I think a lot of us would like more moments of spontaneity in our worship. Moments when we go with the sense of what the Spirit is doing in the room, or respond to issues in the congregation, or allow the flow of the music and words to lead us into unexpected places. This can look a lot of different ways, for example:

  • Singing a song you hadn't planned - either led by you or the congregation. This could be a pre-written or improvised song.
  • Highlighting or changing particular words in a song ad lib.
  • Unplanned instrumental sections of music, which may include 'prophetic playing' where instruments express something of God's truth in musical form.
  • Space for spontaneous prayer, possibly in tongues, or other forms of prayer or intercession.
  • Having prophetic words spoken - by the leadership or congregation.
  • Giving an instruction you hadn't planned (eg - "lets sing this song facing the door and use it as a prayer for our town", or - "you may want to kneel as we sing this", or - "let's spend a moment in silence before God").

I don't want to give the impression that I value these things over planned or structured services. A well thought-through service can run exactly as you expected, and be both honouring to God and deeply meaningful for those who attend. God can speak to us in our planning!

Why bother?

Having said all that, there is something quite special about having the freedom to move where we feel nudged to, 'in the moment'. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • It gives space for God to do a 'now thing', something he wants to highlight at that specific moment.
  • It keeps the worship leader mindful that he/she is not ultimately in charge, and reminds us to continually listen to God for his promptings.
  • It allows for the people in the room to shape where the worship is going - not merely the planning of two or three people.
  • It gives people space to express themselves and their response to God.

1 Corinthians 14 has some important messages for us about worship that happens spontaneously:

6 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.... 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

We can see from these passages that Paul encourages spontaneous contributions from the congregation and leadership, but that he also insists on order, not chaos. We are to make sure that our motivations lie in the notion that 'the church is built up' - not that we can show off how 'spiritual' or spontaneous we are.

How can we facilitate this?
I know it sounds funny, but if we want to experience moments of spontaneity in our church worship, then we need to plan and prepare for it! Think about it this way - a great jazz musician doesn't just pick up their instrument one day and magically improvise a perfect solo. They spend years on their scales and exercises, trying things out, making mistakes, until they can play their way through anything 'in the moment'.

So some practical tips on 'preparing to be spontaneous':

Practice it!
In your worship group rehearsals, avoid ending every song neatly. Experiment with continuing on at the end of the last line, perhaps looping around the last few chords, or repeating chord I and chord IV (for example, in the key of D you will repeat D, G). These two chords are close together harmonically, and feel 'safe' to improvise over as both share common notes. An example we've used is singing 'Heart of Worship', and at the end looping the D G progression and inviting people to sing the name 'Jesus' to just one or two notes (all together, at once!). This can then be expanded upon - what do you want to say to Jesus, or about him? Sing that out. Encourage people to have a go and not be afraid to make mistakes. The point of doing it in a rehearsal rather than at a service is so people can experiment.

Once you have tried this, you can develop it by inviting people to sing a short, simple phrase that the rest of the group can pick up on, and repeat. Model this by doing it yourself first. Avoid long phrases, tricky timings and too many trilling notes. You can also practice asking instrumental players to improvise over a chord progression, asking band members to read short passages of scripture that feel appropriate, and other expressions of worship 'in the moment'. The more you do these things in your practice times, the more confident you will feel using them on a Sunday.

Practice various endings
In my rehearsals I will often practice more than one potential ending with the band. So we might do the 'big ending' which involves singing a loud chorus and then stopping all together with a strong final chord. I'll then ask us to practice the 'quiet ending', where we repeat the chorus with sparser instrumentation, and perhaps linger around the final chords for a while, allowing space for speaking, praying or singing over the music. You might also have an optional segue into the next song. Rehearsing these different endings gives you options, and encourages the band to watch you at the end of the song for where you might be leading!

Develop signals
Musically it is hard to be spontaneous if you haven't agreed clear signals. Everyone has different ways of communicating (partly dependent on whether or not your hands are free, and the kind of things you need to get across). Personally I make sure we've agreed signs for:

  • coming to a stop,
  • repeat that section,
  • build up louder,
  • fade softer,
  • just one instrument play (eg just drums, just keyboard, just vocals).

I mostly use nodding and shaking my head and waggling the end of my guitar, but it really doesn't matter what you do as long as your band understands you!

Plan too many songs
Another issue comes when you feel in a service that a song you haven't planned might be right, and yet you know that: A) the band doesn't have the music, B) the AV person doesn't have the words ready, and C) you're not sure of the lyrics yourself! What I have been doing recently is planning more songs than I know I will need. For example, if I'm leading 15 mins of singing, I might plan the first one or two songs for definite, but then have four or five more rehearsed and 'up our sleeve' to be picked from. Everyone is ready for just one or two to be used out of those potential songs. It gives you flexibility within planning, and again encourages the band to be watching you. Try it!

Explain to congregation
If your congregation is not used to the more spontaneous expressions of worship, make sure that you or another leader offers brief, clear explanations of what is happening, and how people might respond. For example, if you feel it is right to have a time of instrumental music, you could say: "As we hear the flute play through this song again, why don't we read through the words of the song and respond to God in our hearts". Or if we feel the Spirit is wanting to touch people, you could say "As we continue to play, we're going to make space for God's Holy Spirit to touch us afresh. If you want to receive from God you can put your hands out in front of you, as if you are receiving a gift."

Listen to the Spirit and the room
I find that leading this kind of worship goes much better when I have my eyes open. That way, I can not only see what is literally happening in the room (are people engaging, or looking bored, or leaving...?!) but also you can begin to see with what we might call 'spiritual eyes'. In using that phrase I am trying to explain what happens as I look out at a congregation, and God begins to highlight particular issues that we ought to be singing/praying around, or a particular direction to go in. With our eyes closed we tend to focus on what we personally are feeling, but with our eyes open I think God can reveal to us some of his heart for the congregation and that particular worship time. It is also important to have eye contact with a service leader or minister, so that you remain accountable to your leadership.

Listen to God in your week, not just on Sundays
Finally, if the goal of our spontaneity is to hear God's heart and respond in the moment, we need to be developing a listening ear to God's voice throughout the week. Often people expect God to speak and move in a church worship time, but neglect listening to his voice in their home, office, journey to work... And sometimes it is hard to know in those pressured moments what is God's prompting and what is just a wild thought from our own imaginations! If you are starting off in this, perhaps join with a friend or colleague and listen to God together (I find asking specific questions of God - "what do you want to do in this situation..." helps me hear God's voice more than a general "speak now God!" question). They say hearing God's voice is like a muscle - we build it as we use it. Start small, be gracious with yourself when you mishear God, and over time you will develop a sensitivity to his direction.