Picking a strong worship setlist for every Sunday at church is no easy task. At least not for most worship leaders who put a lot of thought into what their congregations are singing. But while the process can be weighty, it can also be fun to build worship setlists that engage people’s hearts and minds with God as they worship. For you worship leaders out there, let’s look at 12 tips to help you make a strong worship setlist every Sunday.
1. Don’t be afraid to repeat songs often
Sometimes what makes a strong worship setlist is simply singing songs that people know really well (both the congregation and the worship team). It’s okay to repeat songs occasionally or even somewhat often. While it’s a good thing to keep things fresh with new songs, don’t be afraid to repeat them when it’s the best thing to make a strong worship setlist. If the moment or theme of the service calls for a song you did a couple weeks ago, no one should complain. It’s also a good idea when introducing a new song to sprinkle that song in a lot so that your congregation becomes familiar with it and identifies with it, especially when there’s a spark of life on a song in a certain season.
2. Experiment with the best time to pick your worship setlists
Some worship leaders plan sets months in advance and others wait until a few days or even one day before (yikes). But there is no set rule on the best amount of time in advance to plan a strong worship setlist. It’s about what works best for you, your team, your church, and your community. Don’t stress about doing it just like the megachurch across the country or the church down the street. Coordinate with the pastor or speaker for the service you’re planning and get the setlist together in enough time for your team to prepare, and you’re good to go.
3. Be flexible to change your plans in the moment
You may have spent hours planning and thinking through your worship setlist. Sometimes as a worship leader though, you have to let go and follow where the Holy Spirit leads. And there are two sides to it because He will also lead you in preparation. God shows us by example that He’s a master planner. But sometimes, He will tug on your heart to change something at the last minute for something that’s happening or even someone who’s in the room. For example, the song you had picked for response time after the message may have seemed right on paper, but in the middle of hearing where the pastor ends up with their message, there may be another song that God puts on your heart. Be prepared for those moments and prepare your team for them as well. In a way, you’re training yourself and your team to “expect the unexpected” and be ready to still bring excellence in those moments. After all, worship isn’t a performance but an expression of love for Jesus!
4. Listen to worship music in your personal worship times
One of the best ways to make planning setlists for every Sunday consistently easier is to be listening to a lot of worship music in your personal worship times. This may seem obvious as something any leader would want to do, but it’s important to remind yourself. There’s also a level of comfort and confidence that develops when you are intimately familiar with a song. The more you connect with songs personally, the easier it will be to bring other people into moments of worship with those songs.
5. Be aware of what’s going on in the worship community all over the world
While you should never try to copy what other churches are doing, you should be aware of what’s going on in other churches and communities. Sometimes God may be breathing life on a song or a movement in worship that we can all take part in and spread to our local churches. This connectedness is what allows us to unify and participate in the power of the “big C” Church. Incorporating some of what’s popular in the church all over the world also allows Christians from anywhere to easily join in, even the first time they come to your church.
6. Pick songs that resonate with what God is doing in your local community
Coming off the last point about keeping a pulse on what is happening in the global Church, you can also think about the other side of the equation when it comes to the unique people God has entrusted you with. There may be songs that resonate specifically with your local community, regardless of if they are making an impact around the world. As you lead songs week in and week out, you will probably find that certain ones really seem to make your church come alive and respond in big ways. Keep these songs in your rotation as long as there’s life on them!
7. Be flexible with the key of the songs you choose
Keep in mind when planning sets that the key of songs contributes largely to the flow. You can create a strong worship setlist by putting the songs in keys that are compatible and easy to transition. For example, if a song is in the key of C, you may flow into the next song in the key of F or G, which is a 4th or 5th from C. The first song in the key of C may even land on an F chord (the 4th) which could then become the “1 chord” of the next song. Don’t be afraid to adjust the keys. Just because it’s in C# on the record doesn’t mean you can’t do it in C if it works better for the set (or better for your vocal range)! Another idea to help you put songs in different keys is having a different worship leader or worship team member lead them. Having a female lead vs. male lead on a song or vice versa can open up an entirely different key range to make a song flow in a worship setlist.
8. Mix things up from time to time with the order of elements in your service
While there’s nothing wrong with consistency, sometimes things may start to feel too routine in weekly worship services. Some of the greatest worship sets for Sundays are when you go outside the box and change things up a little bit. For instance, not every week has to have four songs then a message, or even a fast song and then a medium song and then a slow song. Experiment with doing more songs at the end of the service for a powerful response time after the message or ending on an upbeat song instead of starting with one. It all depends on the creativity of the planning for the service!
9. Communicate your worship setlists to your team in plenty of time
We talked about the timeline of worship setlist planning earlier, and it depends on what works for your situation. Regardless of how much time that is for you, establish a rhythm so that your team can be prepared when they show up for rehearsal or service. If you have a very experienced team, you may be able to get away with less preparation time. But it’s always helpful to be respectful of everyone’s time by being a good communicator about your desires for the worship setlist with a reasonable level of lead time.
10. Leave space for moments to happen during your setlist
Sometimes picking fewer songs is better. One thing that helps keep a worship set open for God to move is not planning out every single minute of the time allotted. This is just going further on the idea that worship isn’t a performance but a participatory act that we get to do with our congregations. You don’t necessarily want to just blast through the setlist and nail all the transitions without stopping to be really present in the moment. Of course, confidence and musicianship as a worship team will play into how a team is able to flow even between songs. But don’t be afraid to build in time to breathe and learn how to leave space in a worship set.
11. Create a “master worship song list” to pull from for your worship community
Especially if you tend to have a lot of spontaneous or last-minute song additions, try establishing a list of 30-40 songs that you or other worship leaders on your team would expect everyone in your worship community to be familiar with. Put them on a playlist you can share so that they can listen. Then, when a worship leader feels led to go into a song, they can be confident that the team scheduled that week will have an idea of where to go. With the different backgrounds and experiences of some of your volunteers, you may need to actually cultivate the environment within your worship community to help them find a common thread in your church.
12. Think about the lyric content of the songs in your worship setlist
Finally, one of the most important elements of making a strong worship setlist every Sunday is the lyrical and thematic content of the songs. Arguably more important above style, sound, or arrangements is the actual words you and your congregation are singing to God and about God and His truth. Think about the theme of the overall service and make sure the songs fit and make sense. Then also consider the concept of what your church congregation NEEDS to sing for a certain service or even a certain season. It’s good to be aware if you’re singing too many “me-focused” songs and need more “vertical” songs giving God the praise He deserves. Or some songs may have deep theological truths that help build the foundation of our faith, and others will make space for a simple and childlike expression of worship without too many words. It’s a great thing to blend all of these elements into worship sets.
The simple desire to make a strong worship setlist every Sunday is probably something that’s on every worship leader’s heart. Take it seriously but remember to have fun and enjoy the process of planning out the experience for everyone participating in your worship services. It is truly a blessing to get to be a part of leading God’s Church in this way!