A couple of weeks ago, Matt Wagner did a fantastic job of instructing us on the kinds of songs we should choose for our churches to sing. Now that we know what to look for in songs, we are going to take it a step further and give you a look into how we actually structure our worship setlists. While there are many great methods for crafting a worship setlist, this has proven to be the most effective in our context.
It all starts with the Word of God.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16 ESV)
From this scripture we see that singing is more than just entertainment or even preparing the heart to receive a sermon. Rather, singing itself serves to teach and admonish the body of Christ. More than that though, singing is actually how the Word of Christ takes root and dwells richly in the life of the believer. In light of this, when planning our worship setlists, we begin with the Word of God.
"Singing is how the Word of Christ takes root and dwells richly in the life of the believer."
What Text Is Being Preached?
Before thinking about what songs we would like to sing on a given Sunday, we first study the text of scripture our pastor will be preaching from. As we begin this endeavor, I have always found it beneficial to pray and ask the Lord to send His Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ (Eph. 1:17) and then subsequently read the text over and over again. Another best practice we've found to accompany this effort is to be reading through the same commentaries that our pastors have been studying from; this ensures we are all headed in the same direction from the earliest stages of planning.
"Dude, that sounds like a lot of work... why is it important?"
Well, since singing is how we "let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly," we endeavor to have our songs undergird the sermon by teaching the same truths! Think about it... while you may listen to your favorite sermon three of four times in your lifetime, you will sing your favorite song hundreds, if not thousands, of times! Therefore, we aim to reinforce the big idea of the message with songs that are saturated in scripture, rich in sound doctrine, and similar in content "so that the servant of God may be equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17)." Music is a powerful tool. Dr. Tony Merida said it well, "Music is portable theology; it's theology we carry around with us." While people won't necessarily remember every point of the sermon, they will have the songs you sing on Sunday in their head and on their lips throughout the week. There is power in reiterating the sermon's content through song!
"There is power in reiterating the sermon's content through song!"
The Need for Intentionality in Song Placement
Now that we have studied the text that is being preached and have some songs in mind that will reinforce the big idea that is being communicated that weekend, the next thing we look to do is intentionally order the songs, or structure the setlist, to produce the most effective results.
Let's be honest, the average church attender does not show up on Sunday morning ready to lift their hands in the air and declare from their heart “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come! ...Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (Rev. 4:8, 11).” Rather, we must remember that our people need to be shepherded into the presence of God. Like each one of us, throughout a given week our congregation struggles with sin, sickness, loss, depression, and many other things we are often unaware of. For some, it took everything they had just to get through the doors of our building that morning. It's negligence on our part to not have an intentional process for shepherding God's people through the worship gathering.
"It's negligent to not have an intentional process for shepherding God's people through the worship gathering."
The Five Thematic Phases
To ensure we are shepherding the hearts of our people well, at ONElife we focus on Five Thematic Phases when planning our setlists:
Songs of Gathering
Songs of Gathering serve as our "call to worship," if you will; they are where our ascension to the throne of God begins. These songs ask God to focus our eyes upon him and away from ourselves. These songs are asking God to come down by His Spirit and meet with us in power. These songs really seek to give us a singleness of mind, looking to Jesus, because our worship begins not when the band begins playing, when the deacon prays, or when the pastor preaches, but instead when we remember who God is and all He has done... and our hearts rejoice.
Songs of Testimony
Songs of Testimony serve to remind us of God's faithfulness from the dawn of creation until now. These songs tell of what God has done in my life/your life/our lives/the life of the Church, etc. As I stated above, our worship begins when we remember who God is and all that He has done, so it only seems fitting that on our way to His throne, we put his work in our lives before our eyes to remind our hearts of his goodness.
Songs of Ascription
Songs of Ascription speak solely of who God is, with little to no mention of 'me,' 'I,' 'us,' or 'we.' This is our throne room worship. This where we transition from worshiping God because of what he has done for 'me' and 'us' to worshiping God simply for who He is in essence. These songs speak of the character of God.
This third phase always proves to be the most difficult to find songs for! We are not always able to escape the 'me' and 'I,' so a good test of whether or not a song will serve this phase well is the question, "What does the chorus say?" If the chorus omits me-centeredness, it's usually a good fit, even if it finds its way into other places.
Song of Response
A Song of Response is the song that is sung right after our sermon. It is exactly what it sounds like; the pastor has just finished preaching and now the question is, "What will we do with what we have heard from God?" This song is our response to what the Word of God has taught us this day. While the goal is for all of our songs to be working together to communicate the same message that is being preached from the pulpit, this song needs to have the clearest connection and call to action to the main point of the sermon. (These songs are often more reflective and thus slower in tempo.)
Recently our lead pastor preached through Jonah 4. In chapter four, Jonah takes delight in something God created over God himself; Jonah was "exceedingly glad" that this plant had sprung up, giving him shade from the harsh weather as he waited to see what would become of Ninevah. Jonah was so upset when God appointed a worm to destroy the plant that he essentially asks God to kill him. The implication was that we do the same thing today. Rather than our delight being in the Creator God, we often take the good things God has created and turn them into functional gods ; when good things become god things they turn into bad things. As believers, we need to repent of such idols in our lives and cling to the one true God.
So, our song of response after that sermon was 'Jesus Is Better' by Austin Stone Worship, which boldy declares "Glory Glory! We have no other king but Jesus Lord of All." The bridge then pleads with God to make our hearts believe that He is better than any sorrow, than any victory, than any comfort, and any of amount of riches. As you can see, this song clearly hit on the major thrust of the sermon and thus provided a great opportunity for us to respond to God; while our intellect knows "there is no other so sure and steady" our hearts often deceive us, to which we were able to plead as a church, "make my heart believe" what my intellect knows to be true!
Song of Summary
While our Song of Response is typically slower and more introspective, our Song of Summary is where we ramp things back up to send our people off feeling energized and equipped to live their lives on mission to the glory of God in the coming week. Whereas our Song of Response is our call to action, our Song of Summary endeavors to summarize the overarching theme that was taught throughout the day.
This coming Sunday we will be working through 1 Timothy 4. In chapter four, Paul shares with Timothy, his young disciple, that as a pastor he is going to witness people departing from the faith because of false teachings from outsiders. Paul then explains that in being a good shepherd of his congregation, Timothy needs to first be a good servant of Jesus Christ. Paul then breaks down being a "good servant of Jesus Christ" into three qualities: knowing sound doctrine, Timothy displaying sound doctrine in the way he lives his day-to-day life, and teaching sound doctrine, because "by doing so [he] will save both [himself] and [his] hearers (v. 16)." The big idea of 1 Timothy 4? Doctrine: know it, show it, and teach it. Without sound doctrine being modeled in those three areas of the minister's life, the flock is sure to fall away.
Given the text, the song I have selected to be our Song of Summary this Sunday is 'The Lord Our God' by Passion. The first verse speaks of God bringing what he has begun in the Church to completion; this is a great reminder that while we do, from time to time, witness people stepping out of Orthodox Christianity and into the realm of heresy, Jesus is faithful to build His Church and our teaching of sound doctrine is part of His plan to accomplish that work! The song then proceeds into the chorus which speaks of God's immutable characteristics and how because He is ever-faithful and never-changing, we can trust Him to lead us through the darker seasons of life. Next is the second verse, which talks about God's goodness in all, because all of His plans are for his glory. Lastly, and most emphatically, the bridge declares, "We won't move without You / You're the light of all and all that we need." We will thus leave our Sunday gathering with the resolve that we will not move from God's Word, but will rather strive know it, show it, and teach it in all aspects of our life, because He alone is our provision and He is good!
While we strive to do everything with excellence, our setlists won't always come together as well as we had hoped and we won't always tackle the Five Thematic Phases with the precision we aspire... but that's okay! Our goal as worship leaders is not to craft and perfectly execute a setlist, but rather to lead the Church in beholding the glory of Christ; this methodology is just a blueprint to help serve that end.
"Our goal is not to craft and perfectly execute a setlist, but to lead the Church in beholding the glory of Christ."
If you have any questions about this topic, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments below! We would be more than happy to provide you with further explanation, additional song examples for each phase, and even recent setlists accompanied with the text that was preached.
Contributor / Dan Dameron
Dan Dameron is the Pastor of Worship at ONElife Church in Flint, MI and Founder of ONElife Worship.