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Posted on Jul 30, 2013 in Worship Ministry | 7 comments

Square Peg in a Round Hole: The Problem with Sermon-Centric Planning

I haven’t conducted a survey but, if I had to wager, I’d say the second most common method of planning a worship song set is to theme it around the sermon. It seems to be most commonly recommended. Why second and not first? Because #1 must surely be reserved for chaos. Haphazard. No plan at all. I’d like to submit that #1 is regrettable and #2 has shortcomings.

sqaure peg

When I started out, I was taught to plan my song set around the sermon (and that was what preachers expected, too)…so the first half of my worship ministry career felt like I was trying to fit that square peg into the round hole… Sure some messages were easy enough: “Neil, I’m going to be speaking on God’s faithfulness this week.” Ok, yeah, I can plan about 3 sets around that off the top of my head.  Other weeks, not so much: “Neil, I’m going to be talking about marriage…how the woman’s brain is like spaghetti and the man’s is like a waffle.” Ummm, should we sing “On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese, I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed….”???

The problem with sermon-centric planning is at least twofold:

  1. Not every sermon carries a theme conducive to planning a worship set. I think this has been adequately illustrated!
  2. This method ignores the fact that worship ministry is responsible for it’s own set of themes. Look at your song list, the big one. What major themes emerge? Probably God’s faithfulness, God as Creator, God’s greatness, God’s grace and love, salvation, thankfulness, mission, surrender, etc.  These themes–and others like them–are the essence of the Church’s worship, regardless of your pastor’s sermon calendar.  If he does not plan to focus a single message on God’s majesty and power, for example, should God then be deprived of those songs? And would that even be healthy for your church? No and no. And these are responsibilities you share as a leader entrusted with your congregation’s together-worship!

But what about your pastor? Aren’t you supposed to submit to him? Isn’t the sermon important? Don’t I want the service to feel unified, to flow, to seem purposeful and planned? If I don’t plan around the sermon, aren’t my meetings with the pastor going to get a little awkward?! :)

I believe there’s a balance to be struck. There are solutions that deeply honor both your pastor & the message while giving you flexibility to plan responsible, creative, God-exalting worship gatherings!  All I can really do is share how we’ve accomplished this at LifeQuest.

Basically, our worship service has two “movements”…like 2 parts of one symphony:

  • The first part is worship-theme-centered. Here I’m free to plan around a worship theme or a model that might include elements like praise, confession, adoration, statements of belief. I don’t see this as a division apart from the message at all but rather an opportunity to engage the congregation in specific acts of worship that will, in fact, help prepare them for the message.
  • The second part is message-theme-centered and usually includes 2-3 songs that are aimed at helping the church respond specifically to what they’ve just heard from God’s Word.

Disclaimer: Don’t just haul off and change things without first addressing this with your pastor in a healthy way! Pray & think through it. If you’d like to try something like this, share your thoughts with him or even point him to this post. If he seems reluctant, ask him to consider and discuss it with you again. Speak with authority but not at all with disrespect or arrogance. You’ve been entrusted with a great responsibility but your pastor has responsibilities of his own…and they include you!

Are any of you hammering square pegs right now? Or do you have a different solution than the one we worked out at my church? Share!


  1. Our church has never really done much in the way of collaborating on the worship set and the sermon, and I’m continually impressed with how often they seem to fit together anyway. It’s almost like we’re both listening to the same thing when we prep :)

    • Imagine that! :)

      We definitely struggle sometimes with the communication thing. My pastor and I are about to make another stab at doing better with some planning ahead so that I can have a better idea of where he’s headed with upcoming sermons. I really want to do the best I can to lead the people in a response to what they’ve heard from God’s Word.

      But I, like you, find that even when we are unable to adequately communicate, God still accomplishes cool things!

  2. Neil,

    While I come from a little different viewpoint, I appreciate your comments about being balanced. We will never run out of material to praise our God. In fact, there are so many characteristics about Him that we fail to mention! There ought to be careful thought in how the various elements of the service could be used to worship God in the grandest way possible.

    I follow the sermon very closely in my preparation of the music. For me, the most important part of corporate worship is the Word preached. Not that we don’t already sing the Word, pray the Word, read the Word etc… Scripture should saturate our services as we magnify (enlarge our view of) our great God. But, the preaching of the Word is where the rubber meets the road for the follower of Christ. I think we’re in agreement here. The Word is essential for true worship (spirit & truth). So I spend time studying the text during the week so that I gain a better understanding as I lead. Since my pastor preaches consecutively through books of the Bible, I know well in advance where he’s headed!

    Like you said, it may be difficult to find songs for a given passage, and I often run into that. I take these opportunities to ask my pastor more about his sermon and how he will be making application for our church. Even if I have a good handle on the text, I will still sometimes employ a song or two that address other subjects. But in my situation, it has worked well to follow our weekly text. It also fosters a common goal between me and my pastor which is easily seen by the congregation. It ends up being a unifying venture.

    As a last note, my pastor is realistic and has given me great freedom to decide how to organize the service. There are some messages where he tells me “Good luck finding music for that!” I really like your setup, where you have two specified sections for singing. It’s fuel for thought! Anyway, just weighing in with my viewpoint. Keep writing bro!

    • Thanks, Jonathan!

      You and I are fortunate to work with pastors who are both realistic and freedom-givers. So many worship leaders struggle with that relationship/work-dynamic!

      Oftentimes, humility breeds trust which breeds the giving of freedom. I know you lead humbly and I’m sure your pastor appreciates that!

  3. Love this article (and several others I’ve read from you!)

    I’ve had similar struggles with matching worship set to sermon. (Recently I
    led for the week where the sermon was on Jephtheh, the judge who sacrificed his
    virgin daughter!) Recently I’ve been wondering if maybe this struggle- which
    seems to be voiced by a fair amount of worship musicians- is symptomatic of a
    larger issue in the church. I am a big believer in submitting to the leadership
    of the church, and integrating music and Word as much as possible. But I worry
    that churches are trending more and more toward theme-based sermons, and some
    are just a couple steps away from Joel Osteen who “never talks about the bad
    stuff.” If aren’t keeping Jesus’ holiness and glory, our depravity/sinfulness,
    and God’s forgiveness at the forefront of our worship (music+preaching) every
    week, won’t people lose the vision of what Christianity is about…?

    • Thanks, Nick!

      You bring up valid concerns that seem to be shared by quite a few people as I’ve heard chatter surrounding this subject on Facebook, etc recently, too. One person called it getting away from “gospel preaching”.

      I’m sure there are plenty of pastors/churches who need to do some serious reigning-it-in to get back to God’s Word and the fundamentals of the gospel we are to preach. But I also think God’s Word covers a lot of odd topics and themes, itself. And people face a lot of weird, confusing, difficult-to-figure situations. And they need specific truth spoken lovingly but firmly into those situations.

      I guess I just don’t feel like we need to have the perfect 4-7 songs to go with each and every subject whether it’s straight out of scripture like Jephtheh or more topically-based. There’s a place in our corporate worship for just praising God. For just adoring our Savior. For just confessing our beliefs. Those elements don’t have to be tied to a specific sermon theme. Nor do they detract from the unity of the service. They are a part of what we ought to be doing as a church……

      I feel another post coming on LOL


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