The List

There's a great thread going on over at The Worship Community forums regarding songs "retirement." Specifically, a question was asked to the community about when a song gets retired from a church's repertoire. The answers varied from "never" to "regularly," of course. Nathan referred to this excellent post from last year on the subject.

We made a choice last year that we were going to limit our worship catalogue at Gospel Light for 2009. We did a self-evaluation last year and reviewed how we felt the prior year had went. We found that over the previous two years, we had introduced over thirty new songs to the congregation. That's one, one average, every three and a half weeks. Maybe it doesn't sound like a lot, but it was. In our fervor for new music and being "cutting edge," we had left much of the congregation in the dust.

It is much easier for an active, working musician to assimilate a new song than it is for the typical congregant. This is due to several factors:

  1. We have more time to spend with the music. Music makers are, by definition, music fans. We listen to music, breath music, dream about music. It is not unusual, or even uncomfortable, for me to listen to a song on repeat several times in a row. Most listeners don't like that.

  2. We speak the language of music more readily. Just like it's easier to memorize a phrase in a language you speak and understand, so it is with music. I can listen to a phrase, or look at a chart, and understand the "syntax" of what's happening, and it makes sense to me. It may be a new song, but the progression may be familiar. A causal listener might not make that connection.

  3. There's some kind of eerie right-brain/left-brain thing happening. Your left-brain is reading this and doesn't get it. Neither does mine. But it's there.

We also noticed that more members were squinting at the screen and not really worshipping. They were concentrating on reading the lyrics and not feeling the words. And this was happening far too often.

So we made a couple of choices. The first was an embargo on all new music for the first six months of the year. This has been tough. I've heard some cool stuff I'd love to do in the last five months. So have the others. The other choice was to pare the catalogue down to fifty songs. That was really hard. We divided the list up into "fast" "moderate" and "slow." We each then listed our top song in each category. (Truth be told, most of us listed two or three. We breathe music, remember?) Those selections were the basis of the master list.

We have, for years, rotated the responsibility of song selection among the team. Each member does two weeks in a row, two or three times a year. This gives everyone the opportunity to hear from God and to put "their" touch on a service. It works really well. Being constrained to fifty songs was tough at first. "What about this one?" or "This should be on the list!" was often heard. So there are a couple of "outs." The first "out" is the offering songs. We play two songs during offering time. These songs are not limited to The List. So the song-picker can bust out with "As David Did" or "Blow the Trumpet in Zion" as they see fit.

The second "out" is the altar call. We generally don't pre-plan this - it either flows from the message, or the preacher asks for something specific.

This whole process has had it's ups and downs. Ups:

  • The congregation is more focused on worshipping instead of reading

  • The songs are more familiar, hence more connection

  • We are better prepared to do a song "on the fly."

  • No more old, lame songs no one likes anyway.

  • No stinkin' music stands.


  • We (the team) more easily gets bored with some songs.

  • Some congregants tell us "You played that song last week!"

  • There's some hot new music out there we need to do!

We'll see how things go come July, when the self-imposed "ban" is lifted. We will probably go slow - maybe one new song a month, something like that. (We usually use the 2-1-1 method; two weeks on, one week off, one week on.) Can't wait!


  1. I worked for a while as a pastor in charge of an evening, youth and young adults oriented service. The first month I was there, every service had different songs and no songs were repeated. The congregation didn't join in much, the music director was having trouble getting people to commit and the stress/burnout amongst the singers was unreal. And, don't get me started on the photocopying and manuscript handling!

    My plan was to move to 65 songs per year, which was a number an experienced worship pastor friend had suggested. Initially, with the team we made a "canon" of 35 tunes (less than the songs covered in that first month), with the worship leaders allowed to go "off the reservation" for one tune a week, in consultation with the preacher/pastor and myself.

    Of course, there was initial resistance, some toys were thrown out of the pram, but pretty soon congregants started connecting better with the worship, volunteering went up, yelling subsided, the treasurer stopped crying over the copier costs and growth occurred.

  2. We have a list (never trimmed and originating 20 years ago) of around 500 songs, of which I can probably play half off the cuff and another 1/4 after a hint. The remaining quarter I don't recognise, but I wasn't responsible for selecting those!

    Some years back I produced a list of 100 songs, divided into 3 categories: Praise, exaltation and worship. Exaltation songs were those between praise and worship, where the mood was shifting from jumping and dancing to a more focussed expression, but too much energy for an eyes-shut worship song. Examples would be: Jesus We Enthrone You, Amazing Grace, Blessed Be Your Name etc. This was really useful, because it helped less experienced worsip leaders produce a song list that had a natural transition to a place of worship, rather than a jarring change of tempo. The downside was that it could make worship predictable in the hands of those who were less creative, but it wasn't that big a problem as worship was the place we wanted to get to and any means to get there was more or less OK.

    The other thing that I did was to ruthlessly remove the 'I' songs. It wasn't enough that the songs had to be currently used, but all the man focussed ones were deliberatley excluded and that cut things back by about 20%. I was aware of another church that did the same exercise and they shed more than half their repertoir! I thoroughly recommend doing this, as so many worship songs I see these days are all about telling God how much He's at work in us, and so few seem to be extolling who He is and how great he is. While it can help people to sing things from their own perspective, it really diminishes worship to be focussed on us instead of God.

    It worked well, and although it was nice to use an expanded list later on, I still find it helpful to look back through the shorter selection for inspiration. And it's given me a strong dislike on 'ME' songs.

  3. Isn't "Amazing Grace" a "me" song? :)

    500 songs... wow, that's crazy. I couldn't imagine knowing 250 songs off the cuff. But then, talk to me in fifteen years, I suppose. But I do like the divisions of songs, however one chooses to do it. Does it make it predictable... yes, to a degree. Usually we start fast, go to moderate, and move into slower worship songs. But not all the time. Finishing a worship set in a joyful praise song has its own rewards as well.

    Fern brings up a good point about the hard costs of making copies as well. Seems we do that way too much. Of course, with CCLI licensing, that's how the artists get paid, so I don't mind all that much.

  4. Amazing Grace IS a me song, and TBH I can't remember now whether is was binned or allowed to slip through because it's still anointed none the less. I certainly ditched a number of hymns very thankfully, mostly for lack of anointing than bad theology.

    That last line... artists getting paid. I have very mixed feelings about that.


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