Beyond the Worship Set
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.
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.
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.
2. The worship set can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements.
Another danger of the worship set is that it can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements. Paul told Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). He instructed the young pastor to lead his church in offering up “requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 2:1). His expectation was that the members of the Corinthian church would set aside their offering “on the first day of every week” (1 Cor. 16:2), from which many have inferred that giving was an integral part of the New Testament church’s public worship. Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples (Matt. 28:19), and he gave them his Supper so they could proclaim his death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). There’s a lot more to do in church than sing and preach.
The danger with the worship set is that these other elements of biblical worship can fade into the background. If the congregation expects (or even demands?) to experience a well-rehearsed, creative musical progression, that can force out these other mandated expressions of worship. Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone intentionally sidelines biblical elements of worship. I only mean to highlight a pattern I’ve noticed: when a church privileges worship through song by giving it the lion’s share of time and focus, these other elements of worship tend to become thin and perfunctory.
How can pastors and those who lead worship through song work against this tendency?
If you use a worship set, resist the idea that the set must only contain music in order for it to have maximum impact. This isn’t a concert. Intersperse prayers and readings between the songs.
Promote a culture of worshipful, robust prayer in your services. If you devote substantial time to prayer during the public meeting, it shouldn’t be a surprise if your church members learn to prioritize prayer in their private lives.
How do we bolster our public prayers? By saturating them with scriptural truths: “Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don’t we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout.”
There is also a correlation between rehearsal time and value. If your church values well-crafted music, it’s likely that your band or choir spend hours in rehearsal. Why not spend as much time and effort on preparing public prayers?
Finally, promote a culture of worshipful Scripture reading in your services. If we believe that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) let’s take it out of the sheath and let it do its work. Read in such a way that the majestic truths of Scripture echo in the ears of your congregation. Consider training up a number of congregants to read Scripture well: with meaning, emphasis, gravity, and joy. We hand out Tim Challies’ excellent article on how to read Scripture publicly to everyone who reads at our church.
3. The worship set can foster an entertainment culture.
Third, the worship set can foster an entertainment culture. This danger is ironic, of course, because one of the purposes of the worship set is to unify a group of songs along the lines of theological content. But I fear that often, what the congregation experiences as they sing through a worship set is not a new appreciation for a biblical theme, but a concert-like journey through a stirring series of songs.
Although I’m not against creativity and emotion in public worship, I believe it is possible to so prioritize the emotional response that comes from music that biblical truth is overlooked rather than illuminated. One implication of Colossians 3:16 is that if the word of Christ does not dwell in us richly as we sing, then something about the way we’re singing needs to change.
As Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death, entertainment has become the dominant discourse of our age. While the church must recognize this fact, it shouldn’t capitulate to it. Our services don’t have to feel like a concert or TV show, even if those modes of discourse define the manner in which postmodern people experience the flow of ideas. Rather, we have the opportunity in our services to model a different type of discourse, one that begins with the self-revelation of God. Our worship—whether contemporary or traditional, high church or low—should eschew man-focused experientialism and embrace the transcendent God.
So, if a worship set can help people adore, treasure, and understand more of our holy Creator, then by all means use one. But if in your church the worship set tends to place more focus on the artistry of the band than on the awesomeness of the Redeemer, something needs to change.
How can we resist the way a worship set might slowly pull a church toward entertainment-ism?
Do all that you can to prioritize the congregation being able to hear one another sing. This is a basic biblical principle, given that Paul exhorts believers to speak “to one another” with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). But it also goes a long way in cultivating an atmosphere of joy and engagement with the lyrics.
Awareness of others in corporate worship, and of how the volume and expression of your own singing actually encourages others, helps to thwart self-centeredness. Practically, this may involve turning down the volume of the band or orchestra, and instructing the musicians to focus on tasteful, simple accompaniment rather than complex or virtuosic performing.
Provide a framework that helps to interpret the worship through song. For example, instead of beginning the service with dark lighting and a reverb-heavy guitar line (which feels a lot like a concert), begin with a call to worship from God’s Word or a brief prayer.
Before the music begins, have the service leader give a few words of instruction or exhortation to set the song(s) in context. This interpretation of what is about to come is invaluable not only for believers, but also for unbelievers who may not know what to make of the music they’re about to hear. (See 1 Corinthians 14:24 on the priority of making the service understandable to non-Christian visitors). Yes, it might feel a bit wooden and awkward to have a few remarks before the singing. But even this speed bump in the service is a good thing, because it engages the congregation’s minds and inhibits the passivity that an entertainment culture thrives on.
Also, keep the main lights turned up. Darkness, smoke machines, and spotlights all scream that the focus should be on musicians up front. In contrast, bright lighting and modest staging—even placing the musicians off to the side if possible—convey that what really matters here is not the choir or the worship team, but the content of the songs and the whole congregation’s participation.
See silence as a friend, not an enemy. If there are a few moments of quiet between a song and a prayer, or between the offering and the sermon, it’s not a disaster. After all, this is a gathering of Christians for praise, not a TV production. In fact, allowing silent space in transitions can refresh people’s mental palates and allow the church to reflect on what has come before in the service. In addition, use planned moments of silence for reflection and prayer. Sitting in a room with dozens or hundreds of other believers and simply being quiet before the Lord is bracingly countercultural in our noisy, distracted age.
MORE TOOLS IN THE TOOLBOX
In all of this, I’m not trying to make the worship set a bogeyman. It’s a useful tool. But for these three reasons, I don’t think it should be the only tool in our toolbox. And if we do use a worship set, we should do so in a way that unifies rather than divides the order of service, that highlights rather than downplays other elements of worship, and that promotes awe before God rather than an entertainment experience.
When it comes to planning a worship service, there is much freedom with regard to the forms and circumstances in which a congregation reads the Word, sings the Word, prays the Word, hears the Word preached, and sees the Word in the ordinances. I pray that as pastors and music directors think beyond the worship set, God would give us wisdom to lead our congregations in offering him an appropriate sacrifice of praise. I pray that our churches, filled by God’s Spirit, would increasingly delight in God’s Son, the one who gave himself for us that we might be worshipers of him.
 Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 114.
 Terry Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is according to Scripture (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000), 35.