Leading Worship: Crafting a Song Set


Hey, gang! I have been leading worship for many, many moons, and have been a worship pastor for nearly a decade now—so studying the concept of worship, facilitating congregational worship, investing into other worshipers, keeping up with musical worship trends, and teaching on worship are all elements that are close to my heart. But if there’s something I know, it’s that there’s always more to learn.

Many worship pastors and song leaders will share and teach from their denominational background or Christian tradition, which leads to easily a hundred different methodologies to facilitating a worship time. Some worship leaders have a very structured, well-rehearsed set of 2 fast songs and 3 slow songs. Other worship leaders have a much looser and unplanned approach. Others may follow a specific liturgy where pre-approved hymns have already been chosen. I am of the persuasion that each approach works beautifully in the right context!

Now, my worship leader friend, perhaps you are needing a nudge in the right direction. Where does a person even begin in crafting the very best worship set? I’m glad that you are taking your responsibility seriously, instead of simply stringing together a circus of unrelated songs that each happen to be popular on the radio right now! Ah, all jokes aside, I have put together an outline that I pray with help steer you in the right direction. I tried to keep my points broad enough to apply to all sorts of varying church contexts so hopefully, no matter what your church’s style or tradition, you will find pieces of truth that you can use to help you facilitate worship this coming weekend.

1. Intentionally seek input from your senior pastor (or senior worship pastor, if relevant). 

I have promised myself that one day I’ll write a book called Pastors are From Mars, Worship Leaders are From Venus because senior pastors and worship pastors often think, feel, and prioritize in different, sometimes conflicting, ways. I can almost hear senior pastors and worship pastors right now shouting, “Amen!”

Maybe in the future I will write toward senior pastors, but today of course I’m writing to worship leaders. Worship leaders, your pastor usually has a specific vision for this coming weekend, which contributes to his or her overall vision for the ministry God has trusted to him or her. And you, my dear friend, are a servant. Serve your pastor’s vision for what Sunday should look like by asking a lot of specific questions, especially if you have a newer relationship, and then factor his or her answers into your preparation. Make sure you fully understand the length of time you are leading, if there is a certain theme or Scripture that needs to be woven throughout your music, and if there are any special song requests.

Now if you lead worship on a regular basis, this might evolve. Once you better understand your pastor’s vision, or maybe once you’ve been in relationship for a long time, such conversations don’t need to be had as frequently. However, I have found in my experience that it is healthy and helpful to check in with your pastor from time to time, much as you change your car’s oil on a regular basis.

In some cases, such as in a larger church or in a context with a more fleshed-out team structure, your direct oversight may not be the senior pastor but perhaps the senior worship pastor. If that’s the case, then your worship pastor has tasked you with leading worship this weekend because he or she trusts you! He is investing into you! In this situation, I advise you to seek the input I mentioned above from your worship pastor instead of the senior pastor. He will probably even be able to dole out a few specific tips and techniques in planning a song set.

2. Ask the Holy Spirit what He has in mind.

After you have received parameters from your senior pastor or worship pastor, bring what has been made available to you before the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will use those precious 20 minutes and the theme of reconciliation you’ve been assigned to reveal the glory of Jesus.

Jesus has a message He wants to communicate to people this weekend. He wants people to have a special experience in His Presence. To seamlessly facilitate this and shepherd people with sensitivity and courage, you must be plugged into the Source.

Get into a quiet space in your head and heart, and ask Jesus, “What do You want to do this weekend?” Then stop talking and listen. Trust me, He is excited to share with you His heart and direct you! He may suddenly bring to mind a Scripture. For me, often God will illuminate a couple situations going on in our church and ask me to customize the worship accordingly. For example, if there has been a devastating miscarriage—or an exciting career advancement—or a major community transition—for the people in our church, I’ll choose songs that will hopefully give voice to that experience and point people to Jesus.

Or sometimes He will put on me a strong feeling, which I will then allow to influence my song set. What I mean is, if I suddenly feel awed by Jesus, I will try to work in grandiose, sweeping songs. Or if I suddenly am reminded of the battle we are in, I will lean in to driving, faith-filled songs.

Jesus may speak to you in a different way, and that’s awesome! The important thing is that you create space to listen for His voice. If you don’t sense a clear direction from Jesus, perhaps He is asking you to utilize the wisdom and discretion He’s blessed you with. In that case, submit yourself to what your senior pastor or senior worship pastor advised and move ahead bravely.

3. Develop a working song set.

This point I have blogged about extensively in the past, and based on the large amount of both encouragement and criticism I have received from those posts indicates how deeply personal this can be! Certainly there are passionately-held convictions about the art (not formula) of fleshing out which songs, or parts of songs, to do. And certainly, the more experience you have planning worship sets, the easier it gets.

Here is where there often is a passionate tension. Some worship leaders lean in to structure and heavy organization; others embrace spontaneity and fluidity. Some of my worship leader friends have every exact moment of the set planned out, down to the exact second (literally). But some of my other worship leader friends will pick out roughly 10 songs, knowing full well they will only do maybe 3 of them, and even so, in an order different from what was rehearsed.

Everyone has a different philosophy here, but I do think structure and spontaneity can beautifully coexist. Sean Feucht, a worship leader for Bethel Music, remarked, “Spontaneity is the reward for preparation.” This doesn’t surprise me! Even Bethel Music, renowned for its spontaneity, has only reached the level of such Spirit-led off-the-cuff music because they are so well-prepared and skilled in their craft. It’s also important to point out that their worship teams serve humbly alongside the other (equally important) elements of the service—the music they bring to the table enhances Bethel’s overall ministry without overwhelming or competing with other service elements like the preaching or the offering.

I do want to offer a pastoral coaching here, a point that I have held and taught for a long time. Many worship leaders (and generally, some Christians) believe that the Holy Spirit only moves spontaneously; therefore a subculture has been built to not worry too much about which songs to do because they’ll all end up changing anyway. While that might work for some, I don’t actually believe the Holy Spirit works spontaneously at all. The Bible teaches the opposite. God has a meticulously designed plan for every detail, and nothing catches Him by surprise. Perhaps it feels spontaneous to me, but of course it’s not to God. God knows who will be present at church this weekend. God knows exactly what songs He wants to be done. He knows exactly how long each song should last and how many times each chorus should be repeated. He knows exactly what Scripture references are to be read. For me, then, the question becomes, am I listening intently to Him?

In my planning and prayer, I have even felt, for example, “Between Song A and Song B, someone is going to give an encouraging prophetic message, so leave space for that.” So am I right all the time? Absolutely, positively not! Do I have to make last-minute changes? Not too often, but sometimes, yes! But I have found that the more you lean in to the previous point I mentioned (“ask the Holy Spirit what He has in mind”), the easier planning your worship set will be. God anoints preparation! 

4. Invite a few trusted, experienced people into finalizing your worship set.

Here enters one of my all-time favorite S-words: synergy. I may have a song set that I think is practically perfect in every way (thank you, Mary Poppins), but when I present it to a trusted worship leader friend, he may have an important suggestion to change things a bit. Or, when I get together with the band and vocalists to rehearse the song set, we may find that something just “isn’t working.”

Of course, not everyone’s voice has equal weight in this matter. Ideally, you’d want to invite the mature opinion of someone who is part of your church context. If you’re not sure who this second-set-of-eyes should be, why not run it by your worship pastor or senior pastor, if relevant? Or your spouse? Or perhaps another key worship leader on your team? Or your small group leader?

And when you receive feedback, be big enough to make adjustments. Be humble enough to share the reins sometimes.

5. Move forward with your game plan!

I know some who psych themselves out at this point. They have prayed about a song set, sought counsel, invited constructive feedback, rehearsed… but suddenly they doubt. Suddenly they second-guess. Don’t make a habit of this. God has led you and pointed out certain things to you and anointed your preparation—now go! Prayerfully move forward.

That said, a piece of advice I’ll give here is this: no matter how confident you are with your set, though, hold it loosely. Offer it to God to do what He chooses with it. Things may change. People may respond differently than what you expected. You might not get to that one song, or you might cut a verse out. That’s okay. Sometimes this is a result of poor planning (which is fine, since we’re all growing here)—but sometimes that’s just the way it goes!!

And honestly, this process gets easier, smoother, and begins to feel natural the more frequently you build song sets.

So now, my friends, I bless you in Jesus’ Name to craft a song journey that leads people to the cross. I pray that you are filled with wisdom and Holy-Spirit-revelation to bear supernatural fruit—that much is made of Christ again and again and again!

If you have comments or an idea, I would love to hear it. Leave a message in the comments!



3 thoughts on “Leading Worship: Crafting a Song Set

  1. I was hoping you would write about which songs to choose, although it was very helpful to read your overarching journey! But can you please write in the future about where you find songs and which songs make “the cut”? Thank you!

    1. Hi Ursula, why not check out a few of my previous blogs on that topic? “Natural Progression in Worship Sets” (https://joshuawatts.me/2014/02/20/natural-progression-in-worship-sets-leading-worship-011/) and “What Makes a Song ‘Congregational’?” (https://joshuawatts.me/2014/10/02/what-makes-a-song-congregational-leading-worship-020/) both may help.

      Periodically I make “Best Of” lists, where I suggest songs that might work well in church contexts, and I’m overdue to write another. Keep your eyes peeled for that! In the meantime, how do you go about choosing which songs for your church to do?

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