Selecting Songs for Corporate Worship

Several years ago, I was sitting in a conference room at the Contemporary Resort in Walt Disney World listening to Jennie Lee Riddle (songwriter of “Revelation Song”) discuss how to craft lyrics for worship. One statement she made has stuck with me ever since:

“What words are you putting on the lips of the Bride?”

As the Worship Pastor of my church, that sentence often returns to my mind when I sit down to plan each month’s worship gatherings.

Candidly, it can be tempting to simply plug in your favorite songs at the moment, or just go with the tried and true standards that “we’ve always done”…especially when staring at a blank slate of service plans.

Today, I want to encourage you (and me) to not grow weary or become overwhelmed by the task to which we’ve been called. Rather, let us rediscover the joy not just in leading worship, but also in planning worship.

Here are 3 helpful things to consider when planning:

1) Start With Prayer.

Before you sit down at your computer. Before you open YouTube or Spotify. Before you start looking at what other churches are doing. Before everything, pray.

Pray that the Holy Spirit would guide your thoughts and intentions. Pray that each song would be used to strengthen the believers in your congregation. Pray for your team who will carry the songs before the church. Pray that the plans would support the messages your Lead Pastor will be delivering. Pray and be led.

For me, some of the most impactful moments of worship aren’t when I look around the room and see everyone with hands raised (or whatever visual metric I might want to use to gauge a “successful” service). It’s when we’re about to sing a song that was planned weeks and weeks ago, and I notice a fellow church member who is walking through a season of grief or sickness, waiting or uncertainty…and I realize just how sweet these lyrics will be on their lips.

I could point to countless times a song has connected to our room far beyond my own ability to plan a good service. And in those moments, I’m filled with gratitude. Gratitude for how the Lord has graciously placed a song in our path that will bring comfort and strength.

When we come to the Lord prayerfully to plan, and ask for His leadership, we need only to sit back and watch at how He will move.

2) Engage Your Pastor.

Sit down regularly with your pastor to discuss the landscape of the upcoming message series. Ask what songs are resonating with him in his personal worship. Study his message outlines. Read the text (in full) from which he will be preaching. Laugh together. Hang out together. Get to know each other.

These may seem like overly simplistic, practical statements, but they will transform the way you plan. When you know your pastor not just professionally, but personally, you will find “getting on the same page” easier. When you show a genuine interest in what he’s reading, what he’s singing in the car, what podcasts he’s enjoying, you will gain insight into how the Lord is moving in his life…and by extension, how the Lord is using him to lead the congregation.

Your pastor’s message series plan, whether it be a week in advance or a year prior, is one of your greatest assets to aid in your worship planning. Find the major themes of the text and begin “hunting and gathering” songs that support them.

When you come across a song that’s resonating with you, text it to him and include an upcoming message you feel it would support well. Establishing a collaborative relationship with your pastor is not a burden, but a mutually beneficial joy that the congregation will recognize.

3) Plan With A Destination In Mind.

Finally, as you begin to drop in songs for your service(s), have a destination in mind. A great model for service planning that I often use defines three primary types of songs:

  1. Songs of Gathering
  2. Songs of Testimony
  3. Songs of Ascription

While I often use this “model,” it is not a magic formula or a silver bullet. Rather, it’s a helpful guide for making sure we are putting a balanced curation of songs on the lips of our congregation, with a clear destination in mind.

Our songs of gathering call us to worship the Lord. Our songs of testimony help us remember what He has done in our lives. Our songs of ascription place our sole focus on God, as we sing of His worth, power, wisdom, and holiness.

When we plan with a destination in mind, it shapes each step we take to get there. The themes of each song, the spoken words of Scripture and encouragement we may offer to the congregation, the prayers we pray…all of these steps are informed by where we are headed. 

Practically, how does this look? 

Imagine your “destination” is Revelation Song (clever connection to the article’s introduction). The chorus of this song says “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” With this ascriptive lyric in mind, what song would make sense to sing just before it? Perhaps a song like “Lamb of God” which says “You came from heaven’s throne / Acquainted with our sorrow / To trade the debt we owed / Your suffering for our freedom.” In this testimonial song, we remember that our holy King lowered Himself and took on flesh so that we could be forgiven. Now, with this song in mind, what would be an appropriate song to gather us for worship? Maybe a song like “Great Things” which says “Come let us worship our King / Come let us bow at His feet / He has done great things.” In this opening verse, we are calling ourselves to worship the King who has done great and marvelous things.

When you know your destination, the steps you take to get there become clearer.

I pray these things provide encouragement for you, as well as stir up some ideas for how you can better plan for your congregation.

David Leonard is the Worship Pastor at Colonial Heights Baptist Church.