Worship Planning: Should All Songs Point to the Pulpit?

An Open Letter To Senior Pastors…

Dear Senior Pastor,

Before I start, I just want to say thanks for what you do week-after-week to bring us a message from the Word. Most of your congregation has no clue of the work–not to mention the emotional toll–that it takes to get up to teach and preach the message every Sunday. That alone is a burden to carry, not to mention all the other aspects of being a senior pastor.

The preparation you put into your messages is the same kind of preparation your worship leader would love to be able to put into their worship planning, practices and rehearsals.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about.

A Time And Planning Barrier

I’ve been working with worship leaders for awhile, and one of the barriers they have is the amount of time they’re given to plan songs & setlists.

I’m not sure what your particular process is for message prep. But I have worked with worship leaders who can’t plan their music until the middle of the week, because they don’t know the theme of the message until then.

This creates a domino effect.

Since the worship leader can’t plan the music ahead of time…

  • the team doesn’t have time practice the music before they arrive at mid-week rehearsal…
  • the mid-week rehearsal becomes their “practice.” Essentially, they’re individually learning the songs when they should be rehearsing…
  • the Sunday morning warm-up time then becomes the rehearsal that they should have had during the week. It’s now a scramble to make the songs sound right, when they should be just reviewing and warming up…
  • the first service then becomes the warm-up…
  • and finally, the second service is starting to come together, that is, if you have second service.

If your church’s team only rehearses on Sunday morning, this process gets even hairier.

Consider this: imagine preparing your sermon to be spoken through seven different people. That’s what your worship leader is dealing with.

They need more lead time to get their team ready.

Since your worship leader may not know till Monday, Tuesday or even Wednesday what your sermon is about, he/she can’t get the music out to their team ahead of time to practice.

And EVERY musician needs to practice songs, no matter how good they are.

Do All Songs Need To Point To The Message?

Please hear this:

The requirement to have all songs connect to the message is lowering the quality of your worship service.

Now, because of your tradition or background, you might be wondering, “What’s the alternative?”

What if instead of every song pointing thematically towards the message, your worship team could lead a meaningful time of worship through music, scripture, and prayer that prepared the congregation’s hearts to be open to the Holy Spirit— rather than their brains to be receptive to a theme?

Consider how a well-planned journey of worship led by a well-prepared leader and team might benefit the message time. This is more important than having songs that share some of the same key words and ideas.

Let me point out three other reasons for not having a messaged-themed setlists.

1. Songs Might Fit Lyrically, But They Don’t Flow.

Songs sharing similar words, phrases or themes don’t necessarily make for a great journey of worship. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think there’s value in planning thematic worship sets. But some themes just aren’t as easy to find the right songs. Songs can feel forced, and the setlist lacks musical flow.

2. Unfamiliar Songs Are Chosen.

To make it even harder on the team, the worship leader—in an attempt to find songs with the right theme—reaches way back into the archives for oldies, or scours the internet to find new ones.

The result is the same: the team doesn’t know these songs, so more practice and rehearsal is required.

This is not just an issue for the team, but now the congregation is trying to sing a song they don’t know that well.

The last reason I’ll mention is this:

3. The Congregation Might Not Even Be Aware Of It.

I’d be surprised if the average worshiper in your congregation even notices the thematic tie-in between the song and message. Most just want to sing songs that help them meet with God.

If the musical worship does that one way, and your sermon helps them meet God in a different way, that’s not a bad thing.

Steps To Try A Different Approach

Let me give you a framework to try this different approach:

1. Trust the Holy Spirit

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve planned music a month out—not knowing what my teaching pastor is speaking about, and it ties together. I know other worship leaders and senior pastors that experience a similar cohesion.

2. Prepare Hearts; Not a Thematic Set-Up

View the “worship through music” time as its own space to meet God, rather than a preparatory piece for the message. If people meet God during the musical worship, won’t they be that much more prepared to hear the Word?

3. Create a Compromise

Connecting to the theme of the message doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Create a compromise that allows the worship leader to plan most of the songs in advance of your message planning.

However, ask him/her to leave space for a song before or after the message that will help reinforce the theme of the message. It’s still not ideal in the practice realm, but most teams can handle it—especially if the other songs are well-prepared

4. Give It a Shot

If you’re not convinced, try it for time. But give this trial enough time, at least three or four months. The leader and team need time to adjust to this.

5. Raise the Bar

This new found freedom to prepare in advance should raise the quality of the music and the flow of the worship service.

If the team still comes in unprepared to the rehearsal after having been given their music in advance, then the issue is now their failure to practice on their own.

If this is the case, you as the chief “lead worshiper” of your church should consider having a heart-to-heart—first with your worship leader, then with the whole team. An exhortation from you will carry a lot of weight.

Your worship team’s preparation and confidence will do amazing things for your Sunday morning worship experience. You can help give them that by allowing your worship leader to plan music out ahead of time.


This article was originally published March 2014. Last update: July 14, 2020

Jon Nicol