The Bin System for Your Setlist

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By Chris Paavola

Choosing songs can become a paralyzing and polarizing task for any church because people have a hundred excitable reasons why they like a song: The life-long member loves the hymn from 1904, the pastor loves the anthem from 1994 and the band loves the new song with the 5/4  groove.  Each week, the person in charge of choosing music tries to balance these opinions as they sift through a song catalog spanning centuries.

At my congregation, anytime we tried to develop rules about song choices we found ourselves either making constant exceptions or arguing over nuances like musical legalists.  But once we ran a report and discovered we had sung over 100 unique songs in a year, we knew we needed to find a system for choosing songs. If for no other reason than we were inadvertently reminding people new to the church they were still outsiders because they didn’t recognize a song everyone else seemed to know.

Then we stumbled across a story about Disc Jockeys in the 1970′s.

Disc Jockeys
There once was a time when radio stations didn’t have computers tracking song downloads and people could actually call in song requests. During this magical era, some radio stations started putting three bins and a trash can next to the DJ: The “New” bin held new records, the “Regular” bin held regular records, the “Classic” bin held those beloved oldies, and the trash bin was self-explanatory.

Programmers then told DJs they could choose any song as long as their playlist went: New, Regular, Classic. Repeat. New, Regular, Classic. Repeat.  Programmers loved the system because they could control song usage to better sell air time.  DJs loved the system because they had the freedom to choose the eclectic music they enjoyed. 

But the genius of the system was, any time a new song was introduced, a record from the New Bin would either go in the trash bin or in the Regular Bin. Which meant one of the records in the Regular Bin was moved to the Classic Bin.

This sparked an idea for us as a Worship Team to come up with a “Bin System” to maintain a fresh and flexible inventory of songs for our worship sets.  The Bin System systematized what we tried to do intuitively, but defining and following a system liberated us to work faster and with less frustration.  Feel free to customize the Bin System for your setting, but I’m confident it will help you as well. 

The Bins
Instead of a physical bin, we label our songs using Custom Properties in Planning Center Online.  A simple spreadsheet would be just as fine, however. In each bin songs are broken down into fast, medium or slow tempos.  The size of your bins depends on the number of songs you sing in a service.  In our setting, we sing about 3 or 4 songs per service.

New Bin: 9 songs
In our New Bin we have 3 fast, 3 medium and 3 slow songs.  When we introduce a song to the New Bin, it bumps the oldest song in that tempo out of the New Bin and into either the Trash Bin or Regular Bin.

Regular Bin: 36 songs
In our Regular Bin we have 12 fast, 12 medium and 12 slow songs. When we introduce a song to the Regular Bin, it bumps the oldest song in that tempo out of the Regular Bin and into the Classic Bin.

Classic Bin: Unlimited Songs
Finally, our Classic Bin holds an endless supply of songs.  We decided hymns, regardless of new arrangements, would fall into this category by virtue of their age.  Songs in the Classic Bin have no set shelf life, but may retire to the Trash Bin at any time.

The Bin Rules
At first glance, the number of songs in the Song Bins may seem small, but it’s surprising how difficult it is to overplay these songs once we came up with three simple Bin Rules to plan our services:

Rule 1 – No more than one new song in a service.
Rule 2 – No more than one classic song in a service.
Rule 3 – Christmas doesn’t count.

Benefits of the Bin System
Immediately, the Bin System speeds up the process of choosing songs. For instance, if we’re looking for a slow song for a service and we’ve already got 1 new song and 1 classic song chosen, we look at the 12 slow songs in the Regular Bin instead of an endless alphabetical list of songs. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the Bin System also minimizes arguments about song selection because it considers everyone involved in the worship service regardless of their tenure in the faith.  If a pastor, team member or volunteer objects to a chosen song, the discussion is channeled from a confrontation of opinion into a discussion of the Bin System.  “Sorry, we’ve already done a Classic Song” is easier to say and hear than, “I don’t like the song you like.”

If you’re still hesitant to try the Song Bin system, consider this- when you make a worship set, you use a system.  It may not be defined, but if the process is cumbersome and quarrelsome, you need a better process.  Efficiency in planning isn’t just a good system, it’s good stewardship.

 

Chris Paavola is the Director of Worship Production at St. John church (www.stjstl.net) near St. Louis, MO.  You can follow him on Twitter at @chris_paavola.

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    20 comments on “The Bin System for Your Setlist

    1. I’m a former DJ of a Christian radio station in the Philippines and also a worship leader. Back in the radio station, we label each song in our digital music library the same way you label your songs in the bin – fast, moderate, and slow – but I never thought of applying this system in making a set list. I think this is a pretty good idea. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    2. Pingback: The Bin System for Your Setlist | Worship Leader Magazine | Worship Leaders

    3. The only thing I see that would be potentially bad about this, is that the two most emphasized aspects of a song are age and musical tempo/feel. As a worship leader, I understand the need for introducing new songs and having a musical flow, but it seems to me that this stuff should be subservient to the words/message of a song. One option would be to keep the categories of fast, medium, and slow, but use those more as supplemental criteria, rather than guiding criteria. Perhaps you’d want to add categories about things like God’s love for humanity, God’s holiness, Mercy, Mission, Evangelism, Confession, General Praise, etc… You don’t even have to have all that many categories- even something simple like dividing them up into the ACTS flow (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) can help with thematic flow.

      When you break the repertoire down this way, you can sort by themes and topics, giving a song’s message the importance, and making a worship set message-driven and more thematically whole. Tempo considerations come after that. Some weeks we may have more slow songs or fast songs than others, but that’s the way it goes. When you know the sermon topic, you can also think along those lines and choose songs loosely related to the topic as well, giving the whole service a oneness of thought that allows messages to sink in and stick with people for a lot longer. My two cents.

      • @ryan – Great ideas and questions. I wrote the article to give you tools to customize, not rules to adhere to. A couple comments, though.
        - Feel free to tag songs with themes. I do. I also do lyric searches when I’m looking for certain words. But this can (and I believe should) be done in conjunction with some type of checks and balance. Which is my second point…
        - I’ve found, when left to my own devices, I choose too many songs. I get bored with songs or have affinities to songs differnt than the normal worshiper because I’m a musician. So if I search for a lyric or theme (like, say, “mercy”) I’ll find a long list of songs. I NEED some type of regulation that considers the needs of others like the visitor who needs to hear a familiar song, or the regular worshiper who isn’t bored with songs like I am. Even then, if I have that long list of songs about mercy, ill still look down the list looking for tempo because of where it fits jn the worship set.

        How this usually plays out in my circumstance is I look for songs by theme inside of tempo. So, for instance, I look in my fast new and regular list for a song about mercy. Looking at 15 songs (and that’s a lot!) for a song about mercy is easier than looking at clunky list of 35 songs about mercy.

        My challenge to you would be to look back at how many unique songs you sang last year and ask what the number tells you.

        It’s what works for me. Hope it helps. Customize it!

      • I like the bin idea and have been using something like it in my head, but yeah, I pick songs based on message and content as the highest priority. I do limit the classic set to hymns and only pick one once a month or maybe twice if they fit well. I try to limit new songs to one a week at the most, or twice a month (I also leave them new until we are really comfortable playing them and the congregation knows them). I think my bins contain many more songs overall, and if it would ever go to trash, then I am unlikely to do it at all. I think I have a less liked bin that I still use once in awhile, when the message fits.

    4. Very interesting idea. I like the systematic approach w/o being legalistic, and I’ve been thinking about ways to streamline the music selection process.
      Three follow-up questions:
      1) How well does this work if you regularly tie songs in with a theme? I assume you do that as you plan, but the article doesn’t mention it specifically.
      2) Is there a period of time between repeats of the same song? (once a month?)
      3) If the Classic Bin has no shelf life, as you say, what would be the deciding factor to have it “retire to the trash bin”?
      Thanks again for the idea.

      • Great questions. I mentioned this above, but ill answer your ?s directly.

        1) I still search for songs by theme or a key lyric, but I do so by searching within the regular and new bins first. Out of those 45 songs (which is a ton) I rarely have a lack of songs to choose from. Usually I find a couple perfect fits and then plan the set around that.
        Also, I sometimes just sort within the song bin (like regular medium) by date and look at songs I haven’t done in a while. Again, the bin system holds me in check and balance I get bored with songs or enjoy certain songs because I’m a musician. The normal worshiper is who I’m trying to serve, not my own preferences.

        2) as for period of time there’s no hard and fast rule. I try to do a new song three times before making a decision on keeping it or trashing it.

        3) after using the system for three years the only answer I can give here is irrelevance. I just know when a song will never be needed again. I’m never gonna sing As the Deer again. I just won’t. ;)

        Hope that helps!

        • I thought I would never do “I Have a Hope” again, as we did it every week for nearly 6 months. However, it fit so well to a message the pastor was doing, I put it in the set. Amazing how much better I feel about it now.

    5. love. this.
      Haven’t put it into use yet, so I don’t know if there would be inherent flaws, but theoretically, it sounds liberating! Assuming it was all theologically correct of course. :)

    6. @Ryan I think you may be missing the point if the article: to simplify set list and provide a defendable position in the worship wars many churches find themselves in week to week. You can still tag songs with themes in planning center and use this framework effectively. I have used this system for the past year based on a discussion with the author. What we have found that it gives a refreshing feel to the worship – even the classics – and is actually visitor friendly.

    7. Great advise and questions everyone! In my case, the problem we have is we repeat songs too often, can I get some tips on how to correct this?

      • Though the Bin System doesn’t talk about frequency (either too much or too little) I think it does help to categorize songs into new, regular, classic- because it forces you to only play one new or classic song.

        Also, when we first started the system, we had an original rule (though its no longer needed) of “no set can only have regulars”. Meaning we needed to have a new or classic.

        The beauty if the system is you can make your own customized rules (like the one stated above) to help ensure a healthy song rotation.

    8. Great idea of the bins. I think I have been doing this, just in my own head, or sort of out of my Spotify playlists. I am going to setup playlists for each bin and start adding songs. Thanks for posting this and finding this information on DJs.

      • Absolutely. Ultimately, the Bin System is just trying to formalize what EVERY Worship Director tries to do intuitively. If you don’t adopt this directly, at least it gets you starting to define and articulate what you’re trying to do.

    9. Just starting the beginning of this year and about near the end, I have been create our own church’s “hymnal”. Some inspiration from WL’s magazine of the “Cyberhymnal” where now we’re not tied down to a book anymore. BUT, you have to have some place to start in song selection especially with the amount of new stuff coming out, what has come recently, and those classic hymns of great faith. So I’ve been listening to thousands of songs from the oldest to the newest that I believe my church knows or should become familiar with that they don’t already know. My first “trash” is if the worship song melody was not easy to learn (my church needs that) and if it was already an awful melody or outdated. My second trash was lyrical content. You have to be very strict in the first two phases. May sound good but if the lyrics are bad “you thought of my above all” it goes to the bin. I’ve gone from about 4,000 songs (hymns to Jesus Culture) to now about 425 songs that is become our “hymnal”. The list will get smaller as new stuff introduced may not connect. And of those, I have different arrangments available from Lifewayworship, praise charts, etc. I have a morning and evening service and choose about 8 songs a week. My next phase is exactly this article. Is to take those songs and to collate a list with keys, themes, tempos, and if it’s a hymn or worship songs (trust me they are counting between the two). Good thing is that lifewayworship provides contemporary arrangements of hymns that are awesome and my younger people love (The Solid Rock, Blessed Assurance, It Is Well). I’ll also mark which ones a new to them, unknown, and known already. This is now our “hymnal” and what I will go to for song selectoin. It will change every year based on what comes out, what song didn’t connect, etc. Next year that 425 will look very much the same but very different, some songs gone and others in. I will learn the new stuff coming out from Redman, Jesus Culture, Sovereign Grace, etc. and figure if it needs to be included. So this is how I do it now.

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