How To Intentionally Plan A Worship Set: From DJ To Shepherd
Over 3,000 publishers are vying for our attention, pitching around 450,000 songs to us worship planners every single week.
With such a vast array of songs to pick from, don’t do what I did when I first started leading worship and plan your worship sets like you play a round of bingo.
Bingo? Does anyone play bingo anymore?
You know the game where someone randomly draws numbers out of a hat or spin-wheel, while you eagerly await a favorable sequence. If you hold the card that happens to line up with the winning sequence, you get to shout in victory, “Bingo!”
Don’t haphazardly plan your songs as if you were drawing them randomly out of a hat or spin-wheel and tossing them together. Hoping that they form a song-salad that’s palatable for your congregation.
Sometimes you might treat set planning this way because it seems frustrating.
Friend, it doesn’t have to be frustrating. This part of your responsibility and duty as a worship leader can become a rich time of communion with the Lord as you dialogue with Him, and ask for His help.
In this post, I am going to open the window into my thought process (much like the Pixar movie, Inside Out) when it comes to the planning of a song-set.
Intentionality is important when planning a worship set. Why?
Well, imagine this…
You come out of the green room and get up to the platform, ready to confidently lead your closing song. You have practiced individually and rehearsed as a team. Excited, the drummer counts off the tempo to the highly celebratory song, Happy Day by Tim Hughes.
The song is off to a raging start as the band nails the intro and the vocals begin, “The greatest day in history…”
Yet the excitement quickly fades and frustration sets in as you wonder why the congregation isn’t with you.
You are giving it your all, but they are just staring at you dazed and confused.
Well, later on, a generous soul gives you some vital feedback that the pastor had just preached a heavily convicting message that ended on a somber note of challenge. You quickly realize that the dazed and confused congregation was not at fault.
You as the leader were completely unaware of what was happening in the larger context of the service.
You can imagine the disconnect and awkwardness in the room that this creates.
We have to plan our song sets thoughtfully, keeping in mind the context of the service as a whole, so that people are led with pastoral thoughtfulness.
I believe we are mandated to take up this responsibility. As it says in 1 Corinthians 14:40, “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (NIV).
Just a few verses earlier, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to let all things [in the service order] be done for building up the body of Christ as a whole.
So, before we look at the nitty-gritty of the thought process behind putting a specific song set together, there are 3 important mindsets we need to have as a strong foundation.
1. Don’t plan your worship sets to please people.
Listen to feedback and advice, yes, but ultimately we are not called to be radio DJs, we are called to be shepherds who give people what they need to grow and mature in their expression of worship.
We should do all things, including the planning of our song sets for the building up of the body of Christ that we are called to serve.
A word of caution here is to realize that you as a leader have preferences and tastes when it comes to what songs we like and don’t like. That’s right, you and I have an opinion just like the congregation member who writes on a prayer request card every week that they are praying you will play their favorite song.
We want to plan songs that are going to help the whole expression of the body of Christ engage in worship together.
So next time you get ANOTHER song request from that persistent church member. Consider it, but don’t work the song in just because you want to appease them. If the song fits the context of the service you are planning and will help your congregation engage in worship, then go for it and thank the Lord that He is speaking through members of the congregation that you serve.
2. Seek to be obedient to and to please God in your song planning.
Turn your song planning into a dialogue with the Lord. This may seem overly simplistic, but instead of starting with my thoughts and preferences and what seems wise in my own eyes, simply start by offering up this prayer, “Lord, what is Your plan? What is on Your heart for this service?”
Then trust that God will guide you and be open to listening for His voice and His leanings in your planning.
God has given us faculties (our mind that is rich with imagination and creativity) to use and engage in our planning, but He loves to guide us.
3. Consider how others will perceive the image & nature of God based on your songs.
Ask yourself, what would someone know about God based solely on the song set?
If this was the only worship service they went to, and all they remembered and heard were the songs that you sang that service, how would they describe God and what He has done?
Asking this question leads us to consider factors like is the Trinity being represented in our sets? Are we using a balance of songs that are both about God and sung directly to God? We will cover this concept of our overall song diet in a later post.
Of course, there are other factors you have to consider when planning your sets. Things like how technical the song is for your band, what keys and tempo the songs are in so that they transition well musically.
You want to take people on a musical journey that makes sense, but don’t become a slave to these secondary factors. If you do, you will embark on a fruitless pursuit to try and orchestrate the most flawless musical set. In reality, the journey of your lyrical content should be king.
We want to ensure that our song set is leading our congregation on a cohesive journey.
Things to consider when putting the set together.
Once you’ve asked the Lord what He wants you to do, consider what the larger context of the service is for that weekend. Is it part of a continuing series teaching on a particular topic, or is it going through a specific book of the Bible? Is it a stand-alone message?
For an upcoming service that I have just planned, I was dealing with a stand-alone message that is going to be a “state of the union” sort of address to our church body. We are envisioning it being a rallying cry to be in alignment as we discern and navigate how God is leading us as a church.
With the larger context of the service in mind, brainstorm several songs and simply jot them down.
For the particular service I just planned out, my brainstorm list consisted of the following songs:
Grateful by Elevation Worship
Only King Forever by Elevation Worship
Tremble by Mosaic MSC
God I Look To You by Bethel Music
Stand In Your Love by Bethel Music
Surrounded (Fight My Battles) by Upper Room
We Will Not Be Shaken by Bethel Music
The Way (New Horizon) by Pat Barrett
Blessed Assurance by Fanny Crosby
Once you have a good brainstorm of songs (you can adjust how many you need based on how many songs you typically use in your service), find an anchor song that you believe you are supposed to do.
It could be a newer song that you’ve recently introduced or a song that just resonates with the main subject matter of the particular service you are planning. It could be that song that you just know the Lord is saying, “I want the church to be singing that this weekend.”
Once you’ve found your anchor song(s), pair your other suggested songs from your brainstorm next to your anchor song(s) and pay attention to if they work well together.
Do they flow musically together, or would it be quite a knee jerk type feeling transitioning from one song to the next? In terms of the lyrical content and central theme of each song, ask yourself, “What journey will this set of songs take my congregation on?”
The key here is to look for connected themes.
So for example, in planning for the “state of the union” service I mentioned above, I settled on a The Way (New Horizon) as our opening anchor song. The reason being is because the song talks about it being a new horizon, a new season to not let fear rule us but to trust that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6) and that He is our provider and protector in every circumstance including our battles.
Another song I had on my brainstorm, Stand In Your Love, has the lyric, “Fear doesn’t stand a chance when I stand in Your love.” There is also a declaration that when we abide in God’s love and stand upon the Rock that is Jesus, that we will not be shaken. This connected to another song on my brainstorm titled, We Will Not Be Shaken.
At this point in my planning I was thinking we would close with We Will Not Be Shaken because it would serve as a nice bookend of that theme and be a reminder to our congregation that despite all that is going on in our present circumstances, we will not be shaken when we trust in God.
A few additional song ideas from my brainstorm list had connected themes but didn't make it into the final draft of the set. One of these, Grateful, makes a great opening song. It has lyrics that connect to the theme of God fighting our battles, as well as standing on the solid foundation of Jesus, our Rock. I also thought of Raise A Hallelujah and Tremble being a possible sequence for the opening 2 songs, but the particular service I was planning didn’t feel like it should open with a super festive, high celebration songs like Raise A Hallelujah or Grateful.
POWER TIP: Don’t waste any of your efforts. Keep a running track of “random” song sets or sequences of songs that might work well for another time.
Keep in mind that several song sets could come out of your initial brainstorm. Don't let your hard work go to waste, save these ideas for another planning session.
Look for moments!
Another big factor that plays into the final selection is looking for moments that the Lord might be highlighting to use as an opportunity to challenge, encourage, or teach your congregation. These moments can be powerful and effective in giving your congregation some context as to why you are singing the songs in a particular order.
For example in one of the song set possibilities I landed on, I spotted two such moments.
Firstly, in the bridge of the song, Stand In Your Love the lyric goes:
There's power that can break off every chain
There's power that can empty out a grave
There's resurrection power that can save
There's power in Your name power in Your name
My mind went to Romans 8:11 which reads, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”
This Scripture then led me to remember the promise of 2 Timothy 1:7 that God has indeed not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.
Another potential moment could easily occur between the song Surrounded (Fight My Battles) and God I Look To You. They both have a connection to the story of king Jehosaphat and his prayer “God we don’t know what to do, but we look to You, our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). There is also a verse in Psalms, Psalm 16:8 that popped up on the BibleGateway.com verse of the day, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
Be open to things like this grabbing your attention. After all, God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet especially when we are praying that He will guide us in this process of song set planning.
A few handy tools.
Lastly, in solidifying your song set and flow, there are a few handy tools that I would encourage you to make use of. If your church is using CCLI’s SongSelect, use that database to search and scan the lyrics of songs on your brainstorm list and be on the lookout for shared themes and concepts between the different songs.
If you don’t have access to SongSelect you can use worshiptogether.com.
POWER TIP: Both of these sites have a built-in theme search that you can take advantage of (see screenshots below).
The themes feature within SongSelect
Put the proposed set together in a Spotify or YouTube playlist and listen through the set. Take note of how the songs flow (or don't flow) from one song to the next.
Do the songs transition well and take you on a pleasing musical & lyrical journey?
I won't leave you hanging.
Here is the final draft of the worship set that I ended up landing on for the service I was planning. These are the songs that I believe are going to take our congregation on the journey that God wants us to take for that particular service:
The Way (New Horizon) by Pat Barrett
Stand In Your Love by Bethel Music
(Other elements of the worship service like baptisms, message & communion)
Surrounded (Fight My Battles) by Upper Room
God I Look To You by Bethel Music
Don’t haphazardly plan your songs by randomly throwing them together based on people’s likes and dislikes (including your own).
Ultimately seek to listen to the Lord’s voice throughout this process. Remember that we are shepherds, not DJs.
Find that anchor song and then focus on how the lyrical content and central themes of the songs work together. Experiment with the musical flow of the set by making use of the available tools at your disposal to ensure that your songs jive well together.
A few final words of caution.
Give yourself a deadline to finalize your set so that you don’t get overly perfectionistic and spend way too much time analyzing if you have the PERFECT song set.
Song sets are ultimately just a tool in God’s hand. Jesus is the one that is going to draw people closer to Himself. Remember, He is the mediator, not your song set.
We all want to lead killer engaging sets.
However, we can so easily get stuck in our own heads and obsess over our sets. We can start to treat song sets like they are our babies.
To combat this, don’t be afraid to ask people for feedback. Run your song set past other worship leaders, and ask them to give you feedback.
Also, ask someone who is not a worship team person to give you feedback. This will prove to be invaluable because at the end of the day we want the non-musician to be able to engage with God in worship through the song set that we have planned.
Hold your song sets with an open hand and allow the Lord to speak into the plan even after your preparations are seemingly done. For more on this, check out a post I did called “Worship With Your Ears Open.”
Let’s engage with this together. How do you plan your worship sets? What helpful tips do you have to share when it comes to planning what songs to sing for a particular service?
Leave a comment below and let us know!
Don't forget to grab the free guide I have prepared for you. It will teach you 6 practices you can implement right away to help you lead with a greater degree of confidence this week.