Planning Praise-And-Worship Style Worship

Themes: Biblical, Scholar, Worship Planning

Planning worship is sometimes problematic for leaders. Prayer is always the prelude to good planning; but the selection and ordering of songs for worship is also a spiritual activity. An effective leader compiles a master song list, allows a theme to influence his or her selections, anticipates the mood of the congregation, and takes into account the musical and lyrical content of each piece. When these preparations are carried out diligently, the leader will be able to lead the people gently into the presence of God.

Perhaps you’ve read the Scripture, “No temptation hath overtaken you but such as is common to all worship leaders.” When I open things up at worship seminars, the questions worship leaders ask are amazingly similar from coast to coast. And one of the questions I invariably am asked is, “How do you plan for worship?”

When we think of planning a worship service, we immediately think of things like song titles, themes, musical keys, and tempo transitions. But that’s only 10 percent of the worship leader’s preparation. The bulk of the leader’s preparation takes place on his or her knees.

Planning worship is much more than stringing a lineup of songs together. The only way to be able to plan a worship service is by sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the only way to gain that kind of sensitivity is by cultivating an intimate relationship with the Lord. The first building block in service preparation is a personal commitment to daily devotional communion with the Lord—time spent in prayer and in the Scriptures. That’s 90 percent of the leader’s preparation.

But the purpose of this entry is to focus on the 10 percent. I believe that God, in his foreknowledge and infinite wisdom, is able to give us guidance for a worship service several days early. That gives us enough time to practice the new songs, rehearse the old ones, and get everything prepared well in advance.

In Defense of Planning

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of service planning, let me put in a plug for the concept of planning itself. Some people seem to feel that the most spiritual thing a worship leader can possibly do is come to the worship service without a list of songs, and depend completely upon the leading of the Holy Spirit for content as the service unfolds.

I see a couple of problems with that approach. It’s easy to “freeze up” when you get before a group of people. If you don’t have a list of songs in front of you, your mind can go blank, and suddenly you can’t recall a single song your church knows. A lack of predetermined direction can also reduce the worship leader to “fishing”—“casting forth” a variety of songs in the hope that the people will “bite” at least one of them. Finally, when you fall back on a chorus that really worked last week and nothing happens this week, it’s always safe to revert to the age-old words, “You may be seated as we turn the service over to the pastor.”

Planning brings purpose to a service

It enables you to relax and lead with confidence, which in turn relaxes the congregation. The musicians can have their music before them, contributing to musical cohesiveness. Planning is one of the most spiritual things you’ll do.

Sticking to the List

I have often been asked, “Do you find yourself sometimes discarding your song list during times of worship because of an unforeseen turn in the direction of the Spirit?” Let me answer by saying, first, that the Holy Spirit introduces many changes in our worship services that I do not anticipate. And thank God that he does! That’s where the freshness is. And that’s also where we worship leaders learn that blessed posture of complete dependence upon the Lord. If we knew exactly where the Holy Spirit was going to be taking us every service, our worship would become “man-made” and would be directed through human manipulation. How refreshing when a prophecy or an exhortation or a Scripture reading directs the course of a service in an unplanned way.

Having said that, I’ll answer the question more directly. I rarely find myself discarding my song list or adding a song that isn’t on my list. Let me explain why. We’re going along through the worship service according to plans and then suddenly someone leads out in a passionate prayer that directs our hearts in a very specific and unexpected way. My first thought is, “What song should I choose now?” Then I look down at my prepared list (and this has happened to me repeatedly) and I find that one of the songs on my list fits beautifully as a response to the prophetic prayer that just came. It is indeed the rare occasion when I find I need to move outside my prepared list to provide a song with a fitting response. Even though I didn’t know on Tuesday what would be happening that Sunday, the Lord did, and he guided my planning on Tuesday.

A Master Song List

I maintain (with the help of a computer) what I call a “master song list.” Since hymnals are already indexed with songs in assigned categories, my master song list contains mostly the short choruses and Scripture songs that are currently in our repertoire.

Songs are divided first of all into two main categories, fast and slow. There are some medium-tempo songs that are great transition songs from fast to slow, but since they are relatively few in number, I assign them to either the fast or slow category. Under the fast and slow categories, I then arrange all the songs according to keys. Usually the first line of the song works best as the song title. Then, all the songs in the key of C are listed in alphabetical order, as are the songs in the key of D, etc. I will also note whether we sing a certain song in more than one key by placing the alternate key in parentheses after the song title.

I put all the fast songs on one sheet, all the slow songs on another, reduce them both down on a photocopier, paste the copies back to back, put protective plastic around them, and I have it: a master song list that slips into the cover of my Bible and sits up nicely on a music stand. It’s my companion through every worship service I lead.

I finish off the master list with a couple of final touches. I’ll add a column of communion songs, another column of Christmas songs, another of “openers,” and yet another list that I dub “altar call.” This last grouping is very helpful when planning the closing portions of a service.

About once a year, I update the master list. I’ll delete the songs that have no more mileage left in them, and I’ll add the new songs we’ve learned. This master song list then becomes my trusty companion (along with our hymnal) when I’m planning a worship service.

Choosing That First Song

Here’s where we sweep away the mystical aura that surrounds service preparation. Some people think we wait until we hear an audible voice from heaven that says, “Start with ‘This Is the Day.’ ”

Some worship leaders really wrestle with this area. They pray like this: “This is the day. I will enter his gates. This is the day. I will enter his gates. O God, what’s your will? This is the day. I will enter his gates. Which song should I start the service with, Lord? This is the day. I will enter his gates. Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth. This is the day. I will enter his gates. O God!” And so they agonize. Meanwhile, God’s up in heaven saying to himself, “I couldn’t care less which song you start with. All I’m interested in is, whatever songs you sing, that you open your hearts to me.” Can’t you see it? God doesn’t have a predetermined list in heaven that I have to figure out if we’re going to have a Spirit-led worship service. Above all else, God wants communion with his people. He wants us to open our hearts to him no matter which songs the worship leader chooses.

I’d like to paint the backdrop for you of a hypothetical experiment. Suppose we got the five most anointed worship leaders in America today, took them aside, and said to each one, “We want you to fast and pray all day today, and come up with the list, come up with the will of God for this Sunday.” Do you suppose they would supply us with identical lists? I think we’d find that all five lists would be very different. What’s more, I think all five lists would “work” very well.

“But I thought we had to find the will of God for each service!” The will of God isn’t a song list. The will of God is that we lower the self-protective barriers we erect in our hearts, allowing the Lord to melt every way in which we resist the gentle overtures of the Holy Spirit; the will of God is that we enter into the glorious intimacy of relationship that God intended from the start when he created man. The wise worship leader will build a service song list in such a way as to best achieve that goal.

Following a Theme. Some pastors will give their worship leader a theme for the worship service. If the pastor is preaching on the blood of Christ, every song is expected to mention the word blood. In my opinion, it’s very possible to have a worship service that is clever in its following and expanding a given theme in preparation for the sermon, but in the end inspire a very uninspiring worship .

I am both the preacher (pastor) and worship leader at our church. And in all honesty, only occasionally do I pay attention to the theme of my sermon when I’m planning the worship service. Because the question for me is not, “Does every song point toward the sermon?” The question for me is, “Will this lineup of songs enable us to open our hearts to the Lord, so that we’ll be prepared to hear whatever he has to say to us?” I would much rather have an enthusiastic praise service that ministers both to the Lord and to his people than have a worship service in which every song points to a certain theme.

So relax on the whole business of trying to get all the songs to line up according to one theme. (Special occasions such as Christmas are an obvious exception.)

The Moods of Worship

One of the first things I do is ask myself, “What kind of mood am I in? Am I in the mood to celebrate and rejoice this Sunday? Or do I feel more in a pensive, prayerful mood?” Sometimes my own moods point to the general mood the congregation when they come to the Sunday service. That in turn helps me determine the general direction of my song selection.

I have labeled what I see as eight “moods” or “flavors” of worship. Virtually all of our songs fall into one of the following categories: exaltation, intimacy, celebration, proclamation, warfare, prophetic, prayer, and special occasions (such as Christmas and Easter).

Before selecting songs, you may want to predict the general moods or flavors that you feel will characterize Sunday’s worship service. Any one service will be confined to perhaps just two or three of the above moods, but over the course of time, a well-balanced menu of worship would mean the proper inclusion of all eight moods of worship.

The Process of Song Selection

Here’s how I choose songs for Sunday morning worship. I scan through the index of the hymnal and choose a few hymns that I feel interested in singing. Then I scan through the “fast” side of the master song list and choose three or four songs that stand out to me. Turning to the “slow” side of the list, I then choose about three slow worship choruses.

This may sound like an “unspiritual” process I’m describing, but I sincerely trust the Lord to stir my heart as I go over the song titles, putting a desire within me to sing the songs that will best contribute to a flow of worship on Sunday.

Then I begin to arrange the song titles according to the best sequence. Several factors need to be considered:

The Key of Each Song

I try to position songs in such a way that the transition from the first key to the second key is smooth. For example, if one song is in the key of F and another in the key of G, I would consider singing the song that’s in the key of F first, because it is easier to move up from the key of F to the key of G than it is to move down from G to F.

The “Mood” or Tempo of Each Song

Generally, I find myself drawn toward singing up-tempo, celebrative songs near the beginning of the service, moving into slower songs of intimacy and exaltation later in the service. (This is not a set formula—the Holy Spirit will lead you to invert that order at times.) Also, I tend to group the fast songs together, and then do the slower songs afterward.

The Lyrical Content of Each Song

For example, if the song is inviting us into God’s presence with praise, obviously I would want to position that song at the top of my lineup.

The first three minutes of a worship service are often the most critical. Therefore, the first few songs you choose—along with the way you introduce them—are very important. Choose songs that invite participation, that get hands clapping, that focus minds on the reason we’re gathered. Start with up-tempo songs that win the hearts of the children as well. Mobilize that royal priesthood of God’s people into their holy calling of declaring his glorious praises! (See 1 Pet. 2:9.)

In planning the service’s opening, I have to keep reminding myself of the true condition of many saints on Sunday morning. It’s easy to assume that they’ve been feeding in the Word, getting renewed daily in the Holy Spirit, warding off every evil scheme of the devil, impacting their circle of friends with their vibrant witness—and now they’ve come with eager anticipation to join their voices with other holy saints in the corporate declaration of God’s awesome praises. But I must remind myself that many people come to our services in a state of spiritual exhaustion. They’ve been living in the war zone, and many are fortunate to have made it to the service at all. The words and music I choose must reflect a sensitivity to where the people are, along with an eye toward the goal of where I want to bring them.

Once I have the songs listed in the order I want to sing them, I will then rehearse the entire worship service in my mind. I will imagine myself moving from one key to the next. Will that key transition work? Then I consider the “flow” of the moods from one song to the next. Is the progression of moods natural and inviting? Finally, I will picture where I want the people to have come by the end of the worship service. Perhaps it will be a place of high exaltation or loving adoration or bowing in humility and reverence. I will certainly want our hearts to have risen to new heights of faith as we have beheld through worship the glory of our risen Lord. The goal of the worship ministry is to stir up the holy passions of God’s people. Will this list of songs in this particular order help us to move corporately toward that goal?

Planning an Exhortation

Now that my song list is intact, I need to plan for one other eventuality: what if, after leading with this wonderfully crafted list of songs, the people just don’t enter in to worship? Maybe they’re tired; maybe they had a fight on the way to church; maybe they’re distracted; maybe they haven’t prayed since last Sunday. Whatever the reason, one of the best tools I’ve discovered for inspiring a response in the congregation is that of exhortation.

Please understand, I’m not talking about a sermonette. I’m referring to about twenty to forty seconds of a brief, positive encouragement to participate, followed right away by a repeat of the song.

Exhortations are often most effective when planned ahead of time. You can choose your words carefully, making the most of the thirty seconds. As you spend time in the Word, ask God to place something meaningful in your heart so that when you share, others are edified. And usually the best weapon in a short exhortation is a Scripture. Read the Scripture, deliver a short and cheerful exhortation, and invite the people to join you in the song one more time.

Here is what not to do. Don’t say, “What’s wrong with you people this morning? Is anybody aware out there? It sounds like a funeral in here this morning!” Mr. Pew-warmer will say to himself, “You’re right, I was out of it. But since you’re going to be nasty about it, see if you can make me worship!” As we all know, nobody can force a person to worship. Worship is a willing response to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Some worship leaders talk between every song, which breaks up the flow of the service. One or two short exhortations per service is usually adequate. Be the worship leader, not the preacher. Be encouraging, pleasant, enthused, inspiring. Let the warmth of Christ’s love in your heart melt the resistance of cold hearts that may need fanning.

Planning New Songs

New songs play a critical role in the worship expression of a local church. If you’re not learning new songs, you’re stagnating. New songs force us to think. They expand our vocabulary of worship. And they bring with them a breeze of freshness. The new songs you choose to add to your repertoire will determine the future direction of your times of corporate worship.

Be picky, picky, picky. Look at the words and the style of the musical expression. Does the message add something to your church’s breadth of communication? Does the musical style of the song add spice or depth?

Plan how and when you’ll introduce new songs. I usually teach new songs near the beginning portions of a service. That way there’s room for the worship service to “take off” afterward with a known song. But if I interrupt “high praise” with the teaching of a new song, the crescendo collapses immediately, and the new song gains the stigma of being a “dud.”

Plan the reinforcement of new songs carefully. If we taught a song for the first time last week, it’s important that we reinforce it this week, and possibly even the week after that. But then we’d better leave it alone for two or three weeks so folks don’t get tired of it.

In summary, the worship leader’s job in planning is to craft a list of songs that will best help the congregation to open up to the Lord. Using tools such as short exhortations, the use of Scripture, and spiritual gifts, a worship leader has the awesome and wonderful privilege of leading people into the very presence of God.

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