs and easy songs. But what are the best songs for us to sing with our congregations? What songs help our congregations to sing with all their hearts and connect with God?

Here is my philosophy of picking worship songs distilled from 10 years of traveling, writing charts for Praisecharts.com and over 20 years of leading congregations in worship.

  1. Learn to pick great songs not just doable songs. Great songs are the ones that you will still love to sing a year from now. Different songs have a different ‘shelf life’. Some songs you don’t mind singing a few times but after that you just seem to forget them. Generally speaking, a congregation only learns about 20-25 songs per year. Make them great songs!
  2. One of the tests of a great song is that you catch yourself singing it by yourself, in your car, in your house or when you are out on a walk. Or a congregational member tells you that they have been singing that new song you introduced all week. Or you hear your spouse singing that new song.
  3. Great songs have the Spirit of God resting on them. This is a little harder to quantify. When I hear a great song, I sense God. The song moves my heart. I realize that God is in that song. Combine that with praying and asking God what songs to sing will lead you in the right direction!
  4. I love to pick great songs from around the world. God is moving on anointed musicians and writers from all over the globe. We now have access online to worship bands in Australia, Canada, the United States, England, Europe, Asia and Africa. I don’t want to limit my song choices to one church or one church movement.
  5. It is easier than ever to find out what churches around the world are singing. CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) has an invaluable online list of the top 200 songs that churches are singing. Their Top SongSelect List shows you what thousands of other worship leaders are picking for their congregations. If you are wondering what songs to sing, let me assure you that the songs on this list are like gold.
  6. There are certain writers that have been writing great songs for years. Writers like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, Reuben Morgan, Joel Houston, Tim Hughes and Brenton Brown have consistently written great songs over a long period of time. When I see their names on a song, I definitely check it out. And there are also some great new writers: Ben Cantelon, Brian Johnson, Matt Maher, Jesse Reeves, Phil Wickham and many others.
  7. Learn to keep a balanced repertoire. You need fast songs, medium songs and slow songs. Make sure you keep picking great songs of different tempos that fill that need. Keep it fresh.
  8. Learn to repeat the new songs enough times for the congregation to learn them. My philosophy is to always repeat a new song the next week, give it a week off and then repeat it again the fourth week. That way the congregation is hearing the new song three times over a four week period. If it is a great song, the congregation will know it by then. Also, it helps if the song is on Christian radio. That way the congregation is also hearing it in their cars and homes.
  9. Put the songs in keys that the congregation can sing. Most people do not have a huge vocal range. If in doubt, use the ‘Rule of D’principle. Make the top note around a D (C-Eb).
  10.  By all means, use original songs that are birthed in your congregation. But my advice is to make sure the songs match the quality of the rest of your list. Also, I usually use only one original song and the rest of my list is great songs from around the world.
  11. Make sure the melody is singable and memorable. Does the song work without the band? Does the song work with just a simple acoustic guitar or piano? Do you find yourself singing the song when you are by yourself?
  12. Start and end strong! I usually start with an upbeat praise song that people can easily connect with and I usually end with a slower great worship song that is sung directly to God. I never start or end with a brand new song, no matter how good it is. In between that I am working on transitioning musically and thematically with my main purpose of having the congregation focus on and meet God in our short time together each week. (for more tips on this check out my blog markcole.ca: 7 Tips On Taking Your Sunday Morning Worship To The Next Level)

Question: What can you add to this list? What is working in your congregation?

 

Mark Cole lives in Calgary, Canada and loves spending time with God, hanging with his wife & family, leading worship, playing tennis & squash, riding his mountain and road bikes, pastoring and working on his blog: ‘Following God: Notes ♫ From A Grand Adventure’. Mark is also the founding arranger for Praisecharts.com.

Blog: Following God: Notes ♫ From A Grand Adventure 

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19 Comments


  1.  
    Rick Wilson

    #5 – The top 200 might be a good place to start, but vet everything – not all of it (even the top 200) is top-200-worthy, it’s just “popular”. A good song has a good melody AND good theology. I’ve passed up many “good melody” songs and many “popular” songs because the message wasn’t right, but enough people got caught up by the catchy tunes of the songs without validating their theology that they became “popular”. When we teach new songs, we’re not just teaching music, we’re teaching the theology of the song, and we should heed the warnings of 1 Timothy 1:7, James 3:1, and 2 Peter 2:1.

    Also, even theologically sound songs may not make for good worship set songs. To use an extreme example, it would be possible to set Psalm 137:9 to contemporary music, but it wouldn’t make for a good congregational song. A less extreme example: there’s a song that goes, in part, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All of God’s people all around the world, yes we’re the church together.” It might be fine for children to sing, to teach them that the church isn’t a building (with my kids especially, I call the building the “church house”, akin to the schoolhouse or the courthouse), but is it congregational? To what extent should we be singing about ourselves?




  2.  

    Thanks for this list. All of your suggestions are great factors in terms of the musicality of the songs. But, of course, worship is more than just catchy tunes. There is the potential for great substance in the songs we select. And no matter how catchy/memorable it is, if it’s not helping us to draw near to God through the lyrics, it’s not worth singing.

    So I think that more important than a balance of slow, medium and fast songs is a balance of songs that help us learn the language of worship. We need a balance of songs of praise, exhortation, petition, and confession. Don’t only choose songs that sing of how awesome God is: look also for songs about how near God is in Christ. Sing of His majesty and might but also his grace and love.

    There’s a great book that explores song selection based on three areas: theology, music, and lyrics. It’s appropriately co-written by a theologian, a musician and a writer. The title is “Selecting Worship Songs: A Guide for Leaders.” We have to go deeper than the music when selecting songs for our congregation: we have to look at their meaning, and the language used to express it. After all, we are putting these words into the mouths of our people. We have the responsibility to make sure we’re giving them the best words to sing.




  3.  
    Bob

    Great article! I agree with your points and it’s a good balance. There is so much more than one criteria when choosing music for your congregation. Great response comments also! I’m working with a music worship intern this summer and this will be a great resource for her.




  4.  

    My one and only concern with this list is the mention of “pick songs that are on the radio, so they can be heard in cars and at home”. I spent WAY too many years preaching to the choir when it comes to worship songs. Currently, I am involved in a faith community that seeks to find those who are on the journey through life and are trying to find a spiritual meaning to it. These people do not listen to Christian radio. They don’t hear the 4-5 Chris Tomlin songs every hour. So, it is even more difficult and important to REALLY think about the music that I choose. The lyrics becoming increasingly important, making sure they are something that can really touch a heart and bring about a deeper understanding of faith. The music almost becomes secondary, which is hard to say as a musician of 26 years. But it’s true! Yes, I definitely choose songs that are memorable, singable, etc. But the lyrics have to convey the strongest message. It can’t be about an emotional feeling during a pumped-up praise or worship songs. It has to be about the message! Thanks for writing a great article, I will keep it on file for reference. :)




    •  
      Pat

      Thank you!
      I agree. A first timer coming to church may not understand the reason for worship and praise songs. They have yet to experience the love and forgiveness from Christ for their sins. Words are very important! When I select songs, I try to be diversified in what I select, then I seriously pray over my selection seeking Gods favor and anointing of the Holy Spirit. I am always open to what last minute changes God may bring into a service. God knows the heart of His people, Christian and non-Christian. When God has control, mighty and awesome things happen. Isn’t this what its all about. I understand the need for structure as long as there is room for God rather than self.




  5.  
    Todd

    Great list of things to think of when making a set! I find that most people are stuck on one church or stream of music that they like or are moved by (such as Hillsong United only, or Bethel Church only) and I like the ‘finding music from around the world’ idea. Also, a huge writer that you forgot is Jason Ingram. His name is on just about everything these days… Thank you!




  6.  
    cjo

    I would add Michael W. Smith and Twila Paris, and possibly the Gaithers, to the list of songwriters who’ve been doing it a long time with a strong record of quality.

    I’m always amazed at how averse some people are to music from the ’70s , ’80s, and early ’90s.
    Sure, a lot of the recordings made back then had tons of really cheesy synthesized strings and MIDI drums. But some of those melodies and lyrics are really good.
    So take those old songs, put them with a simple piano and acoustic guitar, and see how they shine. Plus, the congregation probably knows the tune already.




  7.  
    Denise

    I agree with the importance of choosing a key that the congregation can sing. Besides keeping the song within specific high and low notes, it is also important to make sure the song’s tessitura (the part of the song’s range where most of the notes fall) is not too high or low.

    For example, if you have a song that goes up to the D above middle C, but most of the notes are between middle C and F, that song has a lower tessitura than a song whose notes fall between F and the D above it, but occasionally goes down to middle C.

    Songs with a high tessitura can be fatiguing for the average person in the pew. If you plan to use such a song, I recommend preceding it with a song in a lower tessitura with notes that occasionally reach the higher notes of the second song.




    •  
      Kevin Butler

      Wow! You like the word “tessitura”! You have probably just educated 80% of the readers! I agree completely with your assessment and it is one that is easy to miss. If we even bother to look at the range, we tend to go, oh, the lowest note is middle C and the highest is a high E. Yeah, we can do that! But if the song hangs out on the high C, D and E, it is not going to be comfortable for most people even though it fits the overall range. This is equally true if most of the song gravels around on middle C. Unfortunately, many songs are written like this, especially with the trend of having the song suddenly jump an octave. (yes, “I Am Free” and “God of This City”, I’m talking to you!) It doesn’t mean you should eliminate them from your repertoire, but it does mean that it should be something to consider carefully.




  8.  
    David

    Another important thing are the lyrics:
    If you’re not from an English speaking country, it’s important that most of the songs used are in the language people speak. And unfortunately it’s often extremly hard to find sound translations (with a language which is not from 1970…)




  9.  
    sammy davenport

    I agree with everyone else about #11. Could you take the song to a village in a remote area of the world and it work a cappella? I would also encourage young worship leaders to get a little music theory under their belt and be able to judge for themselves if it’s a good song. Funny, some of the songs at the top of the CCLI charts have almost no melody. I wish we all could raise the bar a bit musically. Thank goodness it’s time for lunch, I was about to go on a rant.




  10.  
    Michelle

    Is it theologically sound? A lot of songs come through SongSelect, not all that fit the doctrine of your church. Make sure it’s in line with scripture.

    Is it actually a worship song, and is it a song everyone can sing with meaning? A lot of songs go through KLove and JoyFM that are not “worship songs.” They have a good message, but they’re singing about personal stories that may not pertain to everyone. These are good for specials and features, but not so much for congregational sing.




    •  
      Jeff

      Great point. I occasionally have someone come up to me and ask, “Have you heard this song? It’s on the radio right now and I really like it.” I always will take a listen to it, but often times, it is not a worship song, so I shy away from it. I kind of feel bad for this, but also refocus that service is not a concert. I also don’t understand why these radio stations don’t throw in more worship songs. Sometimes we will play them as a special though.




  11.  
    Meredith

    People generally say never to play more than one new song in a set; but I find you can get away with it if at least one has a hook that immediately engages and invites the worshippers to join in (for example, How Great Is Our God, or You’re Beautiful). Getting the congregation involved is paramount.




  12.  
    Rick

    Great article!! I adhere to most of these rules already. I completely agree with the Rule of D principle, but find that many of the songs led by a male vocalist are too high for the congregation. I use Praisecharts regularly, but sometimes, even they, don’t have arrangements that are singable and I end of having to just use the chords for my keyboard players. I can then also be limited by the rhythm tracks or background tracks because they are not in a singable key.




    •  
      Jeff

      Completely agree about the male vocal thing. It makes for a bigger moment when I jump the octave towards the song’s climax, but most in the congregation cannot do that. I’ve learned that for me, if the song is comfortable in my range, it is NOT comfortable for my vocalists or the congregation and I have to take it down about a 4th.




    •  
      Randall

      Male vocal – tenor? I’ve led worship as a baritone and did notice on those octave-jumping songs that if the higher octave was a stretch for me, the female vocalists really struggled with it. I almost never set the key the same as the original recording. I try find a compromise that the worship team can handle — which seems to work for the congregation.
      I’ve been listening to Crowder’s “I am” but am afraid if I set the intro where he does I wouldn’t be able to reach the higher portion.




  13.  

    Great article Mark!
    Clear, succinct, usable. Keep it up my brother.
    – Rick




  14.  
    JC in DC

    All great advice. I have a small team in a small group of believers and because of this have to use number 10 quite a bit: “Does the song work without the band? Does the song work with just a simple acoustic guitar or piano?” Thanks to U2 (and, well, Jesus Culture, among others), today we have an over abundance of stadium-rock type songs that rely on a strong drum line with little instrumentation during low dynamics (verses, etc.). Those don’t translate well to our setting, as our “drummer” is someone playing tambourine to ensure everyone’s clapping on 2 and 4 (not 1 and 3). The other one that stands out to me is number 2. Quite often I’ll find a phrase from some song going through my head and then I’ll spend a day or two trying to remember where I heard it. Those almost always end up being keepers!





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