How I Choose Hymns and Songs for Worship

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I don’t know about you, but I love taking a look behind the scenes.

Maybe it’s all the second-guessing that goes on in my head on a daily basis (Am I doing this right? Is this the best way? Is this how other people do it? etc.) or maybe it’s my curiosity for learning about other people’s processes, creative approaches, and perspectives on the everyday things that I spend some of my time doing, too.

I find there’s always something to learn from watching others work through a problem or task - their step-by-step process, their insight, their strategies - I find it fascinating and informative. Next time that I sit down to work on a similar task, I have a few different options and ideas of ways to go about it.

I’ve shared a few behind-the-scenes posts here on the blog over the years. Here’s a quick summary:

Church Music

My Step-By-Step Process for Rehearsing a New Anthem
An Inside Look at My Worship Planning Process
How to Choose Music for Your Choir: An Inside Look at My Process

Career

An Inside Look at My Creative Process
What I’m Working On This Summer
A Day in the Life (December 2011)
A Day in the Life (April 2015)

Personal

Navigating the Home-Buying Process as a Freelancer: An Inside Look

Today, I’m adding to that list and sharing a more in-depth look at how I choose hymns and songs for worship each week. Enjoy!


How I Choose Hymns and Songs for Worship

Step 1: Open worship planning document

We keep our worship planning document on Google Docs so multiple people can have access to it at all times. Our document is a simple spreadsheet that includes space for all the music (hymns, songs, service music, anthem, etc.), as well as the Scripture readings, sermon title, children’s time, and those leading in the service (worship leader, sound technician). 

When I go in to add the music, the lectionary texts for the day are already there, as are the two readings selected to be read in worship that day and the sermon title.

For the purposes of illustration, I’ll walk you through my actual planning process for the Sundays coming up in November (based on the Revised Common Lectionary).

Step 2: Look up and read through all the lectionary texts

I often access the lectionary via the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. It’s easy to navigate to the readings for a given week and you can hover over the reference to read the full text. This is a quick way to see all the readings at a glance and get an idea of common themes and keywords.

If you prefer paper, there are numerous lectionary guides and other worship planning resources out there available for purchase.

For November, the texts are as follows:

November 5 (All Saints’ Sunday, communion)
Revelation 7:9-17*
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12*

November 12
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25* and Psalm 78:1-7 or
Amos 5:18-24 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13*

November 19 (Thanksgiving Sunday)
Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11*
Matthew 25:14-30*

November 26 (Reign of Christ Sunday)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100* or Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46*

* = our selected readings for each day

Step 3: Make a list of keywords and common themes

Once I’ve read through all of the lectionary texts, I navigate back to our worship planning document and add in a few keywords and common themes that tie all the readings together.

For instance, perhaps all the readings focus on obedience or following God’s way, with keywords like “trust,” “guidance,” and “obey." Or, they all tie into heaven and the promise of eternal life with keywords like “rest,” “glory,” and “Zion.”

For the Sundays in November, I came up with the following themes and keywords:

November 5
saints, throne of God, blessing, influence, communion

November 12
the coming of the Lord, keep your lamps trimmed, wise and foolish

November 19
hidden talents, coming of the Lord, thanksgiving, gratitude

November 26
reign of Christ, sheep and goats, thanksgiving, serving the least of these

This helps point me in the right direction for the next step in my process.

Step 4: Browse the topical index of the hymnal and search keywords on Hymnary.org

Once I have a clearer sense of what the service as a whole will be about (based on the lectionary texts), I look up any hymns or songs that come to mind and search for others that might tie in. In our service, we generally have three hymns or songs: one at the beginning, one in the middle (before or after the sermon), and one at the end (before communion on communion Sundays). 

If the hymn or song has more than three or four verses, I make sure to read through all the verses and choose ones to sing that will be most relevant in the service.

For November, I ended up with the following hymns/songs:

November 5
For All the Saints (vv. 1, 2, 4, and 6)
Shall We Gather at the River
For the Bread, Which You Have Broken

November 12
Sing With All the Saints in Glory
My Lord, What a Morning
Open My Eyes, That I May See

November 19
We Gather Together
What Gift Can We Bring?
Now Thank We All Our God

November 26
Christ is the World’s Light
Together We Serve
Lift High the Cross (vv. 1, 3, and 4)

Want to know a shortcut? Take a look at the hymn suggestions for each Sunday on the UMC Discipleship Ministries website. Suggestions are organized by lectionary passage, which makes it super easy to find relevant hymns and songs (and page numbers!) that match.

Step 5: Add congregational hymns/songs to worship planning document

Next, I go back to our worship planning document and begin adding in the congregational music.

I try to make sure that the opening hymn ties in with the first reading, or the general theme of the day. I also try to choose something more upbeat and joyful for this spot in the service. This is often something from the hymnal, with organ accompaniment.

The middle song or hymn often ties in with the second reading and the sermon topic and may be quieter and more reflective. This, too, is usually from the hymnal, though I often accompany it from the piano because of other things that are happening before or after.

The closing hymn often ties in with the theme of the day, as a way of summarizing the service, and is more upbeat, in tempo and musical style. Depending on the theme, I may choose something more contemporary for this last spot and accompany it from the piano instead of the organ.

Step 6: Think about creative ways to introduce hymns and songs in worship

As much as possible, I like to find ways to include other instruments on the congregational hymns and songs we sing in worship. Sometimes, this means descants, and other times, it means adding to the accompaniment.

Depending on the style of the piece, I might try adding ukulele and/or guitar to my piano accompaniment, or include a simple descant for flute, saxophone, or trumpet. I might look for ways to use percussion (djembe, cajon, conga, etc.) to add a little something extra.

For hymns, I look for hymn harmonizations that might work well for a middle or last verse, either for organ or piano. (Note: Sometimes, I can get away with using a snippet from one of my solo arrangements!)

Finally, I think about ways to teach the hymn or song to the congregation, if it's new: perhaps have the choir sing it alone first, play it first and have them listen, sing it first for them from the piano, or have a small ensemble that’s out front and able to lead.

For instance, For All the Saints, Now Thank We All Our God, and Lift High the Cross would be great with descants, vocal or instrumental (though maybe not all of them, as that might be a little much for our little congregation), and We Gather Together could be fun with more informal instrumentation, perhaps piano, guitar, and djembe.

Related post: How to Teach a New Hymn or Song to Your Congregation

A few considerations:

Here a few other things worth noting about choosing congregational hymns and songs for worship:

Introduce one new hymn or song at a time. Try not to have more than one new or unfamiliar hymn or song in the service. If you’re in a more contemporary setting, try to incorporate the new hymn or song several weeks in a row so the congregation has more of an opportunity to really learn it.

Use instrumental music to support the congregational music and tie things together. Have another hymn or song that didn’t quite make the cut? Look for an instrumental arrangement to play as a prelude or use as the offertory that Sunday. 

For instance, I’m planning to incorporate Be Thou My Vision and Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise on Sunday, November 12 and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, Jesus Shall Reign, and Great Is the Lord on Sunday, November 26, in addition to the congregational hymns I’ve chosen for those days.

A little goes a long way. When it comes to hymn harmonizations, instrumental parts, and descants, a little goes a long way. This isn’t something you need to add to every hymn or song every week. Use your best judgement. No matter what, make sure the melody line is always clear and uninhibited so the congregation feels supported and knows what to do.

Plan ahead. The nice thing about working from the lectionary is that the texts are all preselected and available to you. Whether or not you have the specific readings you’ll be doing that day, you can begin the work of pulling out keywords and common themes that work across all the texts of the day. 

My advice? Plan at least 6-8 weeks out, more if you’re coming up on a special season like Advent and Christmas. 

There are always extra things that come onto your plate during those busy times of the church year, so having the congregational music chosen in advance will save you time and hassle later on.


How do you choose hymns and songs for worship each week? What does your process look like and how far out do you plan?