Confessions of a recovering song hoarder…
Yes, I’m a song hoarder. I had an entire file box jammed full of photocopied charts, handwritten chord sheets, burned CDs, and yes, even overhead projector transparencies. I started the collection back when charts had to be purchased in a physical songbook from the publisher (anyone remember the Maranatha Green book?). When SongSelect and other digital music sources emerged, I finally stop filling that Rubbermaid box. That’s when I started filling my hard drive.

I’m a song hoarder. I finally learned a tough lesson after a few years in ministry: It’s okay to have a neurotically-driven archive of all the songs I’ve ever led. But it’s not okay to randomly inflict those songs on my congregation every week. My master list had become a monster list. And it was killing congregational worship. Each week, my poor church was subjected to a set list that contained songs they hadn’t sung in months, songs they had never heard before, and a few they knew. Vaguely.

When I happened to slip in a congregational favorite, they’d sing like Jesus had just come back. I eventually learned what caused the disparity: On one song, they sang from the heart. On the others, they just sang from the screen. Or not at all.

We don’t have time to talk about my whole journey out of the toxic song rotation wasteland. (If you want to read the entire story, you can pick up my book, The SongCycle. And, yes—I am that big of a nerd that would write a book about song rotation.)

Three Truths About Songs
But here are three truths that I learned which helped me escape:
1. Repetition is required for people to learn and sing songs from the heart and not from the screen.
2. When the platform musicians and leaders are getting sick of a song, the congregation’s probably just catching on.
3. Our songs are tools which are part of two critical systems in your worship ministry: Set Planning and Song Management.

For the rest of this article, let’s focus on the latter—a song management system.

Let me say this first: systems are not the fun and hip part of being a worship ministry leader. But when you implement healthy ministry systems, you will accomplish more in less time, your team members will be more synchronized and committed, and you’ll grow a fantastic team culture. So, what does a healthy song management system give you?

A filter for when to say yes or no to new songs (and bid adieu to certain old songs). A limited repertoire of songs that your team and congregation can play and sing from the heart (and not the screen or chart). An intentional plan to rotate songs often enough so your church and team genuinely know them—but not too often, which results in song burnout.

You’ll also find that your set/service planning is also enhanced by this limited repertoire. No longer are you rummaging through a monster list of 462 songs to choose five. You pick from a lean list of songs, due to be rotated.

(Quick aside: if you think a system of repeated content somehow stifles the work of the Holy Spirit, talk to our brothers and sisters in liturgical churches.)

5 Steps To A Healthy Song Rotation
So, let me cap off this article by giving you six practical steps toward a tighter song management system.
1. Assess the Mess
Take a few moments to get real about how big your Monster List really is.
2. Cut the Clutter
Chances are that you can cull at least half your songs. You probably ignore most of these songs when you’re planning services. Leave them in an archived list, but trim down your active rotation list to the tunes that still resonate with your congregation.
3. Rate and Rotate
Determine how often songs should be scheduled in a rotation period. I use a three-month rotation:

  • I schedule well-known songs only once during that period to avoid burnout.
  • For songs that are known but not as internalized for the congregation and team, I schedule at two to three times.
  • Songs that are new and just catching on get repeated at least once a month.

4. Introduce and Reduce
Whenever you intentionally introduce and teach a new song, find at least one song that you can retire from the active rotation. Otherwise, your lean and fit rotation will get thick and sloppy again.
5. Keep Your Classics
There will always be those songs – modern and ancient – that hold a special place with your church. They don’t need to be repeated often. Keep them in a separate “Classics” list and sprinkle them throughout the year.

The bottom line is this: your songs are tools to help your gathered church worship God together. A healthy system to manage and implement those “tools” will mean the difference between your church singing from the screen and singing from the heart.

Want To Go Deeper?
If you want to develop a more effective song rotation, sign up for the 2018 Christian Musician Summit Bootcamp November 1st, 2018 in Tacoma, WA. sponsored by WM magazine. This year’s focus is The Eight Essential Systems for Worship Ministry. You’ll get a full day of practical training and coaching to improve all of your ministry’s systems and processes.

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