Writing a Setlist

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Martin Luther said “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.” Worship is such an art, one that I have had the privilege of taking part in and learning about for the last 5 years. As worship leaders, the responsibility of our team is to do everything we can to usher God’s people into His presence. The last thing our worship team wants to do is distract from what the Holy Spirit will do in the hearts of the congregation at a service. Therefore, we carefully and prayerfully plan a setlist for each service we play, whether it’s for a congregation of 5 or 500. Here’s some of what goes into that process.  



Please allow my words to fail for a second as I try to explain a part of what happens during worship. The Holy Spirit meticulously undoes your heartstrings and moves in your soul during worship so that your heart can be ready to receive whatever God wants to speak through His word. A setlist is a group of songs that we put together to lead at the beginning of service to accomplish this preparation process. The purpose of this setlist is first to “praise” God joyfully and with thanksgiving for all He has done for us. Praise does not require anything of us, while “worship” requires sacrifice in adoration for God, hence the phrase “praise and worship”.




The context of a service is the first aspect I think about. Consider whether you’re leading worship at a youth group; at a more intimate setting like a prayer meeting or bible study, or if it’s a bigger setting like a Sunday or weekday church service. Also, consider who you’re leading; will the room consist of mostly younger people, an older and more traditional congregation, all women (Flourish services), people who are grieving (i.e. leading worship at a funeral service), etc.A setlist isn’t chosen to cater to the congregation’s preferences, but worship should be attainable and relatable to the people being led.



Keeping in mind the phrase “praise and worship”, we will generally have two songs of praise and two songs of worship at our Sunday services at Calvary. It’s important to consider the ebb and flow of these songs into each other. When I write a setlist, I usually choose one up-tempo (fast) praise song, one mid-tempo praise song, then two slower tempo songs, making sure that the last two songs don’t feel almost exactly the same as each other. There is a dynamic to maintain as you flow from one song to the other so that the setlist doesn’t feel too fast and exhausting to follow or so slow that it feels like it drags on.

Besides tempo, every song is played in a “key”. The key of a song determines how high or low the notes are sung or played. When writing a setlist, in order for there to be that flow and dynamic I talked about, the changes between keys shouldn’t be off-putting or distracting. Remember, the entire purpose is to set the stage for the Holy Spirit to move in people and we want to use music and creativity as a tool to do so.



One of the most important aspects of writing a setlist is choosing a balance between known songs and new songs. Choose a careful balance between the more “wordy”, perhaps newer songs and the simpler, more known, more singable songs that are easy-to-follow.



Each worship setlist has one or two themes. We like to create moments instead of robotically moving from one song to the other. To do this, I’ll put two songs together that have similar themes or messages. A setlist tells a narrative and should be cohesive.

At the end of the day, we know God can move in silence and stillness and still has the power to make the earth shake without our “help”. However, He calls us to be a part of His movement, to be about details, and to serve with excellence. So align this post with that thought, whether you’re a worship leader reading this or a congregation member gaining a better understanding of setlist science.


Author: Lauren L.


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