Rant 1: “Just Throw a Few Songs Together”

A couple of months into my first job as music director of a church, I called a guest preacher to ask about his text and the substance of his message for the upcoming Sunday. “Oh I don’t know,” he answered. “Just throw a few songs together, it’ll be fine.”

Thus begins the first post in a series I will simply call my “rants.” My former housemates used to (more than) occasionally roll their eyes and say “here comes the rant,” when they recognized one of my triggers. I will refrain, in these posts, from digressing into my standard rants about things like Hertz Rent-a-Car, land use policies (or lack thereof), and dog owners who think their dog is God’s gift to everyone. Since this blog is intended to be focused on worship theology, I will limit myself to worship-associated rants. I will also do my best to write as I see it, rather than censoring myself to avoid ruffling feathers. Feel free to air ruffled feathers in your comments.

(Never use Hertz Rent-a-Car.)

Having just said I would be happy to ruffle a few feathers, I’m now going to offer a caveat or three before I launch into this first rant:

  1. I believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through a few songs “thrown together.” Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully as I plan with little or no information about what the rest of a service will look like.
  2. I realize that preachers are perhaps not used to the types of questions that I ask before planning a worship service. The response of “just throw a few songs together” is sometimes given because a preacher feels I’m asking for information he or she can’t provide at the moment, rather than because the preacher feels that worship should be planned in this way.
  3. Although I have heard the above words far too frequently there are, of course, a myriad of preachers (and others) who place a high value on congregational worship, and who have an astute sense of the time and effort that goes into planning a worship service.

Alright. Caveats over – gloves off.

My biggest concern about “just throwing a few songs together” is the underlying assumption that this is all worship is. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging assumption. As stated in my post on Subliminal Liturgy, gathered worship forms our congregations (thinking of the service as a whole now, with music acting as one part of that whole): it forms our behaviour inside the church and outside; forms the way we think about God; forms the way we think about the world; forms the way we think about ourselves. If we treat any part of our gathered worship lightly, we are in danger of shaping our congregation passively (at best) and negatively (at worst). There is nothing in scripture that leads me to believe we are to treat the worship of God lightly or casually.

So “throwing a few songs together” implies a dangerous attitude toward worship, but – if I’m honest – it’s the implied lack of respect for worship leaders and the work they do that gets under my skin and rankles. It takes hours and hours to research/write/deliver a sermon. I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself. Most members of a congregation will affirm the amount of time it takes to preach a good sermon. What drives me absolutely batty is that those same understanding individuals, and often the pastor as well, while agreeing that the sermon is a time consuming and important task, think it’s a matter of minutes to put together the rest of the service. Choose a few of your favourite songs; throw them up in the air; see how they land; and then just get up there and play. (Note to readers: Please congratulate me on my forbearance in not using strong language here.)

It generally takes me 10-20 hours to research (yes, research)/plan/practice/lead a service. Other worship leaders will take more or less time, depending on their process and (sorry if this sounds overly frank/harsh) on the value they themselves place on the act of gathered worship, and on the task they have been given. Since I realize the above estimation of time may be surprising to some, and therefore will demand some justification, I thought I’d share my planning process with you.

How to plan a worship service in 10-20 hours:

  • Speak to the preacher, generally asking four questions: what text are you preaching from; where do you plan to start; where do you plan to finish; and is there any specific response you feel this passage requires from the congregation.
  • Read the passage and its context several times, preferably aloud.
  • Work through a mini-exegetical process focusing on the following questions: how is the original audience led up to this point; what is the text communicating; what does the text say about God; about the church; about us as individuals; what kind of response does this text demand from God’s people?
  • Spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal his word both in the text itself, and through the Spirit (speaking a particular word to a particular congregation at a particular time).
  • Begin to pull songs – anything that rests briefly on, leads to, or provides response for the thoughts and ideas that are now circulating.
  • Spread songs out and begin to group them, tracing themes and working through how a congregation might be led up to the particular word of God that will be preached. Keep in mind the standard elements of the service which must be included (congregational prayer, announcements, kids message, offering, etc.), and note which songs might provide an opportunity for the congregation to respond fittingly.
  • Begin to play through some of these groupings, determining how songs fit together musically and thematically. Note where additional transition might be needed and how songs can be fit together in such a way that they add meaning to each other.
  • Consider additional elements: write a spoken liturgy or prayer; determine what participation children will have in the service; determine if there is an additional biblical text that compliments the sermon text, or adds an additional layer of meaning; examine transition points to determine how best to lead the congregation through them (scripture, prayer, liturgical reading, musical shift, etc.)
  • Write out an order of service, complete with who will be leading the various elements, and how they will fit together.
  • Practice the service as a whole to ensure timeliness, to affirm that the service will assist people to move from one place to another (rather than simply circling a theme), to map out any difficult musical transitions, and to match musicality to meaning.
  • Ensure that details are in place: correct words available to congregation; necessary participants on board; ensure participants are informed of their part in the service and how it fits into the rest; ensure that all needed objects (music, decorative elements, readings, additional instruments etc.) are printed out/gathered.
  • Practice with others (if there are additional musicians), paying special attention to transitions and tone.
  • Lead congregation through the service.

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly. Maybe I take things a bit too seriously. But I don’t think so. I think we are intended to treat the worship of God with careful consideration, with respect, with joy, giving it the weight of our time and effort. Giving it the weight that it is given in scripture.

God’s set-up of Israel’s worship of him is not a brief and un-detailed “throwing together of songs.” It spans chapter after chapter of text. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1/3 of the Torah (first five books of the OT, Israel’s founding text and therefore ours) is concerned, in one way or another, with how God’s people do, do not, or should worship him. God’s set-up of Israel’s worship involves complex structures, rituals, and planning; involves careful attention to detail and joyful contribution of time, resources, and effort; involves careful reading of surrounding culture and avoidance of cultural worship practices that would lead God’s people astray.

Surely, then, our own worship, our own planning, should be more than “throwing a few songs together.” Not only can we do better than that – if we are to follow God’s ways with his people as portrayed throughout scripture – we must.



  1. I love love love your postings here. It’s the only blog out there that I actually have an email subscription so I don’t miss any. You’ve found the balance of theory and practice that is so rare out there.

    Your process looks fantastic. Unfortunately for myself, it’s a 10-hour volunteer commitment and I don’t have the bandwidth to accomplish all of it, so the process is quite abbreviated. (I’m going to think positive and just call it “efficient”.) Any thoughts for those of us time-boxed by a schedule?


    1. Jeff, thank you so much for your kind words. I can commiserate with you having only 10 hours in which to plan. My first job as a worship leader I was paid 10hrs a week (and so had two other jobs to support myself), and was expected to lead every Sunday, as well as plan and implement special events (such as a children’s Christmas play). Unfortunately, I am one of those people who simply can’t help myself. I have my process and go through it even if it costs me (which it did, in my first job – I burnt out after a year). Having little time (whether paid or otherwise) is a real issue – partially because we don’t value our gathered worship highly enough to put our money where our mouths are and pay people properly in order to ensure that they will have the time they need. So thank you for pushing me to think about how to trim down the process when the time is just not there – as it isn’t for so many of us.

      Some thoughts for those time-boxed by a tight schedule:

      You will have to let some (many) of the extra elements slide (written liturgies, added creative elements, etc.). I would include them only when they come easily and quickly to mind – and they will sometimes – praise God!

      Your exegetical process will have to be quick rather than thorough. Do take the time to read the chapter aloud twice, and to look at what comes before and after. And do pray. But if need be you can rest on the preacher’s more thorough exegesis and concentrate instead on leading people up to the passage, and leading them to take it with them when they re-enter their day-to-day lives.

      I find it helpful to spread everything out on the floor in front of me (lead sheets, my notes about the passage, the preachers’ comments) – that way I can shuffle things around physically and see how they move together. If I’m doing it in my head, or even on paper, I find I lose where I am and have to go back – which of course takes time.

      Those are my immediate thoughts – obviously they are not many. I will need to think harder about this, and maybe write a full post about time-constraints.

      I’m interested, Jeff, to hear about your planning process. How do you manage to stay deep with only 10 hours to spend? How do you feel the time constraint helps you – what aspects do you feel it limits?


      1. Thanks Stacey-

        A couple of major differences in our situations, besides time, which help:
        -We don’t have any written liturgies (Evangelical church…sorry)
        -I’m not responsible for non-musical creative elements.
        -We tend to have topical sermons, not exegetical – so I rarely have a particular passage to meditate on.

        The 10 hour limit is actually a pretty good thing for me, because it releases me of some expectations from others – it’s only going to be so much that I can commit. That said, I actually just got the blessing to start a choir – so I’ll be hitting those time limits (probably exceeding them) far more frequently in the near future.

        We have just started a monthly planning meeting for long-term thinking about service planning, so creative elements etc. can be prepared in advance and with a longer view.

        My song selection process is generally taking our song list, ordered (electronically) by date of last usage, with this general criteria:
        – fitting the theme of the sermon where possible
        – if we haven’t sung it in at least 1 month
        – or, if a new song, keeping it in a closer rotation for learning through repetition
        – mixture of newer choruses, older choruses, hymns and hymn rewrites
        – keeping a musical arc to the service – but not the same every week

        The selection process usually takes between 30-60 minutes to pick out 6-7 songs each week. The rest of the time is spent preparing and practicing charts for special music items, newer songs, and physical setup.


        1. Jeff:

          First of all, I should tell you that I attend an evangelical church as well (and no need at all to be sorry about that!). :) The written liturgies I refer to are responsive prayers and readings that I prepare myself, usually using one or more scripture passages and layering them in a way that expands and exegetes their meaning. Maybe I’ll write a blog on how to write liturgies at some point. I’m glad to hear that, if you’re not responsible for other creative elements, you’re meeting together with a service planning team that will help ensure that you are all working together toward a common goal – obviously these planning meetings are included in your prep time – but planning with a group (and having other members who take responsibility for various other aspects of a service) can definitely save you time.

          A few further thoughts about your process:

          It is definitely important to ensure that your church has a set rotation of songs, and that new songs are played more frequently – but I’m not sure I would make regular rotation a primary consideration for choosing songs. In my experience, certain songs may resonate with a congregation for a time, but then may drop out of the picture for awhile because they are unneeded, or because other expressions of worship are more necessary at a certain time. Choosing with consistent rotation with consistent rotation at the forefront of one’s mind wouldn’t allow songs that are unneeded to be recognized as such, and dropped until needed again (if ever). Some songs will hang in there for the long-term (classic hymns fall in this category) but some will naturally drop out of the picture, and we need to allow space for this to happen, so that new and more needed songs can replace them. New songs generally fill a current need in a congregation and so are naturally played more frequently.

          I feel a bit the same about combinations of hymns and choruses. If there is a list of hymns and choruses on a current song list, I find that paying attention to the scripture passage(s) for the service and praying for the inspiration of the Spirit generally lead me to pick quite evenly between hymns and choruses without necessarily lending preference to one or the other. If your congregation is really committed to keeping hymns alive, there will be more of these on your song list, and so more possibility of you choosing them frequently.

          I realize that a topical sermon is a different fish altogether from the sermon series that works through a certain book of the Bible – but likely (hopefully) your preacher is still preaching from one central text, or at least from several different texts on a single topic. I would challenge you to take an extra 1/2 hour to read over these passages, and to pray over them. I’d love to hear whether this makes a difference in your planning – and if so, what difference it makes.

          All in all a solid planning process, with some very balanced considerations. Thanks for sharing it with me, and with my readers.

          For all you others out there – I’d be very interested to read of other planning processes, if anyone else would like to share with us.

  2. It’s so obvious when a worship leader hasn’t put much thought/time into their selections, how the songs weave together or how they intersect with the message. For four years I worshiped in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and purposefully went to the “traditional” service where the liturgy was scripted and often sung. All the prayers, spoken transitions and music selections were clearly intentional and deeply thought-provoking, not to mention beautiful. As a trained vocalist, writer, pastor and lover of the Word, I have high expectations of worship pastors. You are instrusted with the task (also a gift) to gather God’s people and help us recognize that we are in the presence of God; together we glorify God through song, an act that delights God, no doubt to the point of dancing. I believe that to worship God is our first, hightest and ultimate calling. Why would we not give the planning of sung worship attention that is careful, loving and long?


  3. Exactly my sentiments, except that you put it in such a brilliant way. Maybe you can weave your rants together to write a series of worship novels. May I suggest giving Stieg Larsson a run for his money. He has earned too much money with books like “The Girl Who Played with Fire.”

    Title your book: “THE PREACHER WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE.” with a pen-name, say Stacey Firesmith?


  4. Thanks for this very challenging and timely post. I’m leading worship a week from Sunday, which I do about once every couple of months. I never put anywhere near as much time into it. I simply don’t have that much time to spend. But I could start now to think about it, rather than procrastinating until next Saturday night which is what I often do. You’ve given me much to think about and chew over during the coming week.


  5. Lincoln: thanks, I think I will. ;)

    Corrie: I’m still praying that one day I will lead music for you somewhere as you preach.

    Conrad: I accept your generous nickname. :)

    Rosie: I’m glad it’s a post that will make you chew. Please come back after chewing is complete and let me know the result!


  6. I know that you and Andrew have just relocated, but is it too early to start recruiting you to work with us?


  7. Love this post! The past couple of years I have been privileged to attend a church where whoever was preaching emailed out some thoughts on their passage early in the week and information about whatever else was happening during the service. I certainly have known the grace of Holy Spirit in helping me chose appropriate songs when I have had little or no information about the Sunday service; however those gifts rarely compare to being able to prayerfully prepare for what will happen. I think when lines of communication are open between pastor and worship leader (and other participants in the service) you end up with more than just a few crazy Christian individuals doing the best they can for Jesus. Instead you have a communal, shared vision for the entire worship service (even if much of the preparation amounts to individual work).

    I think the next time someone preaching says, “Just throw some songs together, I’m sure it will be fine” I would ask them if that is how seriously they take proclamation. If they have no thoughts toward Sunday are they just throwing something together?


  8. You hit the nail on the head, Stacey. Your process looks a lot like mine (did). At the church I most recently had opportunity to lead worship (and then only occasionally), the process was irritatingly last-minute.

    Among many things that I disagreed with: there was a flawed theology of the Spirit that said that spontaneity was more “Spiritual” than that meticulous planning. I don’t think my pastor thought that he could be guided by the Spirit if he planned his sermons in much detail more than a day or two before they were to be given.

    But I was also irritated at how little time, like Jeff says, I had to devote, as well. I think a lot of my preparation time was in the meditation and brainstorming time, the conceptual preparation, if you will. And the practical preparations–practicing, gathering materials, making sure other participant-leaders were fully informed–ended up being crammed into the last few remaining hours or minutes.

    Where I worship now, I feel like there is much attention paid to the practical things–things are all well executed. But I don’t know how much time is devoted to the conceptual creativity. I think it requires a balance between these two poles.


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