NOTE: This article originally appeared here on the 9Marks blog.
For many, the “set” of music that comprises the main part of a church’s Sunday service is a bit like the glass sculpture on top of my grandmother’s bookshelf: You can’t touch it.
The worship set is something of a fixture among evangelical congregations, whether the music is accompanied by a choir and orchestra or by an eight-piece indie-folk band. Step into a church sometime between the opening greeting and the sermon, and you’ll likely find yourself in the middle of a 20-30 minute block of music.
So, what exactly is the worship set? And should it be a given in our churches?
Simply put, the worship set is a consecutive group of deliberately chosen worship songs or hymns. It reflects forethought and creativity. It’s a far better option than picking a few popular songs and tossing them up on the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Similar to a meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert, the worship set follows a dynamic arc or storyline.
A set might begin with a call to worship or song of invitation. This song sets a particular theme and invites worshipers to praise God. Next, a couple more songs develop the theme both musically and lyrically. This is the “entrée” portion. If the first song focused on the character of God, these selections might move the church to consider our sin and redemption in Christ. The final song of the set is the theological and musical climax. It could consist of a celebration of the resurrection, or a call to respond in faith and discipleship, or simply a declaration of praise.
Bob Kauflin argues for this kind of deliberate thematic development in his book Worship Matters, and he outlines a number of helpful worship set frameworks to try.
On the whole, I think the worship set is a wonderful idea if it is used well. In a former church, serving as director of worship, I devoted substantial time each week to crafting and preparing sets of music. My hope was that this process would aid believers in responding to God in robust praise with their heads and their hearts, and I believe God blessed this effort.
The worship set can be a God-glorifying approach because deliberately shaping the order of songs aids in “the strengthening of the church” that is to characterize our corporate praise (1 Cor. 14:26). It unifies the songs around a central concept, which promotes understanding.
If used well, the worship set prepares the congregation for the specific questions and priorities that the sermon will address. Like a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, a worship set can capture our imagination and help us engage with God through the implicit story being told in the sequence of songs.
The worship set: Potential pitfalls and solutions.
So I don’t want to declare that the worship set is a terrible concept altogether. But I do want to take that glass sculpture off grandma’s shelf and see if it can be improved.
Why? While the worship set has much to commend it, it’s not without dangers.
Here are three potential pitfalls it presents. For each, I’ll identify some ways to think and move “beyond” the worship set.