Leading Worship: Building a Song Repertoire

Happy Thursday!

I love being a worship pastor. I love arranging music, teaching parts, and selecting songs. I love singing our church through the good and the difficult times, and I love that worshipful music has a way of prophesying life over hopeless situations reflected on weary and anxious faces. I love teaching about the darkness-fighting, light-bringing, atmosphere-shifting power of worship, and I love the inevitable breakthrough that happens as we worship. I love that Jesus loves our worship… and that our worship makes much of Him, putting everything in its proper place.

And I love discipling other worship pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers.

It’s been a while since I blogged specifically about an element of facilitating worship at church, but I’d like to hit on an uber practical aspect this morning: a song repertoire.

Maybe it’s because we are launching a new campus, so a new song repertoire is in the works by our team… but a song repertoire has proven to be a quintessential, albeit understated, asset to an effective worship ministry, and unfortunately it also remains one of the most overlooked spokes of the wheel—even ignored altogether.

But, what is a song repertoire?

Not surprisingly, a song repertoire is a list of songs that your church sings. For numerous churches of a liturgical context, this repertoire is often the songs contained within the pages of their hymnal. For others, perhaps the repertoire is whatever the top 20 songs are currently on Christian radio. Many churches fall somewhere in between, or a blend of both.

Why is having a song repertoire important?

For the “why,” let me share with you a snippet of my personal philosophy on leading worship. Because philosophy is such a conceptual, intangible, and oftentimes developing notion, you are most certainly allowed to differ in your worship approach—but prayerfully, I hope that what I’ve found to be true will be an invaluable resource for you, your team, and your context.

Imagine this (maybe all too familiar) scenario: you are attending a church service, and the worship team opens with an incredible song that is new to you. You clap along enthusiastically, singing with your eyes on the screens where lyrics are projected, and by the third chorus, you are familiar with the melody and most of the lyrics. Great! Song number two rolls around, and also, it’s a brand new one for you. You try again, and while it’s a poignant song, you don’t feel confident enough yet to ‘lean into it.’ The third song drums in, and you don’t recognize it either. By the last song, you’re more focused on learning all these new songs, with your eyes unwittingly trained to fixate on the screens, and less focused on enjoying the Presence of the Holy Spirit. And to dampen the spirit of worship even more: next week you show up again and there’s an entirely different set of worship songs—no repeats from the week before—none of which you are familiar with.

Can you relate?

I have been in this situation, and while there’s a certain beauty to unfamiliarity, it can be spiritually frustrating. And being on the other end of it for many years now, I am aware of our responsibility as worship pastors to shepherd people through a time of musical worship with wisdom, spiritual discernment, and poise—in other words, it’s plain old unfair to consistently throw unfamiliarity at people and expect them to positively engage. Now, I am assuredly going to introduce my people to new songs (in fact, the rhythm that we at CityReach introduce new songs is about once a month or sometimes more, which is unusually frequent, I’ll admit, but we worked strategically to develop a culture in our church of celebrating the new… including new songs).

But this is what having a repertoire will do:

  1. A song repertoire will ensure a healthy level of song familiarity in your church. And this kind of familiarity is important because it breeds confidence in worship.
  2. A song repertoire will prevent you from introducing too many new songs at too fast a pace.
  3. A song repertoire forces you as worship pastor to be choosy with songs—which is a good thing.
  4. A song repertoire will narrow your search for a particular theme or idea, because your pool is suddenly now limited. This is also a good thing.
  5. A song repertoire will ultimately encourage musical excellence for your worship team. They will have a healthy familiarity with these songs and be able to really own them.
  6. A song repertoire actually encourages creativity. As much as the flesh may cry against them, boundaries are necessary for growth. Yes, believe it or not, an artist operating within clearly defined boundaries is maximized to his greatest levels of creativity.

So, how do I build a song repertoire?

I have had the high privilege and extreme fun of building song repertoires from Ground Zero, and I am well aware that different contexts and cultures call for different priorities and elements, but here is what I recommend:

  • For those starting in a new worship ministry, this is easier. Limit yourself to 10 songs to start with. Yes, only 10. Choose them carefully and prayerfully, and cycle through those 10 for at least a month and a half without adding any new songs. This will give your church a nice, sturdy foundation, and ideally you want them to feel confident with these songs before you add any more. After a month and a half or two months, then you can add one new song at a time to your repertoire.
    • I usually have 4 up-tempo songs and 6 moderate- to slow-tempo songs.
  • For those in a more settled worship ministry, I recommend sitting down with your team and establishing the songs that tend to make it into the song sets. Identify the songs that are “home-run” songs that your church brightens when they hear. Narrow these down to 10 or so (I recommend about 4 up-tempo songs and 6 moderate- to slow-tempo songs here, too), and boom, you’ve got a song repertoire. (See the point above this.)
    • Shepherd your worship team through this transition. To be effective in the long haul, change oftentimes must happen slowly and with great wisdom and sensitivity.
  • The kind of songs you are looking for are:
    • At least 2 songs that are explicitly about the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. Boldly and unapologetically present the Gospel! (Think “Lamb of God” or “Forever (We Sing Hallelujah).”)
    • At least 1 song that makes clear the deity and supremacy of Jesus. (Think “No Other Name.”)
    • At least 1 song about the love of God. (Think “One Thing Remains.”)
    • At least 1 song about the sweeping holiness/righteousness of God. (Think “Revelation Song.”)
    • At least 1 song regarding the Pentecostal power and life-change of the Holy Spirit (think “Holy Spirit” or “Open Heaven, River Wild.”)
  • To give you a concrete idea, the original 10 songs we started with at CityReach were:
    • By Your Blood (slow-tempo, very Jesus-focused and Gospel-oriented)
    • Ever-Living God (slow tempo with a build, this was a song I wrote intentionally to combat the fatally flawed notion that roads outside of Jesus Christ will still lead to Heaven. It emphasizes again and again the Lordship of Christ and also has a motif of his Second Coming.)
    • Everywhere That I Go (upbeat, great opening song, classic Israel Houghton)
    • God is Here (upbeat, great opening song)
    • The Everlasting (moderate-tempo, song of faith & hope in God)
    • For the Cross (slow-tempo—this was actually one that I had written because at the time I wanted a fresh song about the cross that translated well to our demographic)
    • Jesus at the Center (slow-tempo, obviously very Jesus-focused)
    • Open Up the Heavens (up-tempo, great opening song, also includes themes of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit)
    • Our God (upbeat, perfectly outlines where we stand with the supremacy of Jesus)
    • This I Believe (slow-tempo, basically the Apostles’ Creed—a song that still ranks among the favorites at our church!)

In time, you will have developed a nice, big repertoire—so big, in fact, you may need to retire a few songs that have lost their edge in your worship services. And of course, if you are on the hunt for a particular song and can’t find it, I strongly encourage you to put pen to paper and write one!! :)

I trust this is a helpful resource for you. This post has been a long time coming. If you have any questions or need help in picking out songs for your context, please let me know. I’d be more than happy to assist any way I can! So much power to you for what you do!

Josh

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2 thoughts on “Leading Worship: Building a Song Repertoire

  1. Good stuff, Josh! This is exactly what I implemented when I came here two years ago! They had so many volunteers cycling and candidates coming in, that there was no repertoire really – just songs that hopefully people knew.

    I started with about fifteen songs. Luckily, I found a common ground of songs that I was assured the congregation knew, and I stuck with them. It was actually a little tough for me. I had to learn songs I didn’t know, and then I had to work with a team that knew how to play the song with another leader. It took a while to get the hang of it! We’ve retired a few of those, but we’ve also slowly added about one new song every month and a half. It’s been great!

    I think our generation is losing the power of anthems. We move from new thing to new thing, and forget to champion a song or a chorus or a message. So I wanted to make sure we did that. I wanted to have songs we could make our anthem and I wanted to find the anthems of the past and make them part of our generation. It was cool taking one of our anthem songs, “Holy Spirit,” and mashing it with an anthem of the past, “Holy Ground.” When we did it, you could feel an instant shift in the atmosphere. Repetition means repeated feelings and experiences.

    We’ve also now put all of our worship songs onto a Spotify playlist and make it available for our church to listen to during the week. I think it reinforces what happened at service, and it helps some of our less frequent attendees get more familiar with our songs!

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