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3 Ways to Design a Better Worship Setlist

When I first started leading worship in my teens and early twenties, my understanding of how to choose a worship setlist was something like: start fast and loud, end slow and low. Oh and pick songs that are in the same keys if possible. Simple! Well. That’s mostly because at that point in my life, I hadn’t learned much about the purpose of the worship gathering, or my role in guiding the congregation on a journey with God. That wasn’t the way I was thinking OR leading. Now over a decade later, my mindset has shifted significantly through my journey with Worship School, Seminary, and just experience leading! I’d love to share 3 suggestions for better worship setlist design to offer some insights on how to be more thoughtful and intentional in the songs we choose, and even the order of those songs. Then I’ll hit a few rapid-fire pointers to close.

These aren’t the ONLY considerations for planning a setlist by any means, but hopefully you’ll walk away with a few more tools in your belt. 

Revelation Comes Before Response.

God is always the initiator. Everything we are and everything we do is in response to who He has revealed Himself to be.

For this reason, start your worship sets with songs that focus mostly on objective truth about who GOD is and what He’s done.

If people are walking in on a Sunday morning and immediately singing about their own experience or perspective, we’ve got it backwards. 

To begin singing about our response – or framed differently, what WE feel or think, or how WE’re going to act or behave – before we’ve first acknowledged who God is and what He’s done is putting the cart before the horse! In practice, though the congregation likely won’t be able to articulate it, they will probably feel like it’s harder to engage in those types of songs right off the bat. 

Consider the Flow of Ideas.

Our setlists shouldn’t feel like one standalone song after another, with no connection between them. Think about the story you’re telling with the arc of your worship! The trick here is that meaning can be drawn in either direction. You can either start by thinking about the story you want to tell, and then choose songs that help tell that story. Or if there are certain songs you’re really hoping to include in a particular morning, take a step back and look at what themes those songs convey. Then put them in an order where you CAN tell a story – where the ideas DO somehow connect or build on each other. 

You are helping guide the prayerful conversation people are having with the Holy One. You are facilitating their hearts being prepared to enter into the Holy of Holies. That doesn’t happen haphazardly.

And you can’t realistically tell the entire gospel story every single week. But what part can you tell? What truth about God and His heart for them can you remind people of this week?

Designing Around a Theme?

Not all churches consider the sermon theme in their worship set planning, but if yours does, here is something to consider. (And this idea works for any themed service, whether it’s a ‘sermon’ or not.) By now you’ve probably noticed some topics are pretty easy to choose songs around, while others are a lot tougher! Let me offer another angle of approach, particularly for those latter situations.

Ask yourself things like, “What would need to be cultivated in my spiritual life in order to lean into this idea more fully?” “What would lead me to understand or practice this in my life?” “What attribute of God is displayed as I reflect on this topic?”

Basically, start asking questions that come at the idea from different perspectives, and make sure to lead your congregation through that in the moment (concisely, of course). 

For example, if your theme is about giving or generosity, you could lead songs about God’s provision and Him being the giver of good gifts, yes. But you could also lead songs about His goodness and how knowing His character leads you to trust Him with everything you have. If the theme is about sabbath, your mind might first go to songs about rest or abiding, and that absolutely works. But what about faith? Isn’t resting also an act of faith that God will sustain while you release and take your own hands off your life? Hopefully you get the idea. When you begin to think this way, it massively expands the song possibilities!

Those are my TOP 3 suggestions on overall setlist design. Obviously for blog purposes I’m limited on what all can be said in a space like this, BUT I’m going to end with a quick rapid-fire closer of a few tried and true things that don’t think require much explanation:

  • If you’re co-leading the set with trusted leaders OR those you’re discipling, invite them into the song selection process! I really can’t recommend this enough, even though I know it’s easier to do it yourself. You make the ultimate call, but collaborative leadership is a beautiful thing. Explain your thought process along the way so they catch on.
  • Everyone loves tagging an old favorite, familiar chorus onto a song that has the same theme – just get ready for the congregation to start singing 50% louder the moment you do! It’s worth making a list of good tag-worthy choruses 🙂
  • Be careful not to introduce too many new or newish songs on a given Sunday. The point of the congregational service is for it to be congregational – in other words, for there to be a high level of participation. And the average church goer only attends church maybe twice a month these days. It takes time for a new song to become familiar to most people. 
  • Plan out what you’re going to say between songs or during musical interludes for any spoken moment of prayer or exhortation. Literally write it out. Practice it. I cannot tell you how important this is! People don’t magically become great at communicating from the platform by winging it over and over again. They work out that skill in the secret place where they can allow the Spirit to speak to and through them, and over years of doing this, they build up the ability to speak naturally and with authority. Every time you open your mouth from the platform, you bear a great responsibility. It’s worth the time. 
  • Lastly, keep listening to the Lord and learning to express adoration to Him in new ways! If we as Worship Leaders get bored with the week to week grind (and we’ve all been there), it may mean it’s time for a little break or some fresh inspiration. No shame, but DO take the time to prioritize your soul care for the sake of your congregation.

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