This is the second in a short series of posts looking at the task of choosing songs for Sunday services. The aim in this series is to provide a model for music leaders, pastors and others involved in selecting the songs you sing. In part one, we saw how singing is a ministry of the gospel word by Spirit-filled believers, and so the task of choosing songs has a goal, an aim, a purpose – that the gospel (message of Christ) might dwell richly among a congregation. Song selection, therefore, needs to be planned well and overseen by those who oversee Bible teaching in the church.
But what does that look like week to week? And how can we ensure this vision is realised consistently in the life of the church?
The Benefits of Getting Ahead
If we’re serious about planning our singing for the reasons above, then we’ll want to get ahead in some way. A helpful way to do this, I’ve found, is to try to begin the process of planning songs alongside when the preaching and teaching is being planned for your services. This won’t mean going into great detail at this stage but will save some time and thought later.
For example, I’m in a context where we plan our preaching programme in detail term by term. I will meet with our other staff ministers around 8-10 weeks before a term starts to help do this. During this time, we’ll be prayerfully thinking about what will be preached during that upcoming term. We’ll decide on rough series / themes / books of the Bible and have a good idea of what we’re seeking to accomplish with the preaching series that are being planned. A few weeks after this, the draft plan for the term will be completed in more detail with passages assigned to each week, and anything else happening on Sundays noted. At this point, I’m wanting to start getting ahead with songs.
The way I do that is to create a fairly ordinary Word document for each term that will end up being about 12-15 pages long. The first two pages have to do with new songs and will be covered in the next post in this series. I also allocate another page to what I call ‘old favourites’. Having only been at my current church for the last 3 years, I’m keen to hear from the congregation about good songs we used to sing but haven’t done in a while. I keep a record of those on that list, to remind me to explore using them where appropriate.
The rest of the document has the sermon series planned out passage by passage, and then I can begin to create a long list of songs for each series. At this point, I will see if there are any new songs not yet know by the congregation that may serve this series well (more on that in the next post). I will also be scouring any Scripture indexes in hymn books (physical or online) looking for songs that may fit well with particular passages. A third thing I will be doing is working through our current list of songs we sing, looking for obvious connections with the series, or particular passages, or themes that the series will touch on. This will leave me with a rough list of potential songs for a series, noted under each passage. Some weeks will look fairly full, others not so much. But the aim at this stage is just to create a rough list that will save time in the regular, weekly process of finalising songs for Sunday.
My process above might not be realistic in your situation, but a good rule of thumb is – can the planning of your singing align with the planning of your preaching? How could you make that happen in your context?
Tip: Ask your pastor or those who plan the preaching if you could meet with them when they plan, or shortly afterwards, so that you can begin to plan which songs will best serve your church as they gather to hear that series.
Serving Week by Week
When it comes to the week by week planning of services, we will then have a bit of a leg-up in our preparation. Each week we will then be wanting to do a number of things, all of which will involve serving others. We will want to:
1. Serve our leaders, especially those who are preaching in a particular service. To do this, I try and chat to those preaching during the week to see if they have any suggestions for songs (or song themes) that would really help prepare the congregation to hear the word, or help the congregation to respond to the word. Sometimes we’ll think in a similar way, other times they will have suggestions that I wouldn’t have thought of, or wouldn’t be my personal preference. We’re here to serve, not be served, in our song selection, so it’s a good thing to sacrifice preferences for the good of the congregation, and the goal that the word might dwell in them richly.
2. Serve the other elements of the service well by making sure we’re aware of what’s going on before and after the songs we are choosing. Are there times when children will be in the service? What could we sing that they could easily engage with? What would help our focus to be on God and his character as we begin, rather than on our response? What else is happening in the service that we can serve with wise song choices?
3. Serve the congregation by having an idea of what songs are well known, which are newer; which were written recently, which were written 250 years ago; which contain lots of dense truth, which have more space for reflection and response, and so on. We can’t always achieve a balance of all these factors, but its good to know if we’re in danger of overloading the singing in a particular direction that would be unhelpful for the congregation that we know and love.
4. Serve your musicians by being aware of what they find ok to play, and what they find really tricky. Work with those who are responsible for finalising the order of service so that you get this done in good time so that musicians have time to source music and practice / arrange songs.
For more details and guidance on putting a service together, including how to model song choices and the structure of a service around a particular passage or aspect of the gospel, see Appendix 1 of the free Dwell Richly Course (registration required).
Tip: Make a weekly conversation with those preaching and teaching a priority when it comes to choosing songs. Ask what will help serve the preaching of the word and the congregation’s response. Find out about the thrust of the message, or the mood of the passage.
The Blessings of Recording, Reviewing, Reporting
As well as the looking ahead, it’s also good to look back at what you have been singing over a period of time. Keeping good records here not only fulfils our obligations to CCLI and copyright holders, but also helps in the ongoing task of song selection. Reviewing what you have been singing over a period of time (a year, a term, the length of a sermon series) helps you to build up a bank of connections between Bible passages / themes and songs that have served those passages well (if indeed they have – be honest!) It also helps you to spot any gaps there may be in your diet of songs. What are the trends? What do you sing a lot? Why have you sung something a lot? Is it clearly driven by the goal of a particular aspect of the gospel dwelling richly in the congregation, or are other factors affecting song choices?
See Appendix 2 of the Dwell Richly course for more on establishing a pool of songs.
Tip: Look back at all the songs you sang this past year. Make a list if you haven’t already got one. Where subjects did you sing about a lot? What things did you not sing about so much? Did the songs generally reflect the pattern of Bible teaching that year? What types of songs will you now be on the lookout for to fill the gaps in your diet?
Next time, in the last of this series, we’ll look at the joys and challenges of introducing new songs to your congregation. If you have other good tips for working week to week with your song selection, do comment below. We’d love to hear them.