Building a Set List: Where to Start

where to start

Each week, worship leaders are given a fresh opportunity to choose songs to put on people’s lips when they come together on Sunday. In a church with an informal liturgy, the slate is more blank than at a church with a more formal liturgy, but in either case, a worship leader who chooses the songs will look at anywhere from three to ten blank slots that he’s tasked to fill in. Where to start?

Some weeks it all seems to come together. And some weeks it doesn’t. There’s a lot to think about when choosing songs, and a lot of different voices and influences swirling in our heads, all fighting for the position of greatest influence as we make our choices.

Keys. Tempos. Old. New. Fits with the sermon. Right theology. Gospel-centeredness. Accessible. Singable. Fresh. Not stale. Can we pull it off? Done too recently. Cool. Wordy. The list goes on.

I’ve found it helpful, when looking at a blank slate each week and wondering where to start, of thinking about things in terms of the core and an angle. Thinking about choosing songs in this way helps me press the mute button on factors that, at the end of the day, should not impact my responsibility of choosing songs that serve the congregation, or the pause button on factors that need to wait until more things are decided.

Building a Set List: Where to Start

1. The Core

The core of your service, and thus the core of your songs, every week, should be the proclamation again and again of the good news of the Gospel. The good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ shouldn’t just pop up in a song here or there, or once every couple of months when “In Christ Alone” appears in your set list, or by accident when you happen to put two songs back-to-back that focus on the finished work of Jesus. Every service, every Sunday, and every set list needs to be fundamentally, at its core, centered around the gospel.

2. An Angle

The angle of your service, and thus the angle of your songs, is different from week to week. This is determined mostly by what scriptures are being read, and what the theme of the message is. I look at the songs that respond to the message (i.e. that come right after it) as being the songs that are most “angled” in their selection (and heavily influenced by reading the sermon transcript, or asking the preacher if he has any recommendations or ideas). These songs are attached to the core (the gospel), but can point to it from a variety of angles. They help your congregation articulate different responses to the preaching of the word. They help highlight different facets of God’s character. They help articulate different (and biblical) expressions of praise, lament, prayer, or proclamation. They bring variety. They aren’t the main course but they complement the main course.

So when you look at a blank slate each week and wonder where to start, start with the core. Make sure the main focus is the preaching of the gospel through song. Make sure it’s central, clear, and cohesive. And then think about ways to approach that core through a particular angle, influenced most heavily by the scriptures, but also taking into account other factors (whether there’s communion, baptisms, some sort of presentation, a national event of some significance, or a big day on the church calendar).

Where to start? Start with substance. Start with getting a grasp of the narrative of your songs. Then you can consider other factors like keys, tempos, etc., to make sure it works musically and makes sense congregationally.


This article on where to start building a set list originally appeared here, and is used by permission.

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Jamie was born and raised in Florida as a preacher’s kid. Since age 14, he has been leading worship pretty much every Sunday of his life, experiencing all of the joys and trials of church ministry. For over 10 years, Jamie has been writing at his blog, Worthily Magnify, in the hopes of helping worship leaders lead better. In 2006, Jamie married Catherine, and they now have four wonderful kids: Megan, Emma, Callie, and Jacob, who keep them busy, laughing, praying, and very grateful to God.