While I know it sounds odd, I find it helpful to think of spontaneity within worship leading as cooking—like you’re making a soup of sorts and the songs are the spices. You open each container and take in a quick whiff to see if the aroma will blend with the broth. Some spices you know will for sure, while others seem like they could bring out some flavors in the soup that you hadn’t considered before.
And then there’s the spice that you’re completely unsure about. Perhaps it will become the secret ingredient that makes the whole soup come to life! Or maybe it’ll ruin the whole thing. And sometimes it takes a little experimentation to figure that out. Sometimes failure is just as good (if not stronger) of a teacher than success. And if your congregation is as gracious as they should be, you’ll have the space to experiment extended to you.
There are two extremes when it comes to preparing this soup. Some want the whole thing to be cooked ahead of time and view the service as the moment the soup is dished out to everyone. Others view the service as the moment you start making the soup and no one has any idea what this soup is going to be yet. My view is somewhere in between. The soup has already been planned out and the general ingredients are ready, but the stage is the stove where I start cooking it. And as the service begins to move along, so does the cooking process. Throughout this process, I’m going to continually check the soup by breathing it in or taking a sip to see what it has too much of and what it’s missing. And once I discern what it needs, I’m going to allow myself some spontaneity to adjust the flavors, possibly taking it in a completely unexpected direction. For example, if you just add some stewed tomatoes to a white chicken chili, the flavor will become something akin to tortilla soup. The dish can become something entirely different with this one change, but still be equally delicious.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the statement that spontaneity is key for me. You could say it’s just my personality as I’m sure there’s some truth to that, but I’ve found it to be an essential element that’s necessary in my worship leading. This is, after all, Jesus’s church. So if the Spirit of Jesus wants to do something unexpected in the worship service, we better let him do it. Yes, I agree that he can help us plan things out ahead of time, but as we see in 1 Corinthians 14, the services of the early church were deeply ingrained in some Spirit infused spontaneity happening.
And so as I lead worship, I remain open to the nudges, directions and thoughts that come to my mind. The Holy Spirit is not an intruder, but a welcomed guest. I am subservient to him, not the other way around. And while it’s true that it’s hard to discern at times between his voice and my own, if I create a church culture that is open to spontaneity, my congregation will allot me the discerning grace to experiment and see what happens.
One of the ways I can tell that the Spirit was at work in a service is by looking back at it once it’s over. There have been many times where I’ve been caught off guard by how well the whole thing pieced together. We hadn’t planned on the soup taking that spin, but looking back over it, the music, the message, and the intrusions all made sense in the recipe. The finished product was more delicious than we had planned! Often times the congregants aren’t even aware of this as it looked to them as though we planned the whole thing.
Sometimes someone I trust might come forward to insert a prophetic word in between a song (which is a right I typically only grant to those on our prayer team as they have taken my spiritual gifts class). Their word might somehow highlight the songs we do next or the message I’m about to preach—both of which they are unaware of.
Or maybe I feel the need to double or triple back on part of a song and sing it over a few more times so that the words can really seep in. Maybe the band needs to cut out completely and just leave space for vocals. Once at an event full of pastors, I ditched the guitar right from the start of, “He is Exalted,” and had everyone sing the whole thing through twice a cappella. I had no intention of doing that before that moment, but it was probably the most memorable experience I’ll ever have with that song. The room sang loudly and beautifully.
To be honest, I didn’t even have a strong inclination that the Holy Spirit wanted me to do that. In fact, I would probably describe very few of my spontaneous moments in worship as a “strong inclination.” They are simply thoughts that bubble up while I lead worship. Sometimes I follow them, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they pan out, sometimes they don’t.
All things considered, I find worship services that have been completely planned out to be bland in flavor and services where nothing is planned out to have way too much flavor going on. Soup needs to be adjusted until it’s just right and has simmered and condensed itself into something that makes you want a second or third bowl. This is not unhealthy fast food we’re offering here. It takes some real time to bring the dish together and serve it, and spontaneity and patience offer us the chance to do that well.
This article is an excerpt from my book, Spirit Infused Worship. In this short book, I draw from deep Bible study and over 15 years of worship leading experience to address some of the worship leading topics that we often ignore. In these pages you’ll find practical tips for leading worship alongside the Holy Spirit, discover how the Bible sees our music and church services engaging with the spiritual realm, and learn how to create the space for your congregants to experience the intimacy of God.