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Spontaneous Worship: Leading or Performing?

Written by Nathan Gifford on Tuesday, 16 January 2018. Posted in Blogs

Spontaneous Worship: Leading or Performing?

I recently came upon a discussion around the topic of spontaneous worship and how to move in that direction while leading in worship. There was a large variety of opinions, and you get to hear (or read) mine now. :) Can you plan for a spontaneous moment? Should you even have spontaneous worship? If you do, are you still leading worship or are you just performing for the congregation?

First, let's clarify a bit on exactly what we are talking about here. In a time of congregational worship, you have a set of songs that are planned to sing in that service. This is pretty standard across the span of different denominations and worship styles. The variation comes with how that time of worship is handled. Some may have a more traditional "song service", where they basically sing through that set list, one song to the next, without anything inbetween... outside of maybe a brief word of encouragement or something along those lines. Some would argue that this environment doesn't allow for "spontaneous worship"... and some would say it doesn't allow for worship much at all.

Now, before you start throwing things at your screen, note that I did not say that. I simply stated how that type of service can be viewed by those that have a different style of corporate worship. The other spectrum of this would be a service where there is more of a "flow" from song to song. The overall time of singing is leading you somewhere... ideally into a real encounter with the presence of God. During and after this time of singing, there are moments where people can just freely worship. It may be 10 seconds... it may be 10 minutes... but it is just a moment of worshiping the Lord in your own way, in your own words, with or without music, and without set lyrics or anything else.

I've heard it said before that "true worship begins when the song ends." I have to whole-heartedly agree with this. The fact is that singing itself is not worship. Worship takes many forms... and music and singing happen to be ONE of them. Lots of people go to church on Sundays and sing along with everyone else... but that doesn't mean that all of them are actually worshiping. Just like saying a memorized prayer or repeating a prayer after someone else doesn't necessarily constitute an effective prayer (unless you're actually tuned in and saying those words from your heart), just singing along at church does not equal true worship.

The Bible says that the Father is seeking those that will worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). We could discuss that in length, but I believe it is safe to say that God wants people to come before Him with true, heartfelt worship. Not just singing words from a screen or a hymnal. Not just filling a time slot in a Sunday service. Truly going after Him and His presence as we pour out our thanksgiving and praise, lifting up His name, giving Him ALL of our praise and ALL of our worship simply because of who He is! When we focus on all that God is, what He did for us on the cross, and all that He continues to do for us today... we can not help but come to Him with a true heart of worship!

Let me clarify something before we continue. True worship does not mean contemporary. The style of song used does not make or break a true worship experience. The Day of Pentecost, many revivals over the centuries and many powerful moments in the Bible were able to happen even without the latest CD from Passion. Along the same lines... those moments also happened without the bound hymnal found in your church pew. The song, new or old, does not guarantee a true worship experience.

Now, back to the topic at hand... spontaneous worship! Continuing from the previous thoughts on a worship flow in a service that allows for worship beyond the songs themselves... this is what most would consider spontaneous worship. Unfortunately, this does not happen in the majority of churches... even in most charismatic churches. Why? Because too few worship leaders are prepared to lead in this way... or worse... some leadership does not allow a worship leader or team to do this. In my opinion, if you are in a church where this is simply not allowed... it's time to move on. You must respect the leadership that is in place. You can discuss things, but if there is no openness for you to worship in a manner that is fully supported throughout Scripture, then you are likely in the wrong place. Moving on...

Does there need to be moments of spontaneous worship between every song in your set? Of course not. If there is, that's not bad, but there is also something to be said for having some structure also. There is one end of the spectrum that is all structure with no openness to spontaneous worship or "flowing with the Spirit" and then on the other end of the spectrum is complete spontaneity with zero structure and zero planning. I think both of those have issues and we should find ourselves somewhere in the middle. We should absolutely come fully prepared and rehearsed, ready to lead our congregation in excellence! At the same time, we must be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, in tune enough to hear the heart of God in that moment of worship, and flexible enough to "roll with it"... even if that means skipping a song, switching to an unplanned song, or just moving into a time of freely worshiping without any particular song.

That presents the question of "can you plan for a spontaneous worship moment?" Well, that is like asking if you can plan a surprise party with the person that the party is for. No, you can't. You can certainly make room or have a point in your set list that you know may be particularly conducive to such a moment... and even make your team aware... but you can not plan out a "spontaneous" move of the Holy Spirit in your worship set. You can however prepare in a manner that leaves some added flexibility in areas of your set list... so if you feel lead accordingly, you can easily move in that direction.

The psalmist said that we are to worship with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. I wrote a piece about this a few years ago that I'd highly encourage you to also read called "Effective Worship". CLICK HERE to read it (after you finish this one of course)! Spiritual songs are intended to be a PART of our worship unto God... and this Scripture is referring to our times of corporate worship. From the previously mentioned article:

Spiritual songs could be spontaneous or prophetic in nature. They could be a song sung by the worshiper to God... or could be a song sung by God THROUGH the worshiper. When God sings through a believer, He prophetically reveals His heart to his people. This is done to bring edification, exhortation and comfort to the church. "Spiritual Songs" are often referred to by people as prophetic worship or free worship. In the Bible, I believe often this is referred to as a "new song".

You can read about "new songs" in: Psalm 40:3; 96:1-4; 98:1,4-6; 149:1. Now, singing unto the Lord with a new song, spontaneous worship, or however you want to label it does not mean it is a full song with 3 verses, a chorus, a bridge and a guitar solo. It could be a line or two that you sing repeatedly as you just focus on a particular attribute of God. It could be a few lines that make a full chorus. It could even be enough material to constitute it's own track on the next Bethel Music CD! The length is not what matters. As with any portion of our worship, planned or spontaneous, it is our heart that truly matters.

To return to the title of this article where the question was posed... can spontaneous worship really be a time of leading others in worship or are you just performing for the congregation? Some may say that if the worship leader is freely singing unto the Lord without a structured song and projected song lyrics, he/she is just performing or singing to the congregation. I have to strongly disagree with that line of thought. A worship leader is not someone who sings a set of songs while standing on the church platform. It is one who LEADS the congregation in worship. That individual should be leading by example. Many people struggle with spontaneous worship because they've never done it. They've never been in an environment where it happens. They've never seen or heard someone else doing it. Like anything else in life... we all need to be taught. You were taught how to pray effectively (hopefully). You were taught how to study God's Word instead of just reading until you fell asleep. You may need to be taught how to go to that next level in your worship.

If the worship leader is doing his/her job and effectively leading a congregation in true worship, there will likely be a moment (or moments) of free/spontaneous worship. That leader, and those on that worship team, should be leading the way by their own examples. The congregation is a reflection of the platform. If the congregation sees those on the platform going after God with their whole hearts as they worship, they will have an example... a teacher... a leader... and will make their own choice to participate and follow that lead, or to sit back and not participate. Not everyone will join in, as any worship leader can attest to. Our job as worship leaders is not to force people to participate, but to lead the way and help to create an atmosphere that is conducive for a true worship experience.

If you are one of those worship leaders or members of the congregation who is uncomfortable during a free moment of worship... as you don't know what to do, say, sing, pray, etc... don't feel bad. You likely just haven't been taught or been in the position of having a good example of this. Dig into some videos of live worship with artists like Jesus Culture and Bethel Music, who are known for having effective moments of free / spontaneous worship that has often been caught on video as well as included in released live albums. You can certainly find examples of this from many artists other than those named, but I named those that are most known for it.

As a worship leader, I would say that the healthier your personal times of worship are, the more naturally and effectively you will be able to lead a congregation in free worship. Focus here as a starting point and develop your own ability to "sing a new song" unto the Lord as you worship. As you grow in this area, you will be able to lead your congregation in this as you freely worship in appropriate moments. The congregation will learn from your example... and hopefully the examples of others on the platform... and even more powerful, the example of your lead pastor and other church leadership.

Do not be discouraged if this is an area that you are still growing in, or just learning for that matter. Just take where you are now and choose to move forward and deeper! It will make a powerful impact on your own life as well as the worship atmosphere in your own church. Some people only want the "song service" and have no interest in anything deeper than that. Don't be discouraged by them either. There will always be the crossed-arm people in the congregation. A powerful atmosphere of worship can break through a lot of that. You just do your thing and let the Holy Spirit handle the rest.

Let's not leave out the spiritual songs from our corporate worship! Let us strive to be the worshipers that the Father is seeking and create an atmosphere in our churches that He desires to dwell in!

About the Author

Nathan Gifford

Nathan Gifford

Nathan has been a worship leader for about 25 years, serving in multiple churches from a new church plant to a large urban congregation... serving mostly in the state of Indiana. He grew up as a PK in Indiana and was actively involved in worship music from the age of 12. Over the years Nathan was involved as a saxophonist in his church band and also played in many other groups and events. While in college at the Indiana University School of Music, Nathan began moving into worship leading. Then after graduating, he went right into full-time ministry as a music pastor. He began writing new worship songs that have continued to be a part of his ministry as well as many churches across the country. Nathan has recorded 9 projects, which are mostly live worship projects. He is currently a part of the worship ministry at Mill City Church in Fort Collins, CO.