Preparing a Set List2
Set lists are more than songs, and Sundays are more than gatherings. Every Sunday is an opportunity to call people to lift their eyes from unsatisfying idols to gaze at the infinite beauty of God. It’s an opportunity to place songs and prayers in the mouths and hearts of those who gather that will linger for days, weeks, and even years to come. These songs inevitably shape their view of God, themselves, and the world they live in for good or bad.
While there are many ways to prepare a set list, here are a few things I try to do as I seek to craft a set list that will disciple our people in a particular way.
This might seem silly, but really pray. Pray before you work on a set list, as you prepare a set list, and as you lead the set. Don’t treat this as a formality. God should be included in your set list creation process, and praying intentionally acknowledges God’s role in the process. Pray about the set alone and with others; pray attentively and expectantly. Be open to him interrupting your planning process.
Study the particular biblical text or theme for that Sunday. As you study and meditate, write songs, prayers, or liturgical ideas down that come to mind. Often I’ll keep a running list of ideas on my phone. Find out if Sunday’s preacher has a particular emphasis or theme. How will they conclude the sermon? Ask yourself, “If I could sing a song of response to this sermon, what would I sing/pray?” Also consider the emphasis of the week before. Was there anything we should encourage the congregation to respond to?
Brainstorm alone and with others! (Quick side note here: Discipleship looks like bringing people along in this process too. Talk about the set with younger worship leaders.) In addition to the plan for Sunday’s sermon, here are some lenses I think through:
We’re generally in a particular book of the Bible. Are there any themes prevalent in this series? Any songs that help others engage with general themes (i.e. God’s authority, the church, etc.)? Consider creating a “series songbook” for quick access for yourself and others.
B. Christian Calendar
Similar to the sermon, churches who observe the Christian calendar should allow the current season to shape songs and liturgical selections. Seek to grow more familiar with each season, asking how the season is an opportunity to disciple your people to look more like Jesus.
C. Liturgical Movement
Some churches also follow formal or informal liturgical rhythms every week. As you consider songs, be aware of each movement you’re in and pick songs appropriate to that movement. Plan narratively! Be a good storyteller.
D. Holy Spirit
Has God been laying any songs on your heart? Has God being doing any particular work in the last week/month at your church that should affect our leading?
E. Familiarity of Songs
Have there been songs we’ve done or overdone? Did someone do a new song the week prior? Try to incorporate that into the set for repetition sake. If people come for a month to Park Church, they should recognize some similar songs.
F. Other Choruses/Bridges
Are there any other choruses or bridges that you could tie into this set that would help engagement or flow? Can you tack them on in the same key as another song you’re doing for ease of transition & engagement? For theological clarity?
G. Various Voices
We think the songs spoken of in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 (psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs) reflect diversity. We generally attempt to pull songs from three streams of various voices:
Local—songs written in our local church
Global—songs the “capital C” Church is singing
Historical—hymns and songs that were written decades/centuries ago
It can be helpful in developing a well-balanced diet of songs to think categorically. Here are a few ways to categorize our songs so we don’t overdo a certain category:
Description vs. devotion
Subjective vs objective (how we feel or respond vs. what is unchanging and true)
Indicative vs. imperative (what Christ has done vs. our response)
Celebratory vs. contemplative (lyrically and musically)
Complex vs. simple
Individual vs. corporate
How skilled are they? Can they play the songs you want? Consider simplifying or changing songs or playing without the band if you feel like you should.
J. Whole counsel of God
What parts of God’s character are we not addressing? Are there songs/themes that we should incorporate (i.e. suffering, death, holiness of God, lament, the love of God, the cross of Christ, the justice of God, evangelism, the Holy Spirit, etc.)? Carl Trueman once asked, “What can miserable Christians sing?” Are we including songs that many different people in different stages and seasons could sing?
Don’t just create the set list, but also engage with the songs and prayers personally. I’m saying this to myself just as much as to you. You cannot lead people to drink from a stream you have not come to drink from yourself. We lead from the overflow of our lives. The songs and liturgy will be lifeless if you've found no life in them because you haven't met God through them.
For those who incorporate readings from Scripture or other resources in the service, here are some things to think through. Consider the text for the day, general themes in the texts, songs you're singing, and other books (Worship Sourcebook, Valley of Vision, Prone to Wander, Book of Common Prayer, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth). Can you think of any fresh ways of calling people to engage in the liturgy? Perhaps consider silence during assurance or call to worship instead of confession of sin, or don't do silence during confession but make the confession song the prayer. Incorporate assurance into a song and read the text during the song and then sing a bridge or chorus again. Also I’ve found it very beneficial to write out transitional phrases (rubrics), and include phrases from songs or Scripture that you’ll be using before or after this. Try your best to memorize it so can speak from your heart while also looking out at people as you lead.
Joel Limpic (@joellimpic) lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and three daughters. He works at Park Church as their Pastor of Liturgy & Arts and helps run The Verses Project, a collaborative project that creates musical & visual art to help others memorize & meditate on Scripture.