Successful radio stations have implemented the set list principle for decades. The basic idea is this: people like to hear songs that they know. Likewise, people have a limited tolerance level for hearing and becoming familiar with music they don’t know. Thus, radio stations have gone to a “top 40” format or even a “top 20” format.
These stations do this because if you tune in to their station for 10 or 15 minutes in the car, you’re going to hear a song that you know and will likely continue to listen. New songs are introduced incrementally.
This is a great principle for worship music. A classic worship leader mistake is to hear a new song, love it, and lead it that Sunday in church. Good worship leaders have more discipline than this.
Here’s my formula: have 2 months worth of music in your set list.
If you normally sing three songs every Sunday, multiply that by 8 (weeks) and have a set list of 24 songs. In my church, we sing about 6 songs per week, which makes our set list about 48 songs.
Your set list also needs balance. You’ll need both faster and slower songs, theologically complex as well as theologically simple songs (basic truths, not simple minded), older songs and new songs, hymns and contemporary songs, and so on. Be mindful of your congregation: don’t force them to sing a musical style that doesn’t fit their preference.
Your congregation will be able to appreciate and be edified by worship when they are familiar with the songs. Familiarity is key.
Once your set list is established, you can rotate songs in and out of the set list. I have a list of several new songs that I would like to do at my church, but I never introduce more than 1 or 2 new songs per month. So I take these new songs that are in queue to be taught at my church and patiently teach them one at a time over a period of months. Whenever I teach a new song, another song gets bumped from the rotation.
To build familiarity, whenever I teach a new song at my church, we do it for three consecutive weeks. The band my get sick of practicing it, but your church has only heard it once per week for three weeks. They may forget they even heard it until the third time around when it sinks in.
Of course, there are always classics that can be summoned for duty at any time, such as Amazing Grace or Great is Thy Faithfulness. But your congregation most likely will not know anywhere near the amount of music you know and so we, as worship leaders, need to think of their needs and desires over our own.