What is the job of a song leader? I think a lot of us would say that he is the guy who stands up front and starts each song. That's true enough, and it leads to the idea of starting us off on the proper pitch, keeping the congregation singing at an appropriate pace for the song and maybe even utilizing musicality to enhance the impact of the song. All of that is true, but it doesn't encompass the entirety of the job of a song leader.
What is the purpose of singing? Again, many would answer, "To praise God!" That is certainly one purpose of singing. Moses and Miriam each separately led the Israelites in song praising God for their salvation through the Red Sea. David danced and sang before the Lord. Certain Levites were assigned to sing in the Temple, praising God. In John's Revelation we see that in Heaven the saved sing praises to God. Certainly praising God is a reason to sing; worshipping Him in song has a long history. While acknowledging this, what does the New Testament teach us about the purpose of singing?
Eph 5:18-20 And be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God.
We are to be speaking to one another with these songs. The Word dwells in us when we teach and admonish through song. Our song service is not just a time to praise/worship, but is also a time to teach, edify, and encourage each other.
Understanding that our singing is meant to be a teaching tool what, then, is the job of a song leader? He should be choosing songs that teach, edify, and encourage (and maybe even rebuke), as well as songs that praise God. With very little effort, he can choose songs that all follow a single theme, and thereby reinforce the teaching that is being done in song. All modern songbooks of which I am aware have topical indexes in the back which group the songs by theme. Therefore, it takes little time or effort to choose a list of songs for a service all of which follow a theme: the Christian life, or assurance of hope, or our love for God, or His for us, or exhortation to be about His work, or any number of other themes.
For example, one might begin a "traditional service" (you know, two songs, a prayer, a song, the LS, a song, the sermon and an invitation song) with "I Want to be a Worker for the Lord" and then sing "O the Things We May Do" before the prayer. Any Lord's Supper song you like would follow that and then maybe "We'll Work til Jesus Comes" before the sermon and maybe even "Room in God's Kingdom" as an invitation song. If you're thinking, "wow, that's a little on the nose", then I'd sadly say that you must be unaware of how little attention the average pew-filler pays to what he/she is singing. It takes being that obvious for the message to seep in and the person to think, "hey, these songs follow a theme!" I can't tell you how many times I've done this and then asked someone afterward if they had noticed, only to get a dull look and a negative response. Once, ONCE!!!!! someone said to me, "your songs always seem to follow a theme." Yes! I wanted to dance a jig right there in the building!
Even if a majority never notice, a strong minority will, and will appreciate the effort the song leader has made to enhance the service by choosing songs that actually teach and that reinforce the teaching through following a theme.
With a bit more effort, the song leader can set out themes that don't just follow the topical index. When teaching the Psalms on Wednesday night several years ago I noticed that one psalm praised God simply by listing His attributes. The next Sunday we sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness", "Grace Greater than All Our Sins", "He Loves Me So", and "Holy, Holy, Holy".
Recently on a Sunday evening I led "The Rock that is Higher than I", "Dare to Stand Like Joshua", "This World is not My Home", and "On Jordan's Stormy Banks". On the surface, that may not sound like a themed song service, but "The Rock that is Higher than I" is about the difficulties of this life and our reliance upon the Lord to get through it, then "Dare to Stand Like Joshua" is about making the decision to follow God no matter how hard it is. That being followed by "This World is not My Home" shows the maturity of a Christian who is no longer tied to this world and is waiting anxiously for the reward while "On Jordan's Stormy Banks" is a declaration of the reward being sure. Picking a list like that still isn't hard, but it does take a few moments of thought, and an understanding of what each song is about and what it teaches. While the average Christian may not catch the fulness of the theme in a service like that, he/she is singing through it and some of those ideas will stick. Oh! and notice that how fun the song is to sing or how musically challenging it is has NOTHING to do with a leader choosing songs which help his congregation in "teaching and admonishing one another". What matters is the message, the words we sing, not the catchy tunes.
Often, when I'm preparing to lead I'll have a song I want to sing and I'll just pick other songs that fit the ideas expressed in the first song. If I know the preacher has been doing a series of lessons, I might pick songs that fit his topic. Other times I'll pick songs that fit with some idea I've been mulling over, praying and studying about. It rarely takes me more than 5-10 minutes to get a service ready (after all, I'm not writing the songs) but that is time well spent in leading the people to let the word dwell in them richly.
Not every song service needs to be thematic. There are certainly times for great songs which mean a lot and cross into several areas of Christian life. Every song should be carefully selected for what it is teaching, however, and what its impact will be on our brothers and sisters.
A song leader's job is more important than most Christians think. We spend almost as much time leading the congregation in teaching and admonishing as the preacher does is "reproving, rebuking, and exhorting". While the average Christian may have trouble remembering what the sermon was about on Thursday, that same Christian may still be humming one of the songs we sang. Song leaders need to take responsibility and be aware that we are to do more than just start the song on the right note.