Putting Together a Worship Song List

Last week at the Quest conference for men I had two opportunities to speak to groups of worship leaders from Sovereign Grace churches. The first was a group of about 30 guys who lead on Sunday mornings, the other a larger group of maybe 100 guys who lead in a small group context.

One of the questions I addressed in both meetings was the process of choosing a group of songs for a meeting. That process can be one of the more frustrating aspects of leading congregational worship. Here’s a portion of what I shared.

We pick the songs we do for various reasons. Maybe a song is in a key we like or our voice sounds good on it. Maybe everyone knows the song or we’ve had great experiences in the past with it. Or maybe we choose a song because it was written by Matt Redman, Stuart Townend, Isaac Watts, John Newton, or whoever our favorite worship songwriter happens to be.

All of those might be considered in choosing a song. But I wouldn’t use any of them as the ultimate determining factor.

I communicated that it helps to know our broader purpose for singing before we start putting together a list of songs. Our first purpose is this: to give people a clearer picture of God’s glory in Christ. We want them to walk away from a time of singing more impressed with God, not our song selection or arrangements. We want them to be more aware of God’s character, his nature, and his works. We want them to be astonished at the mercy, grace, and holiness of God displayed in the cross of Christ. That means I need to think hard about the words to the songs I plan to lead. Will they help people proclaim the wondrous deeds of the Lord (Ps. 75:1)? Will they be so clear and understandable that people won’t be able to miss the truth we’re singing?

A second purpose flows from the first. We want people to understand how God’s worthiness and works relate to their life. We can sing biblically faithful words, rich doctrine, and theologically accurate songs, but walk away unaffected and unchanged. We want to help people make the connection between what God has done and the problems they’re currently facing.

For example, we don’t just sing sentimental songs about the cross of Christ. We help people see how we have been freed from condemnation as a result. Or we point their eyes to the hopelessness of trying to impress God with anything we’ve done. Or we celebrate the fact that we are now God’s children, fully adopted into his family, enjoying the blessings of his care and provision. Or we impart faith in their fight against sin by reminding them that at the cross Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). Those kinds of thoughts can be communicated either in the songs themselves, or by a spoken comment. The important thing is that one main thought governs the progression and selection of songs.

Once we are clear on a purpose, choosing songs to express that thought is much easier. At that point we can consider issues like keys, tempos, and familiarity. But if you want to point people’s hearts and minds to the glory of God in Christ, make what you want to say more important than the music you use to say it.

12 Responses to Putting Together a Worship Song List

  1. Mykel January 17, 2007 at 12:30 PM #

    Great insight.

    The first thing I do before picking songs for event or for a service is “What does God want to say to his people today and what do we need to say to God?”

    As lead worshippers we need to convey everything that you just said.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Nicholas Cardot January 17, 2007 at 1:00 PM #

    Thanks for the advice!

  3. Jon P January 17, 2007 at 2:06 PM #

    Thank you Bob for your post. Thank you for your blog actually. I’ve had the privilege of leading our time of worship for our singles’ ministry for the past 3 & 1/2 years. 2 years ago, our former violinist gave me a copy of “All We Long to See”. That was my first introduction to Sovereign Grace Music. Since then, we’ve been blessed TREMENDOUSLY by your ministry, writings, seminars, sermons and the songs that Sovereign Grace Ministries have published.

    As to your post, having a purpose to leading worship is very key. I also find that this makes it easier to narrow down the content of my exhortations to the congregation. I do appreciate your point on linking the truth to our everyday lives. I will be mindful of that next time.

    Your post also gives flesh to a quote, by Jonathan Edwards (via John Piper), that I’ve used as my goal in leading worship these past years.

    “I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.” – Jonathan Edwards

    His quote is geared towards preaching, but I saw that it can be translated over to leading worship. This quote also affected our choosing which songs to sing, by content and how they will help the congregation to remember the truth which will help them grow in their love for God.

    Lastly, would you please expound on your 2nd purpose? You wrote: “A second purpose flows from the first. We want people to understand how God’s worthiness and works relate to their life.” Could you give some examples? I would like to understand how to incorporate that better in my leading.



  4. Jim January 17, 2007 at 3:23 PM #

    Mr. Kauflin,

    I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your worship ministry. I was a senior pastor for 10 years and a worship pastor for 3 years. I am currently just a regular guy attending church.

    Over the years, I had grown so frustrated with the lyrical content of the songs we sing in church. Much of the time, the songs were not worth singing. I’m tired of singing songs about myself! Since leaving full time ministry, I’ve been part of several different denominational churches and have found the worship music to be inadequate across the board. So poor in fact, that I have not volunteered to serve on the worship teams.

    Then my friend told me about Sovereign Grace ministries. I expected it to be more of the same. But from the first lyric sheet I read, I was moved to worship God. I have since purchased several CD’s and downloaded many songs. My life has truly been transformed by the singing of your lyrics as well as your co-writers. Please express my sincere gratitude to them as well.

    Truly, my life in Christ has been renewed because of your faithfulness. When my pastor asked me to take over the worship team, I was excited about leading again. We’ll be using many of your songs!

    I know this doesn’t doesn’t belong here on your blog, but I had to thank you somehow. So, from one worshiper of God to another, thank you for all your faithfulness!

    Jim G.

  5. Bob Kauflin January 17, 2007 at 4:29 PM #


    Your words of encouragement are very meaningful. Thanks for caring about what God’s people sing!

  6. Bill Bell January 18, 2007 at 9:53 AM #

    As always, Bob, thanks for your thoughtful examination of the way we view our corporate meetings. In addition to some of the not-so-good reasons for choosing particular songs for a meeting, I thought of a few more that I have often done. For instance, too often it has been my sin of laziness to pick the first five songs that came to mind when planning an order. Or at other times, I’ve exhibited the sin of picking songs that I personally really want to sing. Or (perhaps the worst of all), I’ve sinned by picking songs with really no thought of anything at all, sort of an autopilot of song selection.

    I have learned much from you and many of your friends at SGM about starting at the same place for all things, whether that be preaching, teaching, singing, praying, counseling, or whatever else: the cross. And I see this affecting me in two very deep ways. First, by reminding me that I am a sinner in need of a Savior and any “great worship service” I plan was not by my own effort or for my glory, but God’s gracious gift to His people. Second, centering on the cross in song selection helps us to stay focused on our only hope and plea. How easy it would be to thoughtlessly (or maybe even thoughtfully) pick songs that reflect a theme or idea prominent in Scripture without any reference to the only reason that theme can impact us! And you all at SGM always astound me because you rip me from my complacency and self-sufficiency be shining the light of the glory of Christ on my wayward flesh, once again drawing me to the cross. And, ultimately, I think that’s what you?re pointing to in this post. Thanks again for your diligence in glorying in Christ and Him crucified!

  7. Eric M. Schumacher January 18, 2007 at 10:37 AM #

    Thanks for these thoughts, Bob. It is obvious again how God has gifted you in this area. I’m really looking forward to your book.

  8. jawbone January 18, 2007 at 4:12 PM #


    Thanks for your thoughtful and informative posts. I am relatively new to your blog having discovered it a couple of months ago. I have been so blessed by it that I have included it as one of the links on my own blog.

    As for this post. Excellent as usual. If I may add a slight point. It may be a good idea to ask the question, “How do the songs I picked complement the pastor’s message?” Working in tandem with the pastor can make the worship and the sermon doubly powerful.

    That my have been implied, but as a former worship leader and now mostly a preaching pastor, I can never hear it enough.

    Keep up the nice job. I’ll continue to direct people to your sight for excellent materials on worship.

  9. Carrie January 20, 2007 at 9:43 PM #

    I loved your writing on this issue. I have been a worship leader for about 6 years now and love it so much. But choosing a list can be a deal breaker! You obsess, you tweak, you pray, and you still sometimes come into a practice (or, much more horribly, an actual service!) and find that your choices aren’t quite right.

    But if I may add one thought, pick extra songs when you prepare your list. Then, when you practice as a team you can easily discard a song that doesn’t fit. And, don’t be afraid to signal your musicians to go on to an unplanned song on occasion. The flow of the Holy Spirit is key. I keep a book of sheet music on the platform so I can quickly change if necessary. I don’t suggest this as a continual thing, but sometimes it can really set you free to branch out.

  10. Sam Lynn January 22, 2007 at 7:11 PM #

    Great discussion. Our church has dealt with this as well. We’ve wrestled with singing, “in all I do I honor You”, yet don’t seem to struggle singing “I Surrender All”. I’ve come to the place that I agree it’s an attitude of the heart. As Bob pointed out, the psalms are also full of intent. Although everyone in my congregation might not COMPLETELY be surrendering “all”, it would certainly seem to not honor God to sing “I Surrender 75%” or “I Surrender almost everything”. It’s an interesting thing to think about. :-)

  11. Matt January 23, 2007 at 12:43 AM #

    I totally agree with what you are saying Mr. Kauflin. The beauty of the one who bore the cross needs to be the center of not only worship through music, but in every aspect of our lives. Songs need to communicate the cross, but not stop there. Songs need to point people in the direction of WHY Christ is the center! Sentimenalism won’t cut it.

    On a secondary note, I’m not too much of fan with a lot of your arrangements on songs (except Valley of Vision, which is the best release in my opinion). They kinda come off cheesy. BUT, I do value greatly the integrity and depth of the lyrics that are written. So, as someone who leads high school students in worship, how can I make sure they are getting a Christ-rich diet in their singing and not get hung up so much about “getting the kids up and going”? I think right now our song selections are missing issues that cover sin, forgiveness, and the cross, in the name of tempo and what sounds “young”. If you could give me suggestions to counter this pattern of thinking, that would be such an encouragement.

  12. Finding My Grace Space April 16, 2010 at 9:08 AM #

    I think your blog needs some updating. I would love to read more about this topic.

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