set list

The Worship Set: Potential Pitfalls and Solutions

Matt Merker: while the worship set has much to commend it, it’s not without dangers.

For many, the “set” of music that comprises the main part of a church’s Sunday service is a bit like the glass sculpture on top of my grandmother’s bookshelf: you can’t touch it.

The worship set is something of a fixture among evangelical congregations, whether the music is accompanied by a choir and orchestra or by an 8-piece indie-folk band. Step into a church sometime between the opening greeting and the sermon, and you’ll likely find yourself in the middle of a 20-30 minute block of music.

So, what exactly is the worship set? And should it be a given in our churches?

Simply put, the worship set is a consecutive group of deliberately chosen worship songs or hymns. It reflects forethought and creativity. It’s a far better option than picking a few popular songs and tossing them up on the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Similar to a meal with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, the worship set follows a dynamic arc or storyline. A set might begin with a call to worship or song of invitation. This song sets a particular theme and invites worshipers to praise God. Next, a couple more songs develop the theme both musically and lyrically. This is the “entrée” portion. If the first song focused on the character of God, these selections might move the church to consider our sin and redemption in Christ. The final song of the set is the theological and musical climax. It could consist of a celebration of the resurrection, or a call to respond in faith and discipleship, or simply a declaration of praise. Bob Kauflin argues for this kind of deliberate thematic development in his book Worship Matters, and he outlines a number of helpful worship set frameworks to try.[1]

On the whole, I think the worship set is a wonderful idea if it is used well. In a former church, serving as director of worship, I devoted substantial time each week to crafting and preparing sets of music. My hope was that this process would aid believers in responding to God in robust praise with their heads and their hearts, and I believe God blessed this effort.

The worship set can be a God-glorifying approach because deliberately shaping the order of songs aids in “the strengthening of the church” that is to characterize our corporate praise (1 Cor. 14:26). It unifies the songs around a central concept, which promotes understanding. If used well, the worship set prepares the congregation for the specific questions and priorities that the sermon will address. Like a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, a worship set can capture our imagination and help us engage with God through the implicit story being told in the sequence of songs.

THE WORSHIP SET: POTENTIAL PITFALLS AND SOLUTIONS

So I don’t want to declare that the worship set is a terrible concept altogether. But I do want to take that glass sculpture off grandma’s shelf and see if it can be improved.

Why? While the worship set has much to commend it, it’s not without dangers. Here are three potential pitfalls it presents. For each, I’ll identify some ways to think and move “beyond” the worship set.

1. The worship set can fragment the order of service.

First, the worship set can fragment the order of service. If pastors and other leaders aren’t careful, using a worship set can subtly convey that the worship service basically has two parts: the singing and the sermon. The worship leader presides over the first half, then passes the baton to the pastor for the message.

I fear that because of this, many evangelicals have a bifurcated picture of public worship: the music part of the service is geared at those who relate to God through emotional experiences, while the sermon exists to engage heady, left-brain types. At worst, this false dichotomy can also perpetuate the common misconception that worship through song is the church’s worship, leading to comments like, “The worship (read: music) today was incredible, but the sermon was a bit dry”—as if preaching is not doxology too.

However we structure our services, we must take pains to convey that both music and preaching (and other elements—see point 2) are properly “worship” to God, and that they’re essential for all Christians.

Here are some suggestions to circumvent this danger. First, if your services usually fall into the “30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of preaching” formula, then change up your order of service regularly. Consider breaking up the music set with prayer, Scripture reading, or silent reflection. Try occasionally placing the sermon closer to the beginning of the service and leaving most of the singing for after the message.

Have an individual other than the worship leader or preacher, preferably an elder, lead the whole service. Call this man a “host,” an “MC,” a “service leader” (that’s the term we use at my church), or whatever you like. But make sure he’s not the music leader or the preacher. If this individual gives the welcome and announcements, introduces the songs, presides over the offering, leads the prayers, and so on, then he can bring unity to the whole service.

Pick a theme for the service based on the theme of the sermon text. Ensure that the songs, prayers, and even the announcements relate to this theme. When the congregation realizes that the whole service is about “the faithfulness of God” or “knowing Christ in suffering,” it will mitigate against the feeling that the worship service is merely a concert followed by an unrelated talk.

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