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Q: How do I pick songs for a specific passage of scripture my pastor is speaking on?

A: I’ll never understand a worship set that has nothing to do with the accompanying sermon. It is such a wasted opportunity when we arbitrarily pick songs that people may like yet don’t serve to orient us towards where the pastor is about to take us, or don’t pick up from where the sermon lands and keep us moving in the same direction. 

Because the pastor is the senior leader (and my role is to support that leader), I always aim to follow his or her cues when planning a worship set. I have to know what direction they’re going, so I can plan accordingly. The sermon will have a current, like a river, and I want to do everything I can to get us moving in that same direction before the sermon even starts. I want to especially pay attention to facilitate a fitting response to what the sermon requires after the fact: is it repentance? Surrender? Celebration? Commissioning? Trust? Whatever that sermon is challenging us to do, I want to plan worship songs that articulate that response exactly. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve built up quite a folder of word documents and PDFs with chord charts and lyric sheets. This has proven so helpful for me to have a searchable bank of several thousand songs. When I hear from the pastor about the sermon topic, I read the text, and begin jotting down key themes. This past week we were in James 5, about what to do in our seasons of waiting. I searched through my folder for words like patient, patience, wait, waiting, etc. What I love about this is I’m often reminded of songs I’d completely forgotten about, but songs that fit perfectly with the sermon. (A great thing about those old tunes is that people still remember them, but aren’t tired of them.)

Anytime I try to do this in my head (without searching through the folder) I end up remembering about 10% of what that search would’ve revealed. A few songs we ended up using this past week that I would not have thought of otherwise were the old Kathryn Scott / Vineyard tune, “Hungry, I come to You” because of that pre-chorus: “So I wait, for You; so I wait for You.” It was so refreshing to sing that old song again after not singing it for about a decade. We also did the 10,000 Fathers song “All things Together,” which starts with “In my longing, in my waiting.” We sang that right after the sermon and it couldn’t have been more seamless. 

The next step I’ll try to take is to think through what might be the next step in that direction. I don’t want to just sing 5 songs about the same theme; I’d like to develop the movement to, through, and from that theme over the progression of the setlist. So instead of 2 songs about waiting on the Lord, we did one (“All things Together”), then we sang “Trust You Jesus.” That song doesn’t mention waiting, but the entire lyric is about committing to trust the Lord. It’s a great next step after acknowledging the waiting, to say that through it all, we will still trust You.

To be sure, I don’t think every song needs to fit perfectly–often the very opening song won’t have much to do at all with the sermon; it needs to be uptempo-ish and familiar or whatever else, but as soon as I’m able, I’ll start getting us moving in the direction of the current that the bulk of the service will be heading. 

One last benefit of this approach is that you may end up finding holes in your repertoire; let’s say the sermon is about our need to forgive people. Or even love people. Good luck finding top 10 songs about that! You’ll quickly start to spot gaps in the lexicon. We’ve got many great options for many strong themes, but we are strikingly short of songs for so many key themes in scripture. This will help you identify areas to prioritize in your songwriting. (Matt Papa and I write a lot of hymns like this; identifying areas where there just aren’t any/many great options, and working towards it. This theme of being a forgiving people ended up in a new hymn I hope we get to release soon, called “God of Forgiveness.” 10,000 Fathers put out a song about loving one another in response to that gap; that one’s called “Let us be known.”)