Hi everyone!

Something I've been thinking about recently is how (and why) we choose certain songs each week for our services. If you're the person at your church who decides what we sing each week, this post will (hopefully) give you a framework of thinking that may help you as you choose songs.

Now, I think sometimes we get too hung up on individual songs. So often I talk to Christians who say things like 'That song is great, but if only it mentioned insert subject here' or 'why don't people write songs that "do it all"?'.

I've realised that we don't have songs that "do it all", (or at least, they are very rare), but thankfully we tend to sing more than one song at a time. What we see lacking in individual songs can be made up for with awareness of the storytelling nature of songs arranged in a set.

Songs arranged in a set will naturally form a narrative that will be communicated to the congregation. Whether or not that narrative makes any sense or just seems like a jumble of ideas that don't fit is up to the music leader and the song chooser. If at your church these two roles aren't filled by the same person, I think it is important that the same sort of dialogue between the preacher and song leader ("Hey, what's the message about, any song recommendations to help me choose?") also happens between the song chooser and the music leader, eg "Here are the songs we're doing, I've chosen them for these reasons and here are the connection points where they make sense in a storytelling fashion, or help us as we respond to the Word preached." The person leading the music may need to help guide the congregation along in the narrative.

It's a good idea to work on continuity between thematic content in the songs alongside continuity in arrangement. If a song can flow almost seamlessly into the next element in the narrative, that can be helpful in presenting the narrative in a way that makes sense.

Here's an example of a post-sermon set I might use following an evangelistic message reminding Christians to trust in Christ and not themselves and exhorting non-believers to turn to God for forgiveness of sins. I'll assume I'm leading the singing, so they're in male keys (though the range doesn't go higher than an E4 in this set).

HOW DEEP THE FATHER'S LOVE FOR US - in E. Reinforcing the message of God's love shown in the finished work of Christ's death and resurrection. This song marvels at the love of God for sinners (the line about my mocking voice calling out amongst the scoffers at the cross gets me every time) and ends with us dwelling in the ransom-paying death of Jesus. I'd likely introduce this song in a way that highlights some of these ideas and encourage the congregation to marvel at God's deep love for us while we sing.

IN CHRIST ALONE - in E (they're all going to be in E. D also works for this set especially if it's an early morning service. Eb is a great option as a middle ground. Fewer open strings for bassists though). Picking up at our realisation that Christ's wounds 'have paid our ransom', we continue that sentence declaring 'In Christ alone, my hope is found.'. The link there is obvious. Based on Christ's work on the cross, in obedience to the will of our loving Father, we have our hope in eternal life, victory over sin and reconciliation with the Father. We switch from 4/4 to 3/4 here, so this is a transition to practice in rehearsal. Confidence is key here, the anacrusis (pickup) to the first bar in the melody is rhythmically strong and will stick you right in the correct time signature. I dare you to try and sing 'In Christ alone, my hope is found' to the original melody and not be counting in 3.
This song extrapolates the theme of How Deep The Father's Love and focuses on the application of Christ's death on the cross for us.

AMAZING GRACE (MY CHAINS ARE GONE) - I'd start with a chorus, as the lyrics respond directly to the final line of In Christ Alone:
"Here in the power of Christ, I live. My chains are gone, I've been set free. My God my Saviour has ransomed me.".

The goal in these transitions, if you haven't noticed yet, is to flow the last line of songs and the first line of the next song into each other to continue the thought. In this case, I've started with a chorus to achieve this. Keeping your PowerPoint person in the loop on this can be a great help for the congregation! The distraction of the song leader singing lyrics other than those on the congregation's screen can shipwreck a smooth transition.
Amazing Grace is a powerful song that helps a congregation reflect on the grace of God, but there is no explicit gospel content. No mention of Christ or the Cross, payment for the sins of humankind. Many mentions of grace yes, but no definition. By placing it at the end of this set, these short comings are mitigated by the understanding of the song's place in the narrative we have created through transition and theme.

To summarise this set, we see the love of God for sinners revealed in Christ our Saviour who died for us, to rescue and redeem us from our sinfulness and we respond to the grace of God revealed in our praise.
In fact, if I was feeling particularly creative, I might return to the first line of How Deep The Father's Love at the end of Amazing Grace.
"How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure. That He would give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure." ties lyrically to the first line of Amazing Grace that speaks of grace saving "a wretch like me." and clearly defines the grace mentioned in Amazing Grace.

I hope this explanation and example of thinking about the narrative across a set of songs has helped you think of ways you can communicate the Gospel to your congregations and continue to let the message of Christ dwell amongst you as you sing. I know it's something I continue to play with! Feel free to try out that set I've described if you get a three song set responding to the Gospel. I would love to hear how it goes in other churches!

James