How to Choose Music for Worship :: A Biblical Model

Since 2001, I have been blessed to be part of the Harvest Bible Chapel movement of churches throughout North America.  One of the many things I have appreciated about Harvest culture is its emphasis on unashamed worship.

For many years I have practiced and taught the ‘numbering system’ for planning corporate worship. This approach, originally coined by Dr. James MacDonald is based off of the Old Testament model for worship.  Much of what follows is articulated with more detail in MacDonald’s book, Vertical Church.

Anytime we lead people into worship we are embarking on a journey.  The same was true of those who longed to worship Yahweh in the Old Testament.  The end goal of any worship set is to get vertical, eyes on Christ and off ourselves, our problems, circumstances or situations.  We want to lead people into the presence of Jesus Christ where everything changes, including us.

The first step in choosing music for worship is prayer.  We often say in Harvest culture, “without prayer, nothing else matters”.  The priority of prayer is our declaration of our dependence on Christ.  Since He is the subject, object and facilitator of our worship it is paramount that we communicate with Him as we plan our services.

Following prayer, we begin our journey.  The numbering system assigns a number (1-5) to each worship song in the set based primarily on the composition’s lyrical content. The goal of the worship set is to get vertical by leading from a “1” song to a “5”.

#1 Gathering Songs

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord'” (Psalm 122:1).

In the Old Testament, Sojourners making their way to the Temple began worshipping as they arrived.  When we plan worship it can be helpful to open the worship set with familiar gathering songs that, like a transistor radio, help retune our hearts to God from the busyness of the day. When we invite people into God’s house, gathering songs act as a familiar place for guests to hang their hat. Some songs that speak of gathering and arriving together to worship corporately include:

#2 Thanksgiving Songs

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; Bless His name” (Psalm 100:4).

As worshippers in the Old Testament made their pilgrimage to the Temple and approached the gates of the outer courts, they did so with thanksgiving.  A heart of gratitude will always increase our altitude in worship. Songs of thanksgiving include:

#3 Testimony Songs

“One generation shall praise your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4).

Once in the outer courts, we quickly realize we are not alone.  We are amongst other worshippers from different cultures, generations and backgrounds yet we’re united by the goodness of Christ in our lives.  Testimony songs draw attention to God’s work in us. They tell of His faithfulness and blessings:

#4 Preparation Songs

“Who may ascend to the hill of the Lord?  And who may stand in His holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3).

Moving through the outer courts, only the priests would be allowed in the inner courts. Here they would prepare themselves and their offering (on behalf of the people) through confession of sin.  Songs at this point are noticeably more about the work of God, His sufficiency and work on the cross.  MacDonald notes in his book that this is often a great place to lead in the sacrament of the Lord’s Table:

#5 Vertical Songs

“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17)

In Old Testament worship the high priest was allowed to enter the presence of God in the Holy of Holies once a year to offer a sacrifice of worship.  Through the work of Christ on the cross we have this same access to God at any single moment.

Any person who experienced the presence of God in the Bible (Isaiah, John, Moses) got as low as they could as fast as they could.  When we truly experience the presence of the Almighty we are brought to our knees.  It is in these moments that our focus is not on ourselves or even our feelings towards God.  These moments are un-mistakingly marked by an exclusive focus on the person and character of Christ.  As MacDonald puts it, vertical songs are “nothing about me, everything about God.”

Vertical songs are challenging to find because they are challenging to write (a great challenge for any worship songwriter!).  They are the destination point of worship and when experienced, are truly transformational. Characteristically, vertical songs contain no personal pronouns and are largely centred on ascription, adoration and affirmation of the character of God:

Although I don’t consider MacDonald’s numbering system a hard and fast rule, I do consider it a helpful, Biblical guideline for choosing music when planning a worship set. As worship leaders we have the distinct responsibility of pointing people to Jesus every week.

Having a Biblically-based guide on how to do this is a wise plan.



4 thoughts on “How to Choose Music for Worship :: A Biblical Model

  1. Hi Travis, I also use this system when planning a worship set. I am always looking for more good #1 songs! What are some songs you’ve used recently in that opening song position? The ones you’ve listed here are good. Looking for some new ideas!

    Barry Westman


    1. Hi Barry –

      Here’s some of our number 1’s:

      1000 Tongues – Vertical Church
      All The Earth – Vertical Church
      Do What You Want To – Vertical Church
      Found In You – Paul Baloche
      Here for You – Tomlin/Redman
      Open The Gates – Vertical Church



  2. Pingback: The Ultimate Destination of Biblical Worship is Vertic^l – Travis Doucette :: Song Spinner

  3. Pingback: Worship Planning: Defining and Refining Your Song Canon – Part Two – Travis Doucette :: Song Spinner

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