When you have to choose worship songs, you know worship selection is no easy task.
You have to choose a song that people will sing, that you like playing, has a good message…the list goes on.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to fear finding the right music for your church. Sure, there’s a lot to consider, and you won’t get it right every time.
You’ll learn more from your failures than your successes in this area. Still, you want to have a healthy tally in the “win” section, and that’s why I put together a checklist of 25 things to look for in a good worship song.
You certainly don’t have to hit all 25, but finding a good song is more like finding a good car or place to live. If you hit 70-80 percent of your wish list, you’re doing great.
So without further ado, let’s get started!
1. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS WITH A GREAT MESSAGE
Most worship songs have biblical, theologically correct lyrics.
But when you’re writing a worship song, it’s easy to accidentally say something that’s not exactly theologically sound. Sometimes those songs gain traction and the church starts singing them en masse.
No one in your congregation is going to veer off the straight and narrow because of slightly off-base worship lyrics. Still, worship is teaching, so you want to avoid teaching the wrong things.
So teach well with the songs you choose.
2. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT HAVE ENOUGH “MEAT.”
Speaking of teaching, you might as well make sure you are teaching something when you are leading worship.
Sure, there are times when you want to sing the chorus of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” well, forever. But make sure you are choosing other worship songs that teach the Bible and character of God.
To put it in food terms, serve some meat along with dessert. A good worship song is not only catchy, but has people processing the lyrics all week.
One of the best examples I’ve ever heard is Stuart Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” It’s a musical and lyrical masterpiece, and teaches deep spiritual truths.
3. MAKE SURE THE LYRICS AREN’T DUMB.
This is related to the previous tip, but different.
Now, I’m sure a Christian worship song writer would ever compose “dumb” lyrics, but if that were to ever happen, please don’t sing the song.
When I was in youth group, I sang a song called “I Like Bananas.” There’s absolutely no reason anyone should ever sing this song.
Seriously. Just don’t.
4. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS IN YOUR CONGREGATION’S STYLE.
If an electric guitar has never darkened the door of your church, maybe you don’t want to choose a mid-2000s Hillsong United tune.
Sure, you can move your church in a certain direction, but don’t do it too fast. Choose songs that are not too far outside your church’s current comfort zone stylistically.
But let’s say you really like a song whose original version is too wild for your church’s taste. It’s OK to tone it down while capturing the essence of the song. Use keys or an acoustic guitar to bang out the basic rhythm and feel of the song.
You can play good song a thousand different ways and it will still carry meaning and power.
5. CHOOSE A SONG THAT YOUR BAND CAN PLAY.
There’s nothing worse than biting off more than you can chew as a worship team.
Many of us would like our teams to have all the talent and skill of Elevation Worship or Crowder. And most of us would love to be that artistic.
But sometimes we just can’t pull it off.
The rhythm is too complex, the guitar part too intricate, and the vocal range too wide.
Don’t worry. No one will fault you for being realistic about your skills. It’s better to really nail a very basic song than to flub through a tough one.
6. FIND A SONG THAT’S “YOU.”
You know the feeling if you’ve tried this before. A song really moves you, and the record sounds amazing. You try it, and it’s just not you.
I’ll probably never try a Kirk Franklin song. And I’m just not cool enough to pull off electronica.
“White guy with acoustic guitar” is about all I’ll ever achieve. And that’s OK. God put more talented and interesting people on the earth for a reason.
A song should feel comfortable and authentic to who you are. Don’t try to be someone else when leading worship. People are super perceptive. They can pick up when you’re trying to be someone you’re not.
So select songs with which you can be yourself.
7. SELECT A SONG YOU CAN SING.
There is a growing trend among high-level worship song writers to write songs that jump octaves.
They start out really low then jump an octave on verse two.
That’s great for these artists. The reason they’re famous is that they have incredible voices.
Unfortunately, not all of us are so blessed.
There are things you can do to a song when they require too wide a vocal range, to make them more singable for you and the congregation. But often, nothing can be done, so these songs must be put into the “won’t do” bucket for church.
Keep in mind that the church congregation probably has about 50 percent of your vocal ability. So if you struggle with it, church members won’t even try.
Pick songs where the lowest and highest notes are only about one octave apart. And don’t be afraid to change the original key to make it singable.
I rarely do a song in the same key as the original.
Remember that worship isn’t a performance, and it’s not a spectator sport. You want to make it easy for 99 percent of the congregation to join in.
8. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT ARE NOT PERFORMANCE PIECES.
Speaking of spectator-ism, choose songs that lend themselves to participation. That doesn’t mean just putting it in an easy key as mentioned above.
There are certain songs where people just tune out and watch. It could be because it’s too artsy, there are too many lyrics, it’s hard to sing or a number of other reasons.
For the most part, I avoid long instrumental solos, vocal riffs, choreography and such performance-based elements.
There’s a time and a place for those, and I love them. But I’m doing a disservice to the church by indulging in such things for my own pleasure.
Some worship songs just make people want to sit down, sip their coffee and watch. Choose songs that make them want to stand and sing.
9. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS WITHOUT LYRIC OVERLOAD.
Today’s worship song writers are no slouches when it comes to lyric writing.
I remember when worship songs fit on one page. Now I’m lucky to get a two-pager.
Here’s a common sequence for today’s worship songs:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
- Verse 3
- Verse 4
I love the effort demonstrated here, and I love these songs. But I wonder if the church will ever learn more than 25 percent of the words.
Most churchgoers come three of eight Sundays. So they may only hear a particular song a few times per year, even if we play it a lot.
I remember plenty of times where I’m totally sick of a song because I feel that we had played it too much.
Next thing you know, a member of the church asks what that new song was that we played.
The point is, at least have a selection of songs in your repertoire that are really basic and have few lyrics. Make sure they’re not all the Encyclopedia Britannica of worship music.
10. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT PASS THE WHISTLE TEST.
Can your church members whistle the tune of a new song after hearing it once?
That’s the test of a good song.
I heard that advice from worship leader and songwriter Bob Kilpatrick. He says the best songs are memorable and not that complicated.
So if you hear a song and are whistling it or singing it immediately, that’s probably a good sign that it’s a good candidate for your church.
11. CHOOSE A SONG THAT FITS WITH MANY THEMES.
You want your worship songs to fit thematically with the service.
What does that mean? For instance, if your pastor is preaching on the resurrection of Christ, maybe you want to do “Resurrecting” by Elevation, which tells the post-crucifixion story.
The thing is, you don’t want to try to teach your congregation a song that only fits with one Sunday’s message. You want to use that song again sometime.
For example, this Sunday’s sermon is about taming the tongue as James talks about.
You probably wouldn’t want to find a song called “Taming the Tongue.” That’s too specific to use again.
Instead, find a song that talks about surrender to Christ’s commands in general. You could use that in a variety of ways in the future.
12. THE SONG CAN FIT INTO ANY WORSHIP SETLIST.
Also, think about how a song will fit with other songs.
Typically, you don’t play a worship song by itself. It’s part of a larger set of songs that all blend together.
Do it right, and your worship set becomes one big song: You’ve planned and executed your transitions well.
In that spirit, pick songs that musically fit with other songs.
For example, you probably wouldn’t pick a song that has to be done hard-rock style when the rest of your songs are primarily acoustic.
Think of your library of songs as a spectrum, and pick songs that are within that range. Sure, you can stretch the spectrum one way or another slightly, but you don’t want to pick songs that are so far outside it that they will stick out like a sour note.
13. THE SONG IS NOT THE SAME TEMPO AS YOUR OTHER SONGS.
You may have heard of BPM, or beats per minute. It’s a measurement of song speed.
You can find a song’s BPM simply by Googling the song title, artist and “BPM.”
Many worship songs these days are around 70-75 BPM. Solidly mid-tempo. I love those songs, but sometimes I find that I’m doing three songs in a row that are all the same speed.
Playing too many songs in a row that have similar characteristics lulls the congregation into disengagement.
The point of doing the next song in the set is, well, to do the next song. It should jar participants a little and get them re-engaged.
So pick some songs that are around 60 BPM, then some that are around 80. Both those tempos are appropriate mid-set, but are different enough to stand out from each other.
14. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT YOU WILL DO IN A VARIETY OF KEYS.
Speaking of adding variety, don’t do more than two songs in a row in your worship set list in the same key, in general.
For instance, play one song in D, then the next in G, and so on. Look at the circle of 5ths to rotate between keys.
As is true for tempo (see above), playing too many songs in the same key lulls the congregation into disengagement.
If you select songs for your congregation that you’re only comfortable doing in C, for instance, you won’t have the flexibility to change keys within the set.
15. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS IN DIFFERENT TIME SIGNATURES.
There are a lot of good 4/4 songs out there, but go out looking for songs that are 3/4 or 6/8.
Here are some good ones:
I Surrender – Hillsong
Come as You Are – Crowder
There Is a Cloud – Elevation Worship
16. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT MEN CAN SING.
If you’re a female worship leader, don’t forget about the guys in your church.
Pick keys that might be a little high for you, knowing that men have “higher” voices—which really isn’t the case, it’s just that they sing in a different range. But it might feel to them like they are singing low when they sing with you.
Also, think thematically about what men would want to sing about.
Break out the intellectual stuff, like old hymns and modern ones, too. “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” by Stuart Townend is a good example.
Also, guys like guitars. Electric ones. Find and recruit a good lead guitarist, and pick songs with nice lead lines.
17. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT WOMEN CAN SING.
If you’re a male worship leader, don’t sing every song at the top of your range. You’ll lose the women, especially ones that don’t sing harmony.
It’s very nice that you have this wide vocal range, but choose songs that can be sung a little lower, and do so on a regular basis.
While women technically have higher voices, they sing in a different range. Your top notes are out of their range, usually, so they have to sing it an octave lower, or sing harmony.
Also, find songs that talk about love, devotion and worship. I think women like those themes, but I could be totally wrong, so ladies, please leave your advice in the comments below.
18. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT ALIGN WITH YOUR DIRECTION AS A CHURCH.
This applies to the musical as well as spiritual direction of your church.
Musical: There should be a musical direction you’re trying to take your church. The Word says to sing a new song to the Lord. I think that also means new styles. See what’s emerging in the world of worship. Find songs that challenge your congregation and worship team musically. Don’t overdo it, but push them ever so slightly in the direction you want to go each week with your song selection.
Spiritual: Maybe your church is turning into a missions-focused ministry. Maybe God is taking you into the realm of healing or spiritual gifts. Each church probably has its own gifting, just like each Christ follower does. As you transform into the church God has planned, choose songs that move you in that direction.
19. CHOOSE WORSHIP SONGS THAT ARE PARTICIPATORY.
Some churches are really good at the presentation side of music. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I bet in the old testament, the priests had the nicest clothes and put on the best show in town when they worshiped.
The only problem is that our society often responds to great presentations by standing and watching. In western culture, musical performances are often nonparticipatory.
So, whether you have lights, smoke machines or just a guy with a guitar under regular lights, pick songs that encourage engagement.
No crazy melodies, three-minute guitar solos, or Mariah Carey-esque vocal runs. Keep it simple so that everyone can join in. If you really want to show off what you got, do some pre- or post-service music, and go wild.