Elements of a Congregational Worship Song

Ever had those moments when you learn this awesome new worship song and are pumped to play it and then people just kinda stare at you?  Awkward…  Give it time.  A new song often needs to be repeated a couple times for it to catch on.

But hey guess what.  There are a few guidelines that help whether picking songs for worship leading or learning how to write a worship song.  Now don’t get me wrong there aren’t hard and fast rules.  Exceptions happen all the time.  There will be some anointed songs that just fit into your rules or guidelines.

And that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with other kinds of songs.  There can still be great songs you listen to on a CD, hear at concert, or play personally.  They just might not work well in the congregational setting.  Then some songs are great songs that work better in a prayer-room type setting.

When someone brings me a list of songs they wrote I can often tell without even hearing what could be a potentially congregational worship song.  It just starts becoming natural when you’ve done it a while.

Here are a few principles that help in leading worship or writing worship songs:

First things first.

Is the focus on God, specifically Jesus?

Songs that focus on God’s attributes will get the concentration on one-self and are great for praise.  (How Great is Our God, Shout to the Lord, God of Wonders).  Focusing on the cross helps as well.  (Lead me to the Cross, Once Again, Here I am to Worship).

Limit the me-centered songs with phrases like, “Come fill me” “I need you”, etc. to just a few at the right moments often in an intimate part of worship.

Simplicity

I’ve found that guitar players that stick to the basics will often make better worship leaders than the virtuosos.  All you really need is your basic chords.  Nothing fancy.  I’ve developed a style of singing short songs, and have a set in G I have memorized that I can pull out of the drop of a hat.

One of the few Spanish words I know is, “Despacio!  Despacio, por favor!”  Slow it down.  Many praise songs I hear are like Spanish talk shows.  The sing a mile a minute and I can’t keep up.  Please slow down the words so I can sing them!

A good trick is to have some familiar choruses and bridges that everyone knows really well and throw them into the mix between your new or “wordy” songs. If all else fails, go to the chorus of “How Great is Our God” and watch the hands go high.  There’s a reason why it works.

Familiarity

Often certain songs resonate with people as they bring back a moment in life.  Sometimes hymns can even reach someone who hasn’t been in church in twenty or thirty years, but remembers that song from Sunday school.

Generally the congregation is going to grab onto what is familiar.  People naturally enjoy their “comfort zone” and though people often need a little bit of stretching, too much can be distracting.

With new songs, they’re still trying to learn the words and melody.  It often takes about three weeks for a song to get known.  Limit your new songs and don’t do too many at once.

Melody

Does the song have a strong melody?  Ask these questions: Is it singable?  Can you sing it without any instruments or does it need the latest beat?  Nothing wrong with that, but melody comes first if you want people to sing it and remember it.

Think of it this way.  What songs do remember from 20 years ago that you can still sing?  We go through so many songs so fast these days, it’s just too hard to remember them all.  But there are still a few that stay.  The key is to find those songs.

Anointing

This might be hard to put in how-to form, but nonetheless important.  There are certain songs which just grab your heart for whatever reason.  They might have a beautiful melody, creative and worshipful lyrics, whatever it might be.  But somehow the Holy Spirit touched that song.  The main thing I can say is be in prayer.  Live a holy life based on grace.  Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.  You can have all the how-to rules in place and yet still miss the mark if you’re off.

Creativity

There’s a balance between creativity and simple.  I prefer both.  I say keep it simple, but have a challenging phrase or two that makes you stop and go, “Hmmmm, never heard that one.”  The heavily poetic singer-songwriter song I encourage, but might work better in other settings.  But when put one or two of your awesome unique phrases in a simple worship song, it can really hit home.

One of the best examples is John Mark McMillans “How He Loves Us”.  The verses are very challenging, but the chorus is very singable.

I personally really like the old hymns.  They might not be short and simple, but they add a lot of depth and maturity to your worship and help bring generations together.  One hymn can add a lot to a modern set.  Passion’s Hymns Ancient and Modern is one of the best and would suggest that for updated versions.

Finally

Whatever you do, pray before your set list.  Be open to the prophetic with Scripture as your guide.  Always be in the Word, and listen to the Holy Spirit.  Don’t be so set on your plan that you’re not flexible with what God wants to do.  If God’s presence was so thick the worship team couldn’t stand up to play, that would be a good thing!

You are also under leadership.  This is not a one-man show.  This is team-oriented worship leadership under pastoral guidance.  Whatever your pastor and leaders say goes.  Make sure your vision is in line.

Enjoy your worship, practice, pray, and have fun.

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