Worship Planning: Organizing Your Song Canon

Regulating Your Canon

Part of maintaining a well-balanced worship diet is being mindful of how often you eat certain foods.  I am a big believer in song-tracking so you can keep inventory of the content you are feeding your church and the shelf life of a song.  The use of any worship song, including its shelf life is ultimately determined by the congregation’s engagement.  A worship leader’s job is done when the church sings aloud in spirit and truth.  

I would suggest that songs ought to be auditioned to the congregation for their inclusion in your cannon.  Part of our responsibility as “keepers of the canon” is to discern whether or not the church is singing or observing after we’ve used a new song multiple times.  After all, we’re driving for engagement and participation, not an entertained audience.  

Are we giving the songs we’re auditioning for our canon their best chance to succeed by setting them up well?  Here’s some questions to consider before you audition a song for your canon:

Have you considered pairing things back, teaching the chorus before launching into the full arrangement? 

Is the song pitched in a key that serves the congregation over your vocal range?  

Is the arrangement appropriate and reflective of our church culture and worship personality?  

All of these considerations play a formidable role in creating easy on-ramps for songs to succeed.  That said, some songs (new and old) simply won’t fly in some contexts.  Your willingness to be subservient to the communal response of the Spirit through your church will serve you well.  Remember, worship leading isn’t about doing the latest and greatest tunes or the songs you prefer.  Worship leading is a pastoral function.  You are there to serve the church and cook for them a wonderful buffet to feast from every weekend keeping in mind their needs and appetites.

Whereas every church is different, one thing is the same in every congregation: congregations can only eat so much in one sitting and have a limit on how much “new food” they can handle.  One of the sacrifices worship leaders and worship teams bring to their calling is a recognition that we will tire from the songs we lead long before the congregation.  

In our tribe, we try to maintain a canon of around 40 songs.  We call it our “Top 40”.  This is effectively the diet-cycle our church can handle within a calendar year.  We leave space to try new foods, adding new songs every 6-8 weeks where we’ll audition them two weeks in a row, rest them, then bring them back the following week before discerning and determining if they will permanently be added to the canon.  These rhythms and systems have served our church well and may be a place to start if you don’t already have rhythms to regulate your canon.  

The main principle here is that a church needs time to own a song in order to effectively engage with it.  Even the most regular church attender may only hear a song every other time it is scheduled.  Regulating and limiting the amount of songs you use within a calendar year allows them to develop a rich dwelling of God’s Word in the hearts of those you serve.  When you limit how many spots are in your canon you create a culture where only the best serving songs rise to the top elevating intentionality, purpose and direction in the worship sets you plan.

Organizing Your Canon

God adds his blessing to intentionality and one of the easiest ways we bring intentionality to our worship diet comes in organizing your song canon.  Organizing your song canon communicates care about HOW you are going to take the journey up the mountain when you lead worship and that you have a destination (the top!) in mind.  You can read more about the Vertical destination of worship in a previous blog:

Organizing songs by their theme helps us understand how they function so we can place them in the most appropriate spots in a worship set, using them to their maximum potential with purpose to create meaningful worship moments.  

Every worship set is a prayer conversation we have with the Lord.  We don’t randomly string sentences together, likewise our worship planning should have a natural, thoughtful, intentional conversational progression.  Leading any kind of conversation with the Lord is a great responsibility.  Effective worship leaders plan worship sets with purpose over preference, mapping out their journey with songs that lead to a clear vertical destination.

Organizing your canon ought to be a tool not a rule.  We don’t want to reduce worship planning down to a formulaic equation that takes all the life, vitality and fun out of worship planning.  Rather, organization ought to serve as a help.  If you’re like me, I often enter a worship planning meeting needing to radically shift gears from whatever it was I was doing previously.  

Having an organized worship canon gives a solid framework of reference and helps clarify the building blocks needed to assemble a set.  In my tribe, one of the things we’ve done to organize our canon is to simply assign a number to the function/theme of the song.  We often do group planning with our canon open on an excel sheet, organized according to one of these five classifications:

1 – Gathering Songs

2 – Thanksgiving Songs

3 – Testimony Songs

4 – Preparation Songs

5 – Vertical Songs

These are broad categories and sometimes songs will fit in multiple sections.  Remember: organizing your canon isn’t about building an equation, it’s a mere tool to help you build a Scripture-fed, Spirit-led God glorifying worship experience.  You can learn more choosing songs for worship, as well as song examples for the above mentioned categories in this blog:

Next Week: Canon Conversation Starters and Closers


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