Setlists that Major on the Majors

Good morning, worship leaders!

It’s amazing how the Lord Himself interacts with us again and again in corporate worship settings. It never gets old—I mean, never ever gets old—to see the “lights” turn on for people, and most humbling of all is being able to help facilitate these sacred moments as the worship leader. Just, wow.

I have found that one of the most obvious ways I can serve my congregation is by building a well-balanced setlist of songs. I know I’ve written about setlists extensively before, but today I would like to focus specifically on developing a setlist that “majors on the majors” and is well-balanced.

First of all, it’s incredibly important to go back and look at your weekly setlists and analyze what you’ve actually asked your congregation to sing. But what’s equally, or maybe more, important is to go back and look at trends. What patterns exist? Month to month, do you tend to lean toward an overarching theme (say, longing for Christ, or victory) or specific attribute of the Christian faith (such as, the person of the Holy Spirit)? 

So, for the purpose of this piece, I invite you to pull your nose away from the page and reflect back on the songs you’ve chosen this past month or season as a whole. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself.

1. Are you singing enough about the Gospel?

Or, put differently, are you singing enough about the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ? I have long said that if we get too far away from the cross, we’ve gotten too far away. Paul remarked in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (emphasis mine). Truly, the sacrifice and resurrection of the Son of God is the pinnacle of Christianity—yes, the heartbeat of our glorious faith! The hinge on which our songs and prayers and hopes turn! It ought to continuously resurface in our discussions and singing, as it will throughout the hallways of eternity!

I full-heartedly believe that a good understanding of the sacrifice of Christ, as far as we humans can understand it, is actually the foundation for every other theme in Christendom. We will grasp our identity if we sing about the cross! We will grasp the love of the Father if we sing about the cross! We will grasp a theology of answered prayers if we sing about the cross! We will grasp Heaven if we sing about the cross! We will grasp forgiving our neighbors if we sing about the cross!

So, take a step back from your weekly worship sets and look at the songs you’ve done this past month. Is the glory of the cross extremely prevalent as a whole? Is the resurrection overtly celebrated? If you need help, think of songs like “King of Kings” (Hillsong Worship), “Living Hope” (Phil Wickham), “Here I Am to Worship” (Tim Hughes), “What a Beautiful Name” (Hillsong Worship), “In Christ Alone” (Keith Getty/Stuart Townend), and “All Hail King Jesus” (Bethel Music).

2. Who is the main character of your songs?

Let’s cut to the chase: Jesus Christ is the “object” of our worship, the worthy recipient of our adoration for all time—but you might be surprised at the number of beloved worship songs that feature us as the main character. Now, please don’t misunderstand! Let me be the first to say that worship itself is, by definition, our response to the mercies of God (Romans 12:1), so it stands to reason that we might sing about just that: our response—our love for God, our thanksgiving, our amazement, our repentance, our hunger and longing, our victory, and more. Songs that include themes like this are well worth our Sunday morning inclusion, but in good proportion to songs that obsess over Christ as the focus.

Look at the patterns of your song selections and ask yourself, “What’s the goal of this song? To whom are these lyrics actually directed? Am I singing more about Jesus, or me? Do these words spend more time talking about me and my response, or Jesus Himself?” Then, look at the opposite end and ask, “Is Jesus supreme in these lyrics, the ultimate end, the primary focus, the worthy goal? Do these lyrics frame Him as taking the initiative? Are we consumed with who He is, what He’s done, and what He’s up to?”

Let me give an example. At our church Oakland, we love the song “Gratitude” by Brandon Lake, and also “Raise a Hallelujah” by Bethel Music—and I myself love those songs. Notice that we are the main characters of those songs, and we’re singing about ourselves (that we are thankful, that we worship in turbulent times, and so on). So here’s what I usually do. I sandwich such songs between other songs that are very Christ-centered or Gospel-centered, such as “Jesus at the Center” (Israel & New Breed), “Worthy of It All” (David Brymer), “O Come to the Altar” (Elevation Worship), “Cornerstone” (Hillsong Worship), or… you get the picture.

3. Are we offering balanced theology?

New Testament scholar Gordon Fee once said, “Show me a church’s songs, and I’ll show you their theology,” and musician Andrew Fletcher once said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

Over the years I have observed that each church is building a particular culture. Some churches emphasize victory and breakthrough, and other churches emphasize prayer; some emphasize suffering and character, some emphasize miracles and faith, some emphasize the Holy Spirit, some emphasize expositing the Scriptures, some emphasize love for Jesus, some emphasize evangelism, some emphasize community. Want to know what your church emphasizes? Look at the general tone of the songs you pick—if your church does “sermon series,” pay attention to repeated themes.

At Oakland, the songs we lean toward carry themes of answered prayers and the resurrection power of Christ. Because I know this, I am careful to make sure that I also include songs with other topics, so as to offer well-balanced theology to our church. Periodically I include songs of lament, songs of Heaven, songs about the importance of the Scriptures, songs about healing, and so on. Here’s why that’s important: I love the unique culture of our church’s worship ministry, but if I only ever served my congregation songs that declare “anything is possible for him who believes!” then what song or prayer can they reach for when there is grief, loss?

Does that make sense?

Offer your church a broad, wide buffet of songs that deal with the Second Coming, water baptism, Spirit baptism, Communion or the Eucharist, the global Church, suffering, the deity of Christ, miracles, and more. And remember, I’m not asking you to cram 10 different themes into one weekend service. We’re talking from a bird’s eye view: maybe month to month, or season to season. What theological themes are you including, or neglecting?

So, what do you think? Do your worship setlists “major on the majors”? Is your music ministry filled to the brim with songs of Jesus, His glorious sacrifice, and resurrection? Do the lyrics you offer your church keep Jesus as the central obsession? Do you offer wide theological ground in your repertoire of songs?

Go at it this weekend with fresh vision, I pray! Go at it with fresh love for Jesus and with fresh love for your people.