Choosing music for worship

How exactly do pastoral musicians choose hymns and anthems for use in worship? When I first began choosing music for worship, I wasn’t very confident at it, so I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned for fellow colleagues, and for those who aren’t church musicians. Over the years I’ve had several people say to me, “Wow, that hymn just happened to fit the sermon topic so well,” and they were surprised to find that it was actually done on purpose 🙂

My particular expertise in developing worship music comes from thematic worship built around the Word. Within the United Methodist Church, this often comes from the lectionary readings for the day, but pastors have the freedom to build several-week sermon studies on specific books or topics, and most pastors take advantage of that freedom. Whether the scriptures come from the lectionary or an alternate schedule, however, I believe that worship centers around the Word of God. Thus I work to see that all worship aspects under my supervision support the presentation and understanding of the Word, and I have found thematic worship to be the most effective vehicle for the presentation of the Word to the congregation. It is by far not the only valid worship style, it’s the one that I’ve grown up with in the United Methodist Church, so it’s the worship language that I most fluently speak and most effectively use.

So, in a thematic worship service, how does one go about choosing music?

The very first step, before we even start considering music, is to work closely with the pastoral staff to discover:

– Are they following the lectionary?

– If so, which one of the lectionary readings are they preaching on?

– Within that passage, what are they focusing on? If, for example, we’re talking about the Prodigal Son, there are dozens of different sermons that could come from that one passage. Or sometimes, the passage covers half of a chapter and a half-dozen different topics. You need direction from the pastoral staff to know where they’re going, and this often takes initiative on your part, so don’t be shy. Think ahead– especially when you’re planning choir anthems as a part of this, too.

Once you’ve got the preliminary information about scripture and topic, the next step is to study the scripture. Read it, meditate on it, pray about it. Read the parts before and after to understand where it fits. I write a lot during this part of the process, mostly notes of what I’m thinking as I explore how the topic might branch out in different ways. Where is the Spirit leading my thoughts? How does my personal Christian experience inform my understanding? How might this relate elsewhere to the contemporary church? How has it related to the historical church?

Reading supplementary materials is an option at this point as well, as it might illuminate a different perspective that you haven’t considered, but it’s not something I do for every worship service. To me it falls under “helpful but not strictly necessary.” Sometimes I turn to devotional materials, other times I like to learn more about the scripture from scholarly sources– Dr. Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt University has written some fantastic books about the New Testament from an Old Testament/Jewish perspective; I’ve learned so much about the Psalms from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible; N.T. Wright has some great commentaries on various books of the Bible, and you can find the complete Bible commentaries of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley available on Kindle for only a few dollars.

Over time, this process of study will change and grow, as your relationship with the Spirit changes and grows. The process may take less time when you return to a scripture– but it also might take more time as your eyes are opened to a new aspect of the Word that you didn’t see before, because you were at a different part of your spiritual path last time. Follow where the Spirit leads you during this process of discovery, and allow yourself time for this kind of preparation. This isn’t something you can do when the bulletin information is due in an hour.

After a thorough understanding and meditation on the scriptures, an important part of the Anglican-derived Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Christian Church is an awareness of the church year. (Outside of these traditions, this step depends on the individual congregation.) Are we in a major season– Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, or Pentecost? If so, where are we within the season? Is there an overarching theme or schedule that the church is observing during the season?

You are now armed with all of the worship information you need: scripture, theme/topic, church season, and your own meditations on all of the above. It’s time to pick up a hymnal.

Like most modern hymnals, the United Methodist hymnal has a topical index in the back. This is a really useful first step. Look at what hymns are noted under which topic, and see where the hymnal is directing you. It’s useful to look at hymns under different but related topics, they might give you more ideas.

There are so many resources online, too. is the official website of The Hymn Society of North America and Canada, and it’s fantastic. You can search by tune, by text, by hymnal– you can compare texts from multiple hymnals to see how texts have been changed over the years. Each hymn’s basic information includes any associated tunes, its presence in every single major hymnal ever, authorship information, a link to the composer’s page, associated scriptures, and even a chart illustrating the frequency of the hymn’s use over the past two hundred years. It’s an invaluable resource, and also really fun if you’re bored…. or maybe that’s just me 🙂

Other online resources that I use on a regular are and, which has a resource called “This Week’s Hymns” that may help to provide direction. This is clearly not an exhaustive list, I recommend that you search on your own as well and find which resources are the most useful for you.

One major resource in print is Sundays and Seasons, which comes from the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and has excellent background on the historical church, church seasons, imagery within the scriptures, and great recommendations for incorporating non-traditional worship methods. The United Methodist Church publishes a Music & Worship Planner yearly that has the complete scriptures along with 6-7 hymn/song recommendations for each. It doesn’t include any supplementary information about church seasons or worship methods, which makes it a far less-useful resource than Sundays and Seasons. It’s a decent jumping-off point, but I’ve found that I only take its recommendations maybe 15% of the time when I’m planning worship. I also don’t know if there’s any overlap between what’s found in that planner and what they have on the UMC Discipleship website.

Journals that I’ve found helpful are Reformed WorshipThe American Organist, the Hymn Society’s publication, Chorister’s Guild, and Choir & Organ, just to name a few. Most hymnwriters have published hymnals of exclusively their work, which are great resources and can also be wonderful devotional tools. While obviously your congregation’s hymnal is your major resource, t’s important to use the resources that are published continually, as they are where you’ll find new hymns, new hymnwriters, new texts and topics, new ways to help today’s church understand the Word of God and relate it to contemporary issues facing church and culture today. This is why continuing education, from reading to attending workshops and concerts, and being active in professional organizations are all an essential part of the pastoral musician’s responsibility.

I’ll be picking this up tomorrow with an exploration of a hymn chosen for a specific service, so you can see an example of what it looks like to tie all of these different aspects into a worship service, and how powerful it can be when the right hymn or song is found for a worship service.


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