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.
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.
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.