The Struggle With Master Song Lists for Planning Worship

Songs are a major part of your church’s worship. They give your congregation a voice to their worship and praise, and they are vitally important to the building of disciples. People worship best with songs they know. (You do need a regular diet of new songs as well.)

I have spent a lot of time in the last year struggling with what I want to write and teach about song lists used in worship planning. Today, I ask you to take the time to consider the longest blog post I have ever written with an open mind to see if this is something you need to consider for your worship ministry.

In years past, people used their hymnal as their song list in planning worship. Pretty much everything your congregation sang came from that hymnal. But today, we use songs from hymnals, other songbooks, various internet sources, locally written songs, etc. Keeping up with our congregation’s repertoire can be challenging.

Some people plan worship by choosing songs out of their head–perhaps something prompted by songs heard on the radio this week, or just a song from the past that is remembered. This misses out on many songs that may be better choices for your congregation this week.

Some worship planners have a list that included every song their congregation has sung. It probably has well more than 200 songs on that list. While that can work fine with an older, established congregation, this becomes an immense problem (1) if your church is experiencing growth with people who did not grow up in the church singing these songs or (2) if your church wants to position itself to reach and disciple people in your community. Having a large song list means that new people will rarely know the songs you sing and prevent them from participating fully in worship.

People using Planning Center, WorshipPlanning.com or other online planning applications often use the list of songs in that application to plan. It can become much like the list of 200+ songs if you are not curating and refining it in some way. For these people, I encourage the use of the spreadsheet system I will describe below as a tool to use with your planning application.

Today, I have finally written what expresses what I believe to be a system that will help worship leaders carefully curate a master song list for worship planning that will engage their people in worship and help new believers to quickly find a voice for their praise and worship.

I ask that you consider this carefully and seek God’s heart on what changes you may need to make. For those of you that are already using carefully curated song lists, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments to help others as well.

You will find some specialized tools I have created to help you on the journey as well.


When you plan your worship services, do you choose songs from your head or do you have a list of songs that you use? Planning from your head can be a haphazard way to plan worship since you may miss out on the best songs for a particular service.

If you do have a list of songs that you use in planning, how many songs are on the list? Do you ever remove songs from the list, or does it just get larger every year? How do you determine how many songs should be on your list? Having too many songs on your list leads to very little repetition of songs and the likelihood in many cases that many in your congregation will not know the songs you are using in worship. Unfamiliarity with the songs breeds a lack of active participation in worship and leads your people to become spectators.

The size of your master song list can dramatically affect worship in your church.

Let’s think about the size of your song list. If your list has over 200 songs on it and your church normally sings 4 songs each week in worship, then you would essentially never repeat a song in a year if you sing all the songs! That may work if your church is made up of people who have been a part of your particular church for decades or you are using only older, mainline hymns for a congregation made up of veteran church attenders.

BUT, what if your church is growing and seeing people come to faith regularly? Perhaps you have a good number of visitors each week. Will these people that did not grow up in the church know your music? NOT LIKELY.

You see, if your church is growing and reaching people, you must have a reasonable level of repetition of songs in order for people to sing songs they know and therefore participate in worship.

 We must also consider that the average church attendee does not worship at your church every week. Even if they attend every other week on average, that greatly impacts the number of times they encounter a particular song on your master song list. (If you sing a song four times in a year and they only attend half of the time, they might sing the song twice.)

Too many songs on your song list will make it difficult for the congregation to worship.

So, if you want to help your congregation really sing by helping them sing songs they know, you MUST LIMIT THE SIZE OF YOUR MASTER SONG LIST.

A master song list should be long enough to provide variety for your congregation, yet short enough to provide familiarity.

So, how many songs should be on my master song list?

Consider four things:

    • How many songs do you sing in your weekly worship service?
    • How often will you include each of three types of songs (explained later) in a service? i.e. How many hymns, classic worship songs, or modern worship songs would you use each week out of all the songs you sing?
    • How often should you repeat songs in a three-month period for your congregation?
      • New songs must be repeated often at first to help people learn the song
      • Older songs do not need as high a repetition as newer worship songs.
    • Considering your congregation’s demographics, attendance patterns (how regular they attend), visitors, new members, transiency, etc., how often should songs be repeated to breed great familiarity without wearing them out?

These can be difficult questions to answer well. Let’s dive deeper.

Realize, if your church sings 3 songs a week, you would need a much smaller list than a church that uses 7 songs a week.

Over the last few weeks, I have been developing a system that I believe you could adapt and adopt to help you bring some resolution to this area. First, let me describe four types of songs and three distinct song lists you will use.

Four Types of Songs You Will Use on Your Song List

#1 Hymns

I probably don’t need much explanation here. The great hymns that have survived the test of time are necessary to help us connect with our heritage, and they are the musical heart language of some generations of worshippers in our congregation. Modern hymns, such as those coming from the Getty or Sovereign Grace camps, are not included in this category. For the sake of assignment, we can say that hymns are written prior to the 1980s.

#2 Classic Worship Songs

These are those timeless worship songs that have lingered with us. So many new songs are popular for a time–a few months to a few years–then burn out, rarely used again. Classics have stood the test of time, and when brought out in the service once again, can be embraced as a great expression of worship for the congregation. Think of songs like Shout to the Lord, Blessed Be Your Name or How Great Is Our God. My arbitrary date assignment would be around 1980 to no less than 15 years old. For people in your congregation that have attended church for a number of years, these classics will probably be well-known the first week you use them.

#3 Modern Worship Songs

These are the songs written in the last 15 years. For some churches, you may want to make that time period much less. These can include many styles of songs, but they all are more modern expressions of our faith, representing the move of God in more current times. As mentioned before, modern hymns would also fall under this category.

#4 New Songs

These are songs that are new to your congregation. They really can come from any of the previous three categories, but generally would represent a modern worship song. These songs will need to be repeated many times at first to gain familiarity and become part of your congregation’s worship vocabulary.

NOTE: You may desire to add another category or vary these. Grasping the overall concept is important, but you certainly have the freedom to fit it to the way that best serves your congregation.

Three Distinct Song List Categories That Should Be a Part of Your Master Song List

Your song list will have three distinct lists as described below:

#1 Current Songs

This is the list that you use to plan worship. This list is carefully curated with the correct number and types of songs as we will discuss in a moment.

#2 Under Consideration Songs

This is your list of songs that have met all the requirements for a new song that you will eventually introduce to your congregation. These have been carefully filtered musically and textually [see article]. Songs on this list will likely end up on the current song list in the future.

#3 Retired Songs

When you remove a song from the current song list, you can choose to place it on the retired song list unless you feel it does not warrant using it ever again in the future. This list can grow to be very large in the future.

How to Develop Your Master Song List

    • Determine how many songs you will include in the worship service each week.
      For this example, I am going to use the number 5–four songs are generally sung before the sermon and one after each week in this example church.
    • Consider a three-month block of time and determine how often a song from a particular song type should be repeated.
      For instance, if I choose the hymn, To God Be the Glory, or another hymn, how many times in the quarter should that song be sung to aid with familiarity and make it a more powerful expression of worship? This is where you have to weigh all those factors related to your congregation–demographics, attendance patterns (how regular they attend), visitors, new members, transiency, etc. Determine the frequency of repetition for each of these three types of songs: (1) Hymns, (2) Classic Worship Songs (3) Modern Worship Songs
      (Note: new songs are not included in this since the calculator will assume that you will repeat the new song as suggested–3 weeks in a row, off a week, then once again, then brought back a month later – 5 times in three months.)
    • Determine how many hymns and classic songs you will use on average in a worship service.
      (By default, we will assume that you will be using one song from the new song list each week and the remainder of song spots beyond the hymns and classic songs will go to MODERN WORSHIP SONGS.) For instance, you may choose to do one hymn per week and one classic song each week.
    • Enter data from the first three questions into the Worship Song List Calculator (linked below) to determine how many songs of each type should be on your Master Song List.
    • Once you have the numbers of each of the four song types, carefully choose THE BEST songs that you want your congregation to feast on in worship from each category to populate the CURRENT SONGS list. Resist the urge to expand the list beyond the recommended number. The more you expand, the more you will sacrifice in helping your congregation to be really familiar with the songs. Check out the series on Songs for Worship for help with this.
    • Carefully choose around 12 new songs that will be introduced over the next 12 months to add to the UNDER CONSIDERATION list.
    • Feel free to add songs you don’t want to forget that your congregation knows to the RETIRED SONGS list so you can pull from it in the future iterations of your CURRENT SONGS list.

Don’t keep using good songs when you can focus on the great songs.

Examples of Creating a Master Song List

Example #1

Let’s walk through an example of this. Let’s say that our church uses 5 songs per week in worship. As for repetition, this is what I determine:

  1. Hymns –  we will sing each hymn once in a quarter (4 times a year). We will choose to do one hymn each week.
  2. Classic Worship Songs – we will sing each classic worship song once in a quarter and sing one classic worship song each week.
  3. Modern Worship Songs –  we will sing each modern worship song two times every quarter.

(This example does not give enough repetition for congregations that are having lots of visitors/new members, but for demonstration purposes, these numbers work well).

I enter all this data into the Song List Calculator to get these results:

In this example, my master song list should have 13 Modern Worship Songs, 13 Classic Worship Songs, and 13 Hymns in addition to 3 New Songs. (Remember the New Songs category defaults to healthy practice for introducing new songs.)

Example #2

This example is a better example for churches with growth or wanting to position themselves for growth.

In this example, the plan is to do one classic worship song and one hymn each week. Songs from both of those lists are sung once a month. Modern worship songs are going to be sung every three weeks. This plan would require only 20 songs on the master list split up as you see in the graphic above.

    Realize that having a smaller list lets you choose the very best worship songs for your church’s diet.

    Formatting Your Master Song List

    Once you have the numbers from the Calculator, you can then go to the Google Sheet I have prepared and enter the information you need for all three lists (see sample below). Include additional information about each song to help you in worship planning. The information marked with asterisks is most important.

    1. *Song Title
    2. *Key 1 – should be congregationally-friendly key and include final key if the arrangement changes keys. The ability to sort by keys is extremely important in planning seamless worship song sets that flow well.
    3. Key 2 (if applicable) – should be congregationally-friendly key and include final key if the arrangement changes keys.
    4. Source – where does your arrangement originate–LifeWayWorship, PraiseCharts, etc.?
    5. *Category – choose the appropriate song type from the drop-down selection. 
    6. Tempo # – what is the metronomic setting for the piece?
    7. Tempo – choose fast, medium or slow from the drop-down selection. 
    8. Meter – choose the correct time signature from the drop-down selection.
    9. Year – year the song was written.
    10. Dates Used – I have added a column where you can track when the song was used in worship.

    You will find that the Google Sheet will automatically sort your songs by key on another tab; that is extremely valuable when planning worship. When songs are listed with two keys, their information will appear in each key listing. Of course, you can sort your songs by any column as well on the song list pages.

    NOTE: December is different!! That month breaks all rules as you roll out Christmas/Advent music that is generally only done 4-5 weeks a year.

    How Does This Play Out in Worship

    In the first example I have given, you would schedule one hymn, one classic, one new and 2 modern worship songs each week.

    • The new song would be done three weeks in a row, then skip a week and bring it back on week 5. The second month you would introduce a second new song. The third new song would be introduced in the third month.
    • You will choose a hymn each week and not repeat that song in the three months.
    • You will choose a classic worship song each week and not repeat that song in the three months.
    • You will choose two modern worship songs each week and repeat each of them once in the three months.

    Your people will begin to embrace the songs more because familiarity will increase.

    What Happens After the First Three-Month Cycle

    You will be updating your song lists every three months.

      • The new songs will move to the Modern Worship Songs list (unless they are classics or hymns).
      • At the same time, you will move three of the Modern Worship Songs to the retired list (Assuming all three are modern worship songs).
      • You will choose three new songs from the Under Consideration list to add to the Current Song list.
      • You may also choose to move a few from the Current List to exchange with some on the retired list at times. I would not make many changes beyond that of steps 1-3 above. Remember the objective is to have enough repetition that your people will know the songs well.

    Remember that a song list that is too big or too small may negatively impact your church’s expression of worship each week.

    Other Options for Producing Your Song List

    Worship planning applications like WorshipPlanning.com or Planning Center can handle lists as well, but I have found that having a separate list (spreadsheet) as I lay out here is easier to manage and interact with. You can additionally update your song lists in your online apps to make them work together better.

    Song List Reality

    A recent study of worship leaders in NC Baptist churches indicated that two-thirds of worship leaders use a song list in their planning. Therefore, one-third of the sampled worship leaders are probably using a hymnal and perhaps a stack of additional songs not contained in the hymnal. Moving to planning with a song list will be a great enhancement to great planning.

    Here is a look at the number of songs included in a worship service from the sampling. Most churches utilize 3-5 songs with four being the most popular number:

    Looking at the total number of songs on the worship leaders’ master song lists shows a great difference of thought from the guidelines I have laid out here.

    I would encourage those of you with a very high number of songs on your list to consider the reasoning in this article and determine if you want to get your list in a better position to help your congregation really worship with songs they know well.

    If your congregation is an older congregation made up of people that have been attending church all their life and you have very few people that are not long-time attendees, then perhaps a very large list works well for you.

    If you want to connect with those outside of that description, I believe your list needs to be pared down considerably.

    Getting started with this system takes some time, but I believe you will find it to be very fruitful in planning and leading transformational worship in your church.

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