How To Choose Songs For Congregational Worship

The technological revolution of the late 20th century brought with it some incredible advances.  The phones in our pockets hold more power and technology than that which was used to put the first man on the moon in 1969.  However, with all of the rapid innovation has come its share of challenges.

Back in the 1990’s, the only way for a worship song to be recorded and enjoyed by the masses was through a very narrow path that involved a lot of filters and checkpoints.  For instance your song would need a high-quality demo, recorded well enough to attract the interest of a song publisher.  For most songwriters, this would involve the high cost of recording it at a local studio as at-home DAW technology was in its infancy and not readily available or affordable to the average consumer.

Attracting publishers before the days of email involved mailing a physical cassette tape demo through the mail, hoping it would somehow get to the top of the pile amongst others and actually be listened to. Provided your song was better than thousands of other submissions, it would then be sent to an A&R (artist and repertoire) representative to be considered for an artist’s project.  After being pitched to the artist, it would need to be compelling enough to be selected by the artist for inclusion on a project.  In order for the song to be considered for release as a radio single and receive any type of promotion, marketing and airplay, the song would need to impress record executives and capture the attention of test audiences.  

Needless to say, there were a tremendous amount of hoops to jump through in order for a song to “make it”.  These filters ensured only the best of the best was released to the public most of the time.  No wonder so many songs from decades past have an enduring nature that’s different from the music of today.  They had to stand-up and stick to the wall in order to be heard by the masses.

Not today.

In a matter of hours you can write, record, produce, master and release a song digitally to the world — all from the comfort of your own home thanks to advanced DAW’s and the power of the internet and platforms like SoundCloud and iTunes. Never has there been a time in history where so much music is constantly being released.

What does this have to do with worship leading?  

It means that worship leaders must develop their own filters to determine and discern what music is appropriate for their worship diet and worship culture at their church.  Choosing songs merely based on preference alone, what’s “hot” on the radio or what stimulated a meaningful worship experience in your car aren’t necessarily great metrics for determining what truth to put into the mouths of worshippers on the weekend.

In fact, song selection is a very high calling.

As worship leaders we are theologians.  The prayers we sing every week teach people how to think about God.  A.W. Tozer once said “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”.  Every week we’re in the drivers seat, responsible for serving a diet of truth that has potential to foster the manifest, life-changing presence of God!  Stringing together a selection from K-Love’s Top 20 isn’t going to cut it and hardly reflects the pastoral function and responsibilities we all have to shape the worship diet for the people we serve with prayer and intentionality.

So knowing all of this, what are your metrics for choosing songs for congregational worship?  

I suggest it’s time to graduate from the preference-based, “everyone else is doing this song”, low-hanging fruit approach to worship song selection and develop some scripture-saturated criteria for choosing songs for worship.  

Here’s a list of seven discerning questions to help determine if a song should be considered for congregational worship:

1. Does the lyric encourage and promote a rich dwelling of God’s Word?

In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly”.  Not partially or haphazardly but richly.  This is a question of power.  The power for life change in our worship services does not reside in our artistic expressions, arrangements or vocal licks.  These things are helps but the voltage comes from the Word of God.  Worshipping by the book – the Bible means that the songs we put in people’s mouths are not only based in Scripture but that they promote a deep dwelling presence of God’s Word in one’s heart.

2. Is the melody easy to remember, difficult to forget and attainable by the “average Joe”?

The ultimate test of an effective worship leader is wrapped up in one question: Is the church singing?  As music lovers who enjoy the complexities of music and the acrobatic vocal licks of our favorite artists, we can easily forget that the majority of people we lead every weekend have no musical background or vocal training.  We serve our church well when we keep this in mind.  

A song can do a lot of cool and interesting things but if the church can’t sing along with it, it fails to accomplish its intended purpose.  Worship is a verb but we put barriers up to participation when we choose songs the congregation can’t sing.  Congregational worship songs that last generations have infectious melodies that are attainable by the most novice singers.  1 Peter 4:10-11 reminds us that our gifts of music have been entrusted to us for the purpose of serving others.  We serve the church well when we choose songs they can and want to sing.

3. Does the song fulfill something (style, tempo, content) that’s currently not well-represented in our song canon needed to equip the saints?

Scripture makes it clear that the calling on all church leaders is to equip the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:12).  Music can be a very effective equipper.  In the storms of life, songs are like life rings that keep us afloat above the crashing waves.  In moments of crisis or turmoil we’re more likely to remember the lyrics of a song than a three point sermon.  

We are wise to ensure our worship diet is well-rounded and not needlessly duplicated.  

Every worship set is a conversation with the Almighty.  Imagine having a conversation with someone and repeating the same thing to them over and over again. Imagine having a conversation with someone and repeating the same thing to them over and over again. Imagine having a conversation with someone and repeating the same thing to them over and over again.  It’s redundant, annoying and boring.  And worship should never be boring.  As great as those five songs about spiritual warfare are, you probably don’t need to sing all five.  Choose one and make room for others so your congregational worship diet can be well-balanced and varied.

When choosing songs for worship consider this question; “what hasn’t been said about God in our song canon?”  Make room for songs that say something about God in a way that’s fresh and new to the ear.  Give some thought to tempos and styles that may be underrepresented.  Having variety in your song canon will equip you to plan musical moments that are interesting, creative and diverse.  That’s part of making God’s praise glorious (Psalm 66:2).

4. Does the song address a theme or attribute of God that’s aligned with Pastor’s heart and what God is currently doing/saying in our local church?

There’s no quicker way to obtain the blessing of God than to be in unity with the vision and leadership of the men God has placed in authority over you (Psalm 133).  Songs are like flags that represent territory the Lord takes in our hearts as we become more surrendered to Him.  Tapping into the “flags” of your senior leader is a sure way to promote and facilitate unity.  After all, the senior leader in your church is the chief worship leader.  

One of the ways we’ve accomplished this where I serve is that we have added two categories for “throwbacks” and “hymns” in our worship canon and I’ve worked with our senior pastor to populate those categories with songs that reflect His heart.  Not only is this a low-hanging fruit opportunity to work with your pastor, but it’s a way to ensure that you are leading multi-generational worship that serves the entire body.  “Top 20” worship leaders can isolate the body and miss the opportunity to “commend God’s works” to one another (Psalm 145:4).

Keep your ears open to what the Spirit is saying (Revelation 3:22).  God primarily speaks through nature and His Word but He often confirms His Word in the context of community.  Choosing songs that reflect the specific things God may be saying and doing in your church is a great way to be in submission to the Holy Spirit, allowing the music you choose to reflect His purposes and objectives over our preferences.

5. Is there evidence of “wind in the sails” through how the song has been embraced by a larger body of believers, unifying our local congregation with the global Christian Church?

I need to credit my friend, Andi Rozier who regularly uses the above phrase, “wind in the sails” to illustrate the work of the Spirit.  I find it’s a helpful phrase to communicate the “x” factor some songs possess. 

Sometimes congregational songs are written that the Lord platforms on a local level, other times it’s a regional or national level.  But sometimes the Lord has something to say globally to the church through a song.  I think of songs and hymns like “O Praise the Name”, “Amazing Grace”, “Shout to the Lord”, “It Is Well” and “How Great is Our God” all of which have had a global platform.  I’m not saying we should only choose songs that make the CCLI charts but I am saying we’d be wise to consider what God may want to say to his global church when a song is embraced across denominations and sung by the masses and CCLI can be a great help in determining this.  

Anytime we plan a worship set, we ought to first pause and simply ask the Lord, “what would you like to hear from your children, what would please you today and how can what we plan bring You glory and unify Your bride?”  Christ’s final prayer was that His people, His church would be unified as one (John 17:20-23) and as worship leaders we sometimes have opportunity to unify with believers all over the world through a shared song expression that gives glory to God.

6. Does the song have an attainable arrangement our band can execute with joy and excellence?

Colossians 3:23 says “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”.  There’s no place for half-hearted worship in God’s house.  We owe Him our very best because He’s worthy of the very best.  The quality of worship we present tells others exactly what we think of Him.  

We do our worship teams no favors when we choose music that is unattainable for them.  I happen to love Gospel Music but I know that at some of our church campuses we don’t have the players to pull off some of the musical complexities of Gospel Music.  Don’t throw your musicians in the deep end without a swimming lesson.  Ensure that the songs you choose can not only be a win for the church, but a win for the band also so they’re presented in an exceptional, non-distracting way, reflecting the caliber and quality of worship God deserves.

7. Does the lyric clearly communicate sound theology and Gospel centrality?

There’s nothing more important than the Gospel.  Keeping Christ and His Gospel central in our worship through sound doctrine and theology is perhaps the clearest way we exemplify our love and obedience to our Savior.  We need to choose songs that are Biblically accurate and clear in their lyric.  Why?  God’s revelation to us has been clear, so our response ought to be the same.

Whereas we’ll always be in need of fresh expressions of timeless truths in worship music, artistry should never eclipse clarity of message.  Worship void of sound theology and gospel centrality is nothing more than a sing-a-long. The calling of God on a worship leader is to lead the church to the place of pure ascription where His manifest presence is ushered in and His glory is called down – not some trivial sing-a-long.

As worship leaders, we, alongside teaching pastors are the gatekeepers of sound theology.  Don’t choose a song without looking carefully at every lyric.  Know your songs and be prepared to defend what they teach when asked.  Effective worship leaders not only know how to sing a song well but how to explain it’s theology well too.

In Romans 1:16 the apostle Paul declares that he is “not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes”.  I want the worship sets I lead to be marked by God’s saving power.  We tap into that power when we choose songs that make much of Jesus Christ and the glory of His Gospel.

A final word and challenge…

Songs are merely prayers we sing to God and every weekend we have the weighty responsibility of leading others in musical prayer to the greatest, most glorious, Most Holy God.  Choosing the prayers we corporately sing a is sobering privilege worthy of our highest efforts and greatest intentions. 

What kinds of metrics do you use to evaluate the music you choose for congregational worship?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below! 


One thought on “How To Choose Songs For Congregational Worship

  1. Bill Adams

    These are great considerations, thank you. As a musician, I want to have these songs at the front of my personal priority list too – they are as applicable to my spirituality and proficiency as the congregation. So I will memorize the lyrics as well as the music!


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