What do you think about when you're planning a setlist? These are nine of the things I teach our team when they are picking out songs for a worship service.

There are all ends of the spectrum being practiced today. Some leaders don't think about this at all, and others require on certain Sundays that all titles have the word "Blood" or "Fire" in them. I'm not saying you have to have only one theme each service, but it does deserve some thought. If you start off with a song about faith, consider continuing that theme.

In our preparations we usually try to connect all of our themes together. We'll start with a song about God's love, then move into a song that helps the people we're leading respond back with love or sacrifice. Or we'll start with a celebration of what God has done and move into worship God for who He is.

Moving from a slow song to a fast song back to a slow song can give a congregation whiplash! Be smooth with your tempo transitions. The classic method is a few fast, a few medium, a few slow, and depending on your church, you'll end with a fast or a slow song. Don't feel tied down to this though. Many awesome worship sets do this in reverse, moving from slow to fast! The key is be intentional and smooth.

Is this a song that people are prepared to go into? You might not want to start with a really deep, intense encounter right off the bat. With people coming in late, or just getting back from dropping their kids off, there are a lot of different backgrounds to consider. One of my worship leader friends describes this as a funnel that we create. He says it's good to start with simpler songs that everyone can relate to and gradually direct people towards deeper, more specific songs. As Kim Walker says, it would be great if we could all enter in on the first song, but the truth is, the church isn't there yet. Sometimes it takes a minute or two for people to re-engage their connection to God.

How well known are the songs that you're planning? Psalms says repeatedly to sing a new song to the Lord, but how many new songs do you do? I say it's a balance. You do want new music so that you aren't tempted to stay in the same place, but God still uses "It is well" and "Amazing Grace" to touch people's lives! It's useful to play songs that everyone knows so that you can easily get everyone under the same banner, but a new song can be just the right thing to wake someone up who has been tuning out week to week.

Make sure you repeat songs week to week! People in the congregation memorize songs at a tenth of the speed of the people on stage. They also tire of them at about the same rate. In practice you usually have to play a song 3-10 times before you lead the congregation with it, and by the second or third week, you're usually tired of it, when that's the time it means the most to the people in the seats! They've finally got the song well enough to sing the whole thing with the leader and that's when the musicians start suggesting you put it on the back burner. Be careful that you serve your church by teaching them new songs and playing them often enough to let it sink into their spirit. You also want people to come into church reminded of the work that God did in them last week!

Have you left room for space in your set? If someone comes up to the platform with a testimony or a prayer, can you accommodate that and pray in line with that? Make sure that your list isn't so set in stone that you can't insert a song that the pastor wants to sing or you feel that the Holy Spirit is telling you to sing. Also, make sure that you aren't jumping from song to song, but have space in between for people to sit and dwell on what's been sung. Make sure your musicians know what to play during this space too!

What key you're going to play a song in is super important. For one thing, changing keys can sometimes be difficult. Acclimating your group to the new key can be jarring if not done correctly. Moving down a half or whole step (from the key of C to B or from A to G) can make your next song sound less important or less intense than the previous song.

The best thing to do is to try to not change keys between songs very often. This makes the worship service seem more cohesive, and allows for seamless transitions. Also, your 20-40 minutes of worship doesn't have to feel chopped up by stark changes between songs.

Is this a song that your team can play? Do you have enough time to practice it? It's easy to get excited about a new song and try to rush through it on Sunday morning before service. Depending on your musicians, (and if they've ever heard it before) this can be a piece of cake, or a train wreck. Also, choosing a fast-changing pentecostal 2-step song in the key of Ab may not go over so well if you have new musicians on your team.

Also, consider the difficulty of the melody line. Is this a song that your worship leader and the congregation can sing? We've started work on songs before and then realized that there's really no good key for the song, it's just too big. Sometimes we have guys sing a verse and girls sing the chorus, or just not do the octave jump at the end of the second verse.

On the flip side, are you challenging your musicians? Psalms 33:3 says to play skillfully for the Lord. If we're playing music that is well below our talent, is it a fitting gift for God? David said that he would not sacrifice that which cost him nothing. That means that in your musical sacrifice, we should be stretching ourselves. Playing music that costs us time and energy to practice it.

Is the song appropriate for the group? Are you playing songs that can connect with people? If you're leading a Bible study of new believers, using songs with elaborate word pictures and unexplained metaphors may only confuse them. But those same songs may mean the world to someone who connects with those lyrics. Also, leading worship for a traditional service for the first time may go over better if you left the drum loops and synth at home, and tried some hymns or well known choruses.

Some might get mad at me here but, "You spin me right 'round, Jesus, 'right round" is not an appropriate song for worship. In fact, I would say that any song originally written as a secular song should not be used in corporate worship. There could be an argument for them being used as a picture of a redeemed person, but in truth, when we got saved, God worked a change in our lives so big that if each one of us were a song, we would have an unrecognizable tune and a brand new chord progression! Jesus blood not only washed away our cuss words and depressing lyrics, he totally rewrote us into a new creation!

Make sure that you are not only obeying the leadership in your church, but also in constant prayer so that you know what God wants to do in His worship set. Maintaining a constant connection to God will allow you to choose songs that align with the work that He wants to do in people's hearts.

These are a few of the things I teach my team. I tell them, they're not allowed to break the rules until they understand what the rules are. After they know, they can break whatever they want, if they have a good reason for doing so! Usually what happens is that you won't be able to create a setlist that follows all of the guidelines. It's just a matter of which ones you think are more important at the time. Is it more important that you progress upwards in key or that your lead vocalist can sing the song? Is it more important that your setlist moves smoothly between themes or that you play certain songs your pastor requested. (The answer is the pastor's songs)

Am I missing anything? What do you think about when you pick songs to play?

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Great suggestions...might I add prayer?  ;) 

Hey Laura, thank you! I put prayer under "obedience" which includes submitting to God and the leadership in your church. Super important. 

Nice list to keep in mind when planning set-lists. Also see some similarities with an article I wrote on this subject, in case you'd like to check it out:

8 Practical Tips to Create a Rocking Worship Set-List

I especially liked your point on 'space', thanks for sharing these tips!

Hey Gangai

Thanks, I appreciate your post a lot, especially your thoughts on fitting the the song to the audience. Very important.

Fantastic, although, I think the Obedience one ( asking God) should be first off the rank. As I have been in teams that will do all the rest and justify that God wants what they have come up with. But, awesome way you set it all out for all of us to learn from and understand that it's not just "pick a few songs".

Hey Allan, 

They weren't in any specific order, although I think I put obedience last so that it would have some emphasis. But it really should be the first thing we consider. You're right that regardless of our plans and schemes, God's word is and always will be final.

This is a good list, I've never sat down and thought about 10 or 9 or 17 things but it's a good checklist, Not that I work in a checklist way either but when I'm planning all these things are present even if I never thought of them in such a way.


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