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Selecting Songs With the Congregation in Mind

Selecting Songs With the Congregation in Mind

Greg Jones

As worship leaders, picking out songs for our congregations can be quite daunting. Here are insights and tips that I’d like to pass along to hopefully make things easier.

1. Meet the congregation where they are but don’t leave them there.
When I was a kid, my parents used to take us to a cabin at Indian lake in Ohio and go fishing. I’m not a fisherman, but I remember them predominantly catching crappies. You could catch them using run of the mill minnows for bait. My Uncle who was an expert fisherman told me that if you wanted to catch catfish, you had to use smelly bait because they had such a great sense of smell.  Furthermore, he taught me that most people didn’t fish for carp because they weren’t ‘good eating,’ however they tend to get big and are fun to try and catch. If you want to catch carp, rolling Wheaties cereal up into balls did the trick.

The same is true for worship music. A lot of people treat worship leaders like jukeboxes, constantly throwing requests their way. This is sometimes good for catching other crappies like them but who is going after the catfish and the carp? Do good leaders always give those whom they serve what they want or what they need? The mission of every church Christ has planted is to be a church that expands the Kingdom to reach the unchurched and to build up the body of believers.

Building up the body of believers should be relatively easy since we should understand that since worship is not about us, whether or not we like the song shouldn’t determine whether or not we give God the praise. Now if we want to continue catching the same people we have within our four walls, maybe we change nothing, although there will come a saturation point where growth will be stunted. But if we really want to reach those outside our walls, we may sometimes have to stretch our congregational preferences and use different ‘bait.’

As an example, if your congregation is aging and wants to reach the next generation, it might have to modernize the music. If your congregation is predominantly white but is located in a predominantly black neighborhood, it might need to think about being stretched into incorporating some black gospel. This is a mindset that requires maturity, but such maturity is expected amongst fellow believers.  Where that maturity is absent, this strategy is an opportunity to cultivate it. It is so obvious that it has become clichéd, but worship is not about us.

2. Look beyond your preferences and teach your congregation to do the same
Along the lines of the previous point, this means that we worship leaders need to be careful to not merely pick music we like. Doing so, not only seals our fate in failing to reach those outside our walls who are different, but it also sets us up for failure because when we reject song requests, the rejection becomes personal. It is much easier for me to reject a request because it doesn’t fit within our church’s mission & vision then to reject it simply because I don’t like it. It is also more objective & less selfish.

3. A little can go a long way
There are songs that are the victims of their own success. Songs like Oceans, How Great Is Our God, I Can Only Imagine, Shout to The Lord, God of Wonders, were played, played and overplayed on the radio and in worship services.  But many within our congregations still want to hear these songs.

Granting these requests might please our congregations but risks making your church appear to be outdated. By outdated, I’m not speaking of ‘chasing cool’ or being ‘hipster’ but outdated in terms of a church lacking self-awareness. Churches or individuals, who lack self-awareness, will struggle to be relevant, failing to reach those outside their walls.

This reminds me of the story I once heard of a missionary who in trying to reach a tribe in Africa, made the mistake of telling them that Jesus washes away our sins making us ‘white as snow’. The tribesmen responded by wanting to know why Jesus made us dirty. The missionary had a ‘blind spot’ in that he didn’t realize that in their culture, the sand was white and the skin was black so ‘white’ wasn’t associated with being clean.

So what I’ve recently learned to do with those ‘well worn’ but still requested songs is to medley just a snippet of one of these songs into another song. For instance, “Freedom Reigns” as it is winding down, can segue into a quick chorus of “How Great Is Our God” or “Ten Thousand Reasons” can flow straight into one chorus of “I Surrender All”.

4. Take a ride on some trial balloons
You don’t have to commit to every song you introduce. Sometimes we don’t realize that a song isn’t going to resonate until we have tried it out on our congregations.  So don’t be afraid to introduce a song and soon after let it quietly ‘disappear into the night’ if it seems to fall flat.

Greg Jones is a musician, music teacher, worship leader and independent recording artist. On my site you find me sharing music instruction, with an emphasis on worship music and articles on worship leading.

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