Spontaneous worship is not a new concept, but it is seeing a resurgence as worshipers seek authentic experiences in God’s presence. It’s a prominent part of the music from Bethel Church in California, but it’s by no means exclusive to them. Here are some thoughts on what spontaneous worship is, what it looks like when done well, and a few tips on how you can be skilled in leading it.
What is spontaneous worship?
Let’s define it pretty narrowly as singing something outside the words and melody of your chosen songs. Spontaneous worship could happen at the end of your worship set, in between songs, or even in the middle of a song during an instrumental section.
This excludes a couple things. Playing instruments is definitely an expression of worship but not what we are discussing here. Spontaneous worship is also different that ad libbing, vocal “riffing” off the lines of a song – a good skill to have, but different than our subject.
Spontaneous worship takes the form of singing. It could be soloistic, or it could be simple where everyone could sing along.
What does spontaneous worship look like when done well?
When done well, spontaneous worship is inspired by the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you feel goosebumps. You have permission to respond to God even when you don’t feel like it. But let it be led by the Spirit of God.
Spontaneous worship, when done well, is outwardly focused – either on God or on communicating the heart of God to His people. It should not inwardly-focused – save that for your own private worship time.
When it is God-focused, it’s an opportunity to sing a “new song” to the Lord, to speak of His greatness or His love.
When it’s focused more on His people, it’s an opportunity to communicate God’s heart and sing over people, which I believe is a beautiful opportunity we have as worship leaders, to pastorally sing over people and communicate the heart of God.
When does spontaneous worship go wrong?
Simply put, it goes wrong when it’s not led by the Holy Spirit.
This are typically two markers for this. First, if you are outside of what your church leaders have prescribed for worship, it’s pretty much automatic that you are not being led by the Holy Spirit. God is not into disorder, so even if you feel your given parameters are too restrictive, going outside your what your leaders have established is not where you want to be.
The other marker of spontaneous worship gone wrong is when it becomes about the person leading. Just because I have a good voice or can sing something clever doesn’t mean I’m fulfilling the purpose of worship.
Some tips for leading spontaneous worship well
- Know your parameters. Have those conversations with your church leaders to find out how much time you have, where you are authorized to go. Then, find freedom within those parameters.
- Make space in your worship set for spontaneity. If you cram too many songs into your allotted time, there won’t be time for anything else. Leave a few minutes open or determine a song that you could cut from your list to allow for spontaneous worship.
- Keep your improvised words in line with the lyrics of the song. If you’re coming off a song about God’s love, then you start spontaneously singing something about God as our Creator, yes that’s certainly true, but it’s not where your people are connected at that moment.
- Give yourself and others some simple access points to spontaneous singing. For example, trying improvising a melody using only 2-3 notes. To make it easier, just use a line from a Psalm, you don’t have to think of lyrics. Take that line and find ways to make it interesting using just those few notes. Using only a few notes will also make it more likely that the congregation will be able to sing with you.
- Encourage your instrumentalists to find ways to be creative and keep the music interesting without changing the chords. They need to be a part of worship, being spontaneous, being creative, but in order to give everyone else a solid foundation for spontaneous singing, keep the chords the same.
- Spontaneous songs that happen earlier count. Sometimes I’ll have a little song start to come out during my preparation. It might just be a line or two, but including it in the set often defines the moment when we most sense the presence of God. Don’t discount this just because the spontaneity came earlier, it’s still spontaneous.
- It’s OK to have a plan, too. I sometimes think of spontaneous singing in relation to jazz improvisation. Many times, a jazz soloist will have an idea in mind before he or she steps up to the microphone. They start with the idea and branch out from there. And that’s not a bad approach to spontaneous worship. Have a couple of ideas seeded in your approach that you can use if you feel moved to do so.
- Don’t let yourself get too comfortable. Sometimes without any preset ideas and no plan B It’s important to have those times when you are completely wide open to wherever God wants to lead you.
This post isn’t meant to be definitive or comprehensive, just an opportunity to articulate some thoughts, get you thinking and perhaps initiate those conversations on where God could be leading your church in worship. Grace and peace!