Worship Planning: Defining Your Song Canon

Critical to the effectiveness of any worship ministry is determining what songs you will use to lead your people in worship.  One of the chief ways worship leaders shepherd their congregation is through song.  Worship leaders are practicing theologians and the songs we use teach our congregations how and what to think about God.  Show me your song canon and I’ll show you your church’s theology.

What is a Song Canon and why is it important?

“Canon” is just another word for collection.  Every church has a song canon; songs of worship that resonate with that specific worship culture and church personality.  Some churches commit to an unchanging canon (i.e. a hymnal) while others have canons that are constantly changing and evolving.  For the Jewish people and early Christians, their song canon was the book of Psalms, a collection of words intended to accompany instrumental music.

Apart from being the most accurate expression of a church’s theology, a canon is important because it gives words to the weekly conversations we have with God when we gather corporately.  The songs we use map out the journey we take up the mountain to meet with God.  For these reasons it’s vital that we give a great deal of thoughtfulness into what’s allowed into the canon and what’s retired from it.  A church’s song canon is the life blood of their worship expression.

Rooted in Service, Not preference

We serve our congregations well when our song canon is made up of songs that serve our church, not our own preferences. There are higher values than the latest contemporary trends. Innovation and creativity are important but not at the expense of alienating those we serve.

Sometimes, an indication that a worship leader is serving their church well is manifest by them leading a song they don’t personally prefer.  Worship planning that’s rooted in preference serves only the people planning the service.  Here’s some key questions to consider as you plan a worship service from your canon:

What conversations does the Lord want to have with our church?

How can the songs we use forward the mission and vision for this service?

What truths does our church need to be reminded of in this service?

Your ability to accurately plan with these questions in mind will reveal your relationship with those you lead.  The most effective worship leaders are those who are in ongoing relationship with the people they are leading.  

How to Define Your Canon

Knowing how important a song canon is within the life of a church, we ought to be mindful of the criteria used to define our canon.  The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”    

Within this short verse is some of the clearest New Testament teaching on how to choose songs for worship.  From this short verse come three questions we can use to examine whether or not a song is appropriate for our church’s song canon:  

Does this song promote and induce a rich dwelling of God’s Word in the body?

Does this song teach and admonish the body with Godly wisdom?

Does this song prompt and promote thankfulness in the hearts of those in the body?

Defining your song canon simply by preference or only by what’s trending on K-Love’s Top 10 diminishes the intentionality we owe the Lord in our worship planning.  God is serious about how He is to be worshipped and tells us clearly in His Word the type of worship that is acceptable to Him (John 4:24, Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 12:28-29).  The greatest being in existence deserves our greatest intentionality in determining the worship we bring to Him.  

As you define your canon, remember God is not music. God is Spirit and He’s searching for worshippers who worship him acceptably in Spirit and Truth. Music itself is not the destination but merely an important tool used to induce spirit and truth worship and lead us to the vertical destination of worship: The exaltation of Jesus Christ.  Everything in a worship service ought to be charging us towards lifestyle worship, even the preaching. Preachers don’t preach to make us better listeners, they preach to make us better worshippers. 

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

In Colossians 3:16 the apostle Paul mentions three classifications of songs; psalms hymns and spiritual songs, giving insight into the types of songs that ought to make up our song canon.

Psalms – Songs or hymns derived from the book of Psalms in the Bible

Hymns – Formal or traditional songs, often with a specific rhythm and structure

Spiritual Songs – Songs inspired by the Holy Spirit, sometimes spontaneous

Does Your Canon Promote a Well-Balanced Worship Diet?

One of the greatest responsibilities worship leaders have each week is delivering a well-balanced worship diet to our congregation.  Developing a canon that is equally full of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs not only fulfills the instruction of Scripture but allows us to be multi-generational worship leaders that commend God’s works to one another (Psalm 145:4).  Drawing from a song canon that has the potential to serve all generations only increases our effectiveness in leading all people in worship.  

When you were a kid, chances are your parents occasionally did things to present nutritious food to you in a way that reflected your personality.  I loved trains as a kid and remember how my Mom would assemble my food to look like a train.  Occasionally she’d even pair vegetables with something I preferred, knowing the pairing and presentation would encourage me to engage with the food I ought to be consuming.

A well-balanced worship diet doesn’t have to be served in a boring, stiff, lifeless way.  Allowing the personality of your church and its unique expression to bring life to old and new psalms, hymns and spiritual songs creates worship experiences that are both engaging and realized in the stylistic language of the people you serve.

Next week: Organizing Your Song Canon


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