The Long Tail of Worship Songs

Fact: If you were to line up every worship song–intro to ending–written in the last decade, it would take you 11 years to choose the absolute best worship songs for your church.

Then you’d spend the next twelve years listening to complaints about the songs.

OK, that was a made-up fact. Except the part about the complaints. But this article isn’t about our repertoire-gripers–it’s about the notion that our song selection pool is staggeringly deep. And wide… (cue children’s song that requires humming a word on each additional repeat).

In 2004, Chris Anderson (editor of Wired magazine) wrote about a concept that eventually led to his groundbreaking book in 2006 of the same title – The Long Tail .* If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of The Long Tail you can read Anderson’s “in a nutshell” description of it here.


Applied to worship music, at the “head” of the graph (left side), there are the usual suspects: Tomlin, Hillsong, Baloche, Crosby (as in, Fanny, not Stills, Nash and Young). At the nearly infinite end of the tail, you’d find the first song I ever wrote that all 60 people in my first church sang. (Their heavenly mansions got premium upgrades for that act of sacrifice and compassion.)

To serve our churches well, we need to maintain a limited repertoire/rotation of music that allows both the team and the congregation to internalize the songs. This includes having an intentional plan to integrate new songs. (See free resource – “What’s In Your Playlist?” to help you with this.)  So with a nearly infinite long tail of worship songs, how do we do this?

It starts with filters.

One filter is the limited number of sources we use to find new songs (radio, conferences, friends, Song Discovery, etc.). Most of us don’t scour the “bottom 1000” of CCLI charts. We have a few places that we find new music, and trust that those sources will deliver.

Another filter is our personal taste. (After an exhaustive study of the Greek text, I found that Paul did not intend the whole “die-to-self” thing to be applied to song selection for Sunday. That’s a relief, huh?)

The overarching style and culture of our church is another filter.

The gaps in our repertoire are yet another filter. For example, we need a few more uptempo call to worship songs… we could use some quiet, reflective songs for response times…we need a song that goes along with the sex and marriage series…(call me for the co-write on that one).

I’ve been thinking about my filters lately. Especially when I get a “caps lock” email from someone in my church telling me about a GREAT NEW SONG that we JUST HAVE TO DO. How do I respond? If I only filter it through my personal taste, that won’t fly. I need to use more tangible filters like…

…subject (God’s holiness, victory over sin, the cross, etc.)

style (I’m not going to do an R&B song at my Amish-country campus)

…and doctrinal distinctives (as an ordained pastor in the C&MA, I’d better be on the lookout for good “mission” songs).

Then I can say “no” to a song without second guessing.

And with an 11 year long-tail-of-songs ahead of us, we need to get really good at saying no

 By Jon Nicol


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