12 Keys To Picking Great Songs For Worship

Picking great songs for worship is one of the most important skills a worship leader needs to learn. There are many different kinds and levels of worship songs. Some songs are written about God, some songs are written to express our feelings, some songs are sung prayers, some songs are upbeat praise songs and some songs are pure worship to God. And many Christian songs are performance songs and really don’t fall into the worship category.

There are fast songs, medium songs and slow songs. There are difficult songs and easy songs. There are old songs and new songs. But what are the best songs for us to sing with our congregations? What songs help our congregations to sing with all their hearts and connect with God?

Here is my philosophy of picking worship songs distilled from 10 years of travelling, writing charts for Praisecharts.com and over 25 years of leading congregations from 70 to 7000 in worship.

Great Songs: Learn to pick great songs not just doable songs. Great songs are the ones that you will still love to sing a year from now. Different songs have a different ‘shelf life’. Some songs you don’t mind singing a few times but after that you just seem to forget them. Generally speaking, a congregation learns between 12-20 songs per year. Make them great songs! Pick congregational-friendly songs that line up with God’s word! Here are my Top 25 Worship Songs for 2017.

Test Of A Great Song: One of the tests of a great song is that you catch yourself singing it by yourself, in your car, in your house or when you are out on a walk. Or a congregational member tells you that they have been singing that new song you introduced all week. Or you hear your spouse singing that new song.

Do You Sense God? Great songs have the Spirit of God resting on them. This is a little harder to quantify. When I hear a great song, I sense God. The song moves my heart. I realize that God is in that song. A great song will also cause you to lift your heart in praise and worship to God.

Songs From Around The World: I love to pick great songs from around the world. God is moving on anointed musicians and writers from all over the globe. We now have access online to worship bands in Australia, Canada, the United States, England, Europe, Asia and Africa. I don’t want to limit my song choices to one church or one church movement.

CCLI Top 200: It is easier than ever to find out what churches around the world are singing. CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) has an invaluable online list of the top 200 songs that churches are singing. Their Top SongSelect List shows you what thousands of other worship leaders are picking for their congregations. If you are wondering what songs to sing, let me assure you that the songs on this list are like gold.

If your church uses PlanningCenterOnline.com, they also have a strong Top Song feature that really helps find the great songs that churches are using.

Top Writers: There are certain writers that have been writing great songs for years. Writers like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, Reuben Morgan, Joel Houston, Tim Hughes and Brenton Brown have consistently written great songs over a long period of time. When I see their names on a song, I definitely check it out. And there are also some great new writers: Jason Ingram, Ben Cantelon, Brian Johnson, Matt Maher, Jesse Reeves, Phil Wickham, Joth Hunt and many others.

Balanced Repertoire: Learn to keep a balanced repertoire. You need fast songs, medium songs and slow songs. You need ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. Make sure you keep picking great songs of different tempos that fill that need. Keep it fresh but don’t hesitate to include a great older hymn. It also helps to listen to the songs that the youth and young adults are singing. Learning newer style songs is of high value for them.

Repeating Songs: Learn to repeat the new songs enough times for the congregation to learn them. My philosophy is to always repeat a new song the next week, give it a week off and then repeat it again the fourth week. That way the congregation is hearing the new song three times over a four-week period. If it is a great song, the congregation will know it by then. Also, it helps if the song is on Christian radio (although many songs on Christian radio are not worship songs). That way the congregation is also hearing it in their cars and homes.

Singable Keys: Put the songs in keys that the congregation can sing. Most people do not have a huge vocal range. If in doubt, use the ‘Rule of D’ principle. Make the top note around a D (C-E). My personal favorite is making C# the highest note.

Original Songs: By all means, use original songs that are birthed in your congregation. But my advice is to make sure the songs match the quality of the rest of your list. Personally, I usually use only one original song and the rest of my list is great songs from around the world.

The Basics of the Song: Make sure the melody is singable and memorable. Does the song work without the band? Does the song work with just a simple acoustic guitar or piano? Do you find yourself singing the song when you are by yourself?

Working On The List: First, pray! What is God saying? What song is He bringing to mind. Is there a theme for that service or message? After that, I try to start and end strong! I usually start with an upbeat praise song that people can easily connect with and I usually end with a slower great worship song that is sung directly to God. I never start or end with a brand new song, no matter how good it is.

In between that, I am working on transitioning musically and thematically with my main purpose of having the congregation focus on and meet God in our short time together each week. (for more tips on this check out my blog: 8 Tips On Taking Your Sunday Morning Worship To The Next Level)

Question: What can you add to this list? What is working in your congregation?

Check out my new book.. “Leading Worship ~ Notes from a Grand Adventure available in Kindle or Soft Cover Editions.  This is a great gift for the musician or worshipper in your life.

This blog is part of my vision to train over 100,000 worship leaders around the world. If you would like to support this vision you can help by giving any amount through this PayPal account.

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23 Responses to 12 Keys To Picking Great Songs For Worship

  1. Simon says:

    Great points which all worship leaders should adhere too. I think it is also important for the worship leader to know the culture of the congregation. Knowing their background and the musical influences of their upbringing, and trying to sing songs that adhere to their genre of musical tastes, will greatly influence their connection with God. Music moves the soul! Therefore, if you are in ranch territory, singing some country gospel style music might be more beneficial than some DC Talk or some Philly 5. Or being in a church where everyone is 60+, it might be more acceptable to sing a few extra traditional hymns or even some of the new rearranged hymns.

  2. Sylvia butler says:

    I enjoyed reading this post Mark and love the fact that even after all your years in music ministry, you still ask for imput and encourage others to say what is working for them. I don’t believe in a formula, just believe we should follow a biblical example and enter into temple worship through his gates with thanksgiving and praise, to come into the Holy Of Holy’s to worship and bow down, then exit back through the gates of praise, into our everday world. We feel renewed and ready to minister life changing hope to a world that needs Jesus.

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  15. Tim says:

    From a bass player’s perspective. I think sometimes the worship leaders are so focused on the words they forget the music. I got myself in trouble for saying a new song sounded just like other songs we were playing that practice. The worship leader was upset because I wasn’t paying attention to the words. But I was paying attention to the melody, chord changes and rhythm so I saw the similarities.

    If I am not on the worship team if the songs sound the same it is much harder to get into worship. The words have far more impact if the music moves me. If the songs sound the same a little voice in the back of my head tells me reminds me of that which reduces the songs’ impact.

    On key choices most worship leaders I know pick ones too high for most guys ( I sing bass). So almost all the guys I have sat near don’t sing or if they do, struggle to keep in key myself included, bouncing between their natural range and something else that doesn’t work. Our senior pastor is a tenor so when he leads (very rarely ) it is great because my voice can join the worship without battling to keep in key. And amazingly most of the other guys around me start singing also.

  16. Michelle Howe says:

    I am the leader for the praise team at my local church and there are many times I struggle with choosing the right songs,I also feel inadequate as I don’t think I am ready for such a huge responsibility. I still try my best and would really welcome any help I can get. thank you.

  17. Bev says:

    I wasn’t familiar with all of the songs in your list of top songs. After exploring them I noticed a lot of them are better for a full band. When I lead we only have acoustic guitars and a cajon. Great list though!

  18. Tim says:

    There’s a need for a huge paradigm shift today when talking about worship. Worship is not just singing a slow song but a lifestyle. And when it does involve singing songs it’s not to entertain the crowd with favourite songs and technical excellence. These do have some merit but are subservient to glorifying God and giving Him His worth, flowing in His will.

    I believe if you are appointed as ‘worship leader’ you have a responsibility to hear God’s prophetic way forward – what is the theme, topic or word God is highlighting? Should you even be singing songs? Is it time to be noisy, silent, reflective, celebratory etc.? What does God want to do during your time as God’s people together? Should the ‘worship team’ even be on a raised platform? Do we really need a ‘worship leader’?

    A few questions to ponder.

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