We wrote recently about how to introduce new worship songs to your church.
But that assumes you’ve found new songs to lead, which raises another question: What new songs should you be singing?
With innumerable choices, how do worship leaders pick what to lead in church?
We talked with our friend Joel Phillips, who leads music at his church in Indiana. Joel offers a great framework and practical tips for thinking this through and effectively leading our church in edifying new worship songs.
How do you decide on what new worship songs to lead? What do you look for when evaluating them?
We have a “listening party” once every six months where we listen to worship songs our worship planning team brings. We create a Spotify list so everyone can listen beforehand, as time allows. Then in the meeting we listen to the songs all together, at least one from each person, hopefully two from each person, usually about 8–10 songs.
I give them a sheet of paper with several questions to help us evaluate the songs, and score them in several categories (see below). We discuss them along the way, average out the scores, and see which songs rise to the top. This usually gives us about five or so new songs we are excited to teach our church.
Our criteria helps us sift through the mass amounts of possible worship songs out there, down to what we believe may work for our congregation:
- Are the lyrics theologically sound and in agreement with our church? Do they move us toward God, responding to him in a biblically faithful way, or are they more self-focused?
- Is the melody singable for untrained singers? Does it jump all over the place (like “Only King Forever,” for example), or is it simple enough to sing along to? And not simple in a boring sense, but catchy enough to want to sing?
- Is the song playable for our musicians? We realize tracks are now covering this issue in good and bad ways, but at the core, if it’s an authentic experience in the moment, we lean heavily toward live music created onstage over canned music tracks (though we still use some of those).
- Does this song fit our congregation’s tastes? Do we think our people will embrace it?
- Lastly, and considering the above, do I personally like this song? If we don’t like it ourselves, we probably won’t play it much anyway.
Based on the above, we also determine whether a song is congregation-friendly—more participation-oriented—or if it’s better suited for special music.
That’s super helpful. And are there any resources you look to for new worship songs?
I ask other worship leaders and churches what songs they’ve been loving to sing and lead lately. Some of them are the same ones we do, and others aren’t, so I start there. Our worship planning team folks also listen to worship music and bring in what songs have been meaningful to them.
So you lean upon those around you to stay informed of what’s new. Do you have a system in place to narrow down the new worship songs your team finds? If so, what does it look like?
We have a bit of a system for evaluating new worship songs. I have created a worship planning team of five people who serve in the ministry and who sing/lead worship with me on a vocal praise team. I have at times included other people like tech director, senior pastor (occasionally), and communications director. We generate creative ideas for upcoming services, filter through our values, evaluate our recent services, and sometimes evaluate new worship songs.
This goes back to one of our previous posts, but I’m curious how it looks in your church, how often you introduce new songs.
We average about one new song per month, sometimes even fewer—probably 10 for the year. We do a lot more new songs as “specials” (special music) and try them out there. Most often, though, these are less suitable for congregational singing, and more for listening and being encouraged.
That’s similar to what we’re hearing from many other sources. Do you ever decide not to lead a song even though you like it?
Yes, all the time. Like I said, we test songs as special music first, and then work it into a worship service within the next week or two. If it seems to gain traction and invite participation, then we give it a chance to become one of our regular songs.
So some songs don’t work musically for the congregation. Are there ever songs that do work but you don’t necessarily care for musically, but choose to lead them because of the lyrics?
Yes. These are often hymns; they are meaningful to so many people even if musically they are quite dated. There is still definitely a lot of value to many of them, so we try to give them new life—not alter the melody, but drive them with a band. Occasionally we might do one straight-up with just a piano, but that’s rare.
Another example of songs along these lines are “theme songs,” songs the pastor specifically requested to be sung for a particular sermon.
Thanks for this helpful advice, Joel. God bless your ministry.
We hope you find Joel’s advice useful. For more resources on selecting new songs to lead, visit these online resources:
- Thoughts on Choosing and Leading Songs at Conferences (Worship Matters blog)
- How to Pick Songs for Your Service (Worship Together)
- How to Choose Songs for Your Church (North American Mission Board / Send)