Song selection is one of the most important worship planning tasks. It can make or break the congregation’s worship experience. It is important that worship planners use a Wesleyan filter to select songs that will best connect worshipers to Christ.
At the church I currently serve, each year, our three pastors take a full day out of their busy schedules to lock themselves in a room to pray together and dig into where God is calling the church. That time out will result in a worship planning schedule with series titles, sermon titles, and key Scriptures and phrases to support the sermons. At the previous church I served, we had a worship planning committee made up of pastoral staff, program staff, lay members, and music staff. Every 4-6 months, we would get off campus and spend time together praying and brainstorming where God was calling us to go.
Following each planning session, I make it a priority to spend time alone to process where we are headed as a church. I look through each sermon theme, each title and Scripture, and “loosely” write in some songs that come to mind for each week. I also try to think about the congregation I serve at our Eleven20 contemporary service. It is important to know the congregation, to know where they come from, and to know what struggles the people might be having. It is also important to remember that we are all trying to move forward to a place of perfection through sanctification.
When selecting songs for a worship service, I use a method that involves prayer and a lot of invitation. I invite the Holy Spirit to move through the whole process, and I also invite specific people to give constructive feedback. Then I make some observations. For instance, we are currently in a series on The Lord’s Prayer. On one particular Sunday, we explored the phrase, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I began my worship planning by first observing the text. Here are some of those observations:
- Inviting the Lord to bring heaven to earth
- Come Lord, show yourself
- Songs that invite
- Songs that help us see proof of God at work
- Jesus is encouraging us to pray for this
Following this task, I move into selecting songs. Our primary goal as worship leaders should be to select songs that support the Scripture and sermon theme the pastor has selected. A secondary goal should be selecting songs that will open the hearts of our congregants to hearing the word of the Lord. It is important to see that everything fits within the United Methodist theological framework that focuses upon gifts of grace and acceptance.
Returning to the example at hand, once I was selecting songs, it was like the floodgates opened with song ideas. So I began to write down every song that came to mind around the theme for the week:
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – UM Hymnal, 400
Holy Spirit — Brian and Katie Torwalt
Oh, Our Lord — All Sons and Daughters
Build Your Kingdom Here — The Rend Collective
Lord, I Need You — Matt Maher
All the Poor and Powerless — All Sons and Daughters
Amazed — Jared Anderson
Our Father — Bethel Worship
Within minutes, I had more songs than I needed for that Sunday. As I continued planning, I tried to gather more information and as many key words as possible from the pastor, so I could best musically support where he was heading in the sermon. Sometimes this is easier said than done, and some weeks are more difficult than others. As worship leaders or song leaders, we want to be sure to select material that will work within the thematic framework for that week, so stirring up more material than is needed can be helpful.
The final stage in planning is to take selections to the worship planning team. Our worship planning team meets every other Tuesday to put the finishing touches on the upcoming Sunday’s services and to begin plans for the following Sunday. At the church I last served, we called it “creative worship planning.” The people who attend this meeting are the pastors, a lay member from traditional worship, a lay member from contemporary worship, the worship leaders, our communications staff (who oversee the printing of the weekly bulletins) and the sound and lighting person. This meeting is a safe place to share feedback from the week before or to give additional input for the coming weeks.
After our worship planning meeting and follow-up with the pastor for the example Sunday mentioned above, I had a good idea of where we were headed and felt confident in the group of songs I had selected. I knew they were the right songs for the coming Sunday and would serve the pastor and congregation well. The worship planning committee was on board, and we were all moving with one accord into Sunday worship.
It is always humbling to receive feedback. Whether positive or negative, feedback should be viewed as helpful when planning. It is rewarding to share feedback with team members and see them light up when they learn their input, creativity, or talents make a real impact in someone’s life. Feedback is a great reminder that what we do matters, and the songs we select can have a ripple effect far beyond our point of view.
In closing, I invite you into a season of team building, learning, and listening. Glean as much information as you can from your pastors about where they plan to head in their teaching. Schedule time to sit and discuss their vision and plans for the coming months.
Then consider having conversations with some of the people who are attending the services you lead. Learn their stories—where they come from and how they found their way to the service you lead. This will help you serve your members better. You may even find that some people have gifts that could help you or enhance the worship services your church offers.
And to the pastor who is flying solo, who is tasked with making ALL the selections in a week for worship, think about asking a few simple questions when you are meeting with congregants throughout the week:
- What elements in worship lead you to the presence of God each Sunday?
- What hymns or songs do you most connect with?
- What is it about these songs that take you to that place of worship?
Chances are they speak for a handful of others. Entering into conversations around worship will help you connect with and serve your congregation in a deeper, more personal way.
And finally, I invite you to pray over each Scripture. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide you in your song selection process, and don’t be afraid when the Holy Spirit begins to move. Just be faithful. If an old hymn comes to mind or a new song no one knows yet, write it in and give it a try. Or better yet, create a worship planning team and work through each week together. The Bible tells us we should test the spirits (1 John 4:1). If something is a flop, there will always be next Sunday to “play it safe,” but I have never been let down by the Spirit’s leading when selecting songs for a worship service. God is the ultimate provider of wisdom and is always faithful to provide when we ask. So dig a little deeper, and go serve your church well this week.
About the author
Jeremy Hearn is the Eleven20 Worship Leader for First United Methodist in Lakeland, FL. Hearn is a 4th generation Methodist and grew up at First UMC in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hearn has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked with and learned under country music superstar, Martina McBride, as well as Christian recording artists Michael W. Smith, Jeremy Camp, and All Sons and Daughters. At age 23, Hearn was the founding worship leader for Wells Branch Community Church in Austin, Texas. Tapped by Bishop Kenneth Carter, he led worship for the 2014 Florida Annual Conference and will again lead the 2016 Florida Annual Conference in June, 2016, in Orlando, Florida.