Preparing spontaneity in worship – part 1

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.  But it is not always as easy as we would like it to be!   This is the first of a two-part article, where I’ll be looking at the big picture of ‘what is spontaneity, and why encourage it?’, and then in the second part we’ll take a look at the ‘how’ of preparing yourself, your musicians and your church for ‘going with the flow’.

What is spontaneity in worship?

It is worth saying to start with that this can take a variety of forms.  For example, spontaneity could be:

  • Singing a song you hadn’t planned – either led by you or the congregation.  This could be a pre-written or improvised song, and the musicians might or might not join in.
  • 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”, etc).

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 with spontaneity?

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.

Of course, some churches or individuals are resistant to this kind of worship.  They fear manipulation, emotionalism, and general chaos.  Rather than dismiss them as unspiritual we ought to take their concerns seriously, and work through ways of encouraging spontaneity in safe and pastorally sensitive environments.

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.  This kind of thing can be manipulative and damaging if we don’t approach it with humility and pastoral sensitivity.  It can also be chaotic and distracting if we don’t come prepared to lead it with diligence, confidence and good communication with the band and church.  In the next part we’ll be looking into the practicalities of how we can do this, but for now a few questions to get you thinking and commenting:

1)  What would you say was the value of the spontaneous in worship?  Have you got examples of things happening ‘in the moment‘ that have been meaningful for you and your church?

2)  What are the main barriers to the spontaneous in your corporate worship life?  How could you constructively overcome them?

3)  Have you ever ‘prepared for spontaneity’?  What does that look like?  How can that be a positive thing, rather than ‘faking it’?

Sam Hargreaves teaches at London School of Theology ( on the Theology, Music and Worship programmes.  He co-leads 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 site


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