7 practical ways to prepare for spontaneity in worship
In this second half of our two-part article (Part 1 looked at ‘What and Why’), we’ll be looking at the practicalities of ‘preparing spontaneity’. 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’.
It is true for us too as worship leaders and teams. We need to get used to leading things ‘on the fly’, following the leader in the moment, and listening to God and the room for fresh direction. To that end, here are some practical tips on ‘preparing to be spontaneous’:
1. Practice spontaneous singing
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.
2. 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!
3. 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!
4. 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!
5. Explain to the 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.”
6. 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.
7. 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.
I hope some of this is helpful. It’d be great if you want to comment below with your own tips or perspectives, and perhaps if you try some of this out you could let us know how it goes!
Sam Hargreaves teaches at London School of Theology on the Theology, Music and Worship programmes. He co-leads engageworship.org which provides training and resources for innovative, creative and world-changing worship (and where you can find the original version of this article) and also the free song siteRESOUNDworship.org.