Most pastors are more than happy for someone else to choose the songs on Sunday morning. With sermon preparation, counseling, and countless other responsibilities, shouldn’t someone else worry about what the congregation will sing?
While I understand the difficult demands of being a pastor, I want to encourage pastors to be involved in the selection of songs for corporate worship. Levels of engagement may differ (based on a number of factors), but it’s not appropriate for pastors to disengage completely. After all, there’s truth to the saying, “We are what we sing.” The songs we sing together shape our thoughts of God, the gospel, and the way we see the world. In fact, singing to one another is a mark of the Spirit’s filling (Ephesians 5:18–19) and the word of Christ dwelling in us richly (Colossians 3:16).
With this in mind, I want to share six imperatives I’ve come to value in the selection of songs for corporate worship. Then I’ll describe how we put these principles into practice for a Sunday service at my church.
Six Imperatives for Selecting Songs
1. Gather a team. Some churches have staff in this role. Our church has volunteers, since God has gifted us with several theologically-minded and gifted musicians and vocalists. We meet to think about music and, at times, to give the elders feedback regarding the direction of corporate worship. If there is no one at your church who can help you, pray the Lord brings you a team.
2. Create a “canon” of songs. This is simply a list of songs we refer to when planning a service. It is not a closed canon! We are constantly adding and removing songs from this list. It took us a couple years to compile, and it’s always a work in progress. We are eager to add songs that are theologically robust, musically pleasant, and easily learned by the congregation.
3. Know in advance the main idea for each service. It may be God’s kindness, his wrath, or his mercy. It should be a subject taken from a particular passage of Scripture. I know several months in advance what text I’ll be preaching from on Sunday. By carefully reading and praying over this passage, I can pick a theme, even if I’m not yet ready to preach the passage.
4. Hold a planning meeting. A few times a year, I meet with a team to actually pick the songs. By this time, we know what text I’ll preach from and the main idea I plan to drive home. This meeting is invaluable since, “without counsel plans fail” (Proverbs 15:22). It keeps the “canon” from being one person’s favorite playlist. We think carefully about which songs will bless the body as a whole.
5. Let the text guide the song selection. Even though I have a main idea in mind, we let the Scripture passage guide us. We pay close attention to the actual words of the text as we choose which songs to sing.
6. Remember God’s character and God’s cross. Regardless of the main idea of the service, we make sure to include songs that help us marvel at who God is (His character) and what he’s done (the cross). Preachers should make God and his gospel clear in their preaching; congregations should make God and his gospel clear in their singing.
This is the basic process we turn to for each and every service. We try not to repeat songs within a four-month period, but this is not an ironclad rule, especially for new songs we are introducing to the church.
With those six imperatives in mind, let me share with you how we took a specific text of Scripture—Acts 5:17–42— and chose the songs for a recent Sunday morning at Mount Vernon Baptist Church.
Choosing Songs for a Sermon on Acts 5:17–42
In this passage the early church faces its first serious persecution. The high priest imprisons the apostles, but an angel releases them. The religious leaders round them up again and demand an explanation. Peter boldly proclaims the gospel. The leaders want to kill the apostles, but one Pharisee urges leniency. Instead of death, the apostles are beaten. Nonetheless, they leave the meeting “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Given this passage, how did we pick the songs for the service?
We chose “our glorious Savior” as the main idea for the service. The apostles willingly suffered for Christ. He, Christ, is the giver of joy—regardless of our circumstances. He is glorious. With that in mind, we turned to our “canon” of songs.
- Song #1: “O Worship the King”
Not only does this song describe Christ as glorious in the first stanza, but it speaks of his might and wrath as well as his care and mercy. It’s a sobering reminder that Christ is not to be trifled with.
- Song #2: “We Come, O Christ, to You”
Yes, Jesus is glorious—so glorious one might ask if we can even be in his presence. The answer is a resounding yes: “Before the throne absolved we stand/Your love has met Your law’s demand.”
- Song #3: “Take Heart Weary Ones”
Meditating on the apostles’ trial in Acts 5, we decided to help the congregation reflect on suffering with this song. We wanted the church to understand we also are to have joy in suffering since, “His faithful hands will bring you home.”
- Song #4: “There is No Sin That I Have Done”
We chose this song because every text points us to the gospel, and because we want every service to make much of the cross. The apostles didn’t fundamentally rejoice because they only got a beating instead of death. No, they rejoiced because they got to suffer for a Savior who already bled and died for them: “For He has stooped to wash me clean/And covered me with grace.”
- Song #5: “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”
We sang this song right before the sermon. The apostles chose Christ over the leaders of the day: “Put no confidence in princes, Nor for help on man depend; He shall die, to dust returning, And his purposes shall end.”
- Song #6: “In Christ Alone”
We ended with this song. Christ is most glorious, after all, because he died in our place.
In the end, there is no precise biblical blueprint for how to go about selecting the right songs. Every church is different, so we need to use wisdom in deciding how best to serve the people God has given us. As a church founded in 1959, we have a mixture of young and old members, with a variety of musical preferences. We select from old and modern hymns. More than anything, we want our congregation to worship God and engage with His Word as they sing.
Honestly, picking the right songs can be hard work. It takes hours and hours of preparation. It’s an imperfect process. But it’s worth the effort. People walk away thankful, not merely for the sermon, but also for the singing. If the sermon is the diamond, then singing is the setting that holds it in place. So choose yours songs well.