Last week, we talked about the power of preparation. I’m excited for you to hear more about being prepared from our good friend and contributor, Jonathan Benedetti.
Sometimes the best moments in life are the ones that you don’t expect – the ones that take you by surprise.
This can also be true of corporate worship. Some of the most meaningful moments can be the ones that you as a worship leader don’t script – those surprising moments of joy and thankfulness that erupt in spontaneous, heartfelt expression. And these spontaneous moments are not only a joy to the people gathered together – they are a delight to our Father as well.
Here’s a helpful analogy: when you get a greeting card from someone, although you certainly appreciate what Hallmark came up with, and that the other person took the time to pick out a card that reflected your relationship (or just made you laugh!), it’s what the other person actually wrote in the card that usually impacts you the most.
Maybe it’s the same way with our Father.
That’s not to say that spontaneous prayer and song is categorically superior to what is written or prepared beforehand, but I do think that the Father delights in the unique responses of his children, even if it is as simple as whispering, “I love you.”
Spontaneous expression in corporate worship presents many challenges for us as worship leaders – our understanding of what “biblical” worship looks like; the particular cultural and denominational context that we serve in; our own past experiences in worship, both good and bad. These factors (and many others play in important role!)
I come from a charismatic background, and serve Tyler Christian Fellowship, a charismatic congregation, so making space for spontaneous response is a big part of how I lead worship. My context, and my experience, is different than many others. But I believe we can all learn from each other, so I just want to share a couple suggestions on how worship leaders can help their teams, and their congregations, grow in the area of spontaneous response.
As in all aspects of Christian leadership, you must lead by example. Demonstrate what authentic response looks like. And remember, you are not just an artist who presents something for the congregation to consider, reflect on, or enjoy. You are a servant who helps equip the people of God to worship in Spirit and in truth. This is true songs in that we sing, and in the spaces we create for spontaneous response.
If you are uncomfortable with improvisation or spontaneous singing, work at it. It may seem to come natural for some people, but like anything else, it takes practice and time. Block out some time to just sit down with your guitar, or keyboard, and sing your own new song to the Lord. Sing through some songs you know, weaving in and out of them with your own words, even if it’s as simple as just singing “Thank you, Lord.” It might feel awkward at first, but you will grow.
Another suggestion is to immerse yourself in Scripture. Read it. Listen to it. Memorize it. Pray it. Sing it. Shout it. Share it. This will become for you a reservoir of living water to draw from as you lead. Although there will certainly be moments where you plan specific texts to read or pray together as a congregation, if the words of Christ dwell in you richly, you can be ready to speak or sing them to others at the right time and in the right place, as the Spirit leads.
Most importantly, at all times, we must be listening for the voice of the Shepherd, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
PREPARING YOUR TEAM
By definition, you cannot plan spontaneity. But you can prepare for it. You cannot plan how or when people are going to respond, but you can create a space for people to respond.
During the transition from one song to the next, try to maintain a sense of flow from song to song. Sometimes it’s good to keep playing the chords of the previous song, or you can just pick a simple progression to play. You can plan these “improv” moments ahead of time, or if your team is able to follow your lead comfortably, you can move more freely into spontaneous response.
I have so many memories of worship services at TCF when the worship leader just went back and forth between G and C. That I-IV progression is simple, and provides a relatively easy foundation for improvisation, both musically and vocally.
It is helpful to pick songs in the same key. If you’re used to just cutting from one song to another, with abrupt stopping and starting, this may take some work and practice. Of course silence and reverent pauses are hugely important in corporate worship, and can be part of that flow. But be intentional about those.
I also like to leave space after the last song. That’s a good point for the congregation to reflect on what they have been singing and praying, and to respond. Sometimes I keep playing the guitar lightly. Sometimes we all stop playing and singing. Sometimes I exhort the congregation to lift up a shout of praise and thanksgiving. Sometimes I continue singing a line from the last song, or maybe even a spontaneous “new song.” This response time is often one of the most beautiful times in our corporate worship services. Sometimes the room is filled with so many voices – praying, singing, rejoicing, in their own unique way. Sometimes someone prays out or reads a passage of Scripture. Sometimes there is only silence. But there is a space for response.
One more practical suggestion is, during rehearsal, dedicate some time for the musicians to just “jam” together. This is a great way to get more accustomed to following each other’s lead.
It’s crucial that the people on your worship team understand that they are all worship leaders. They are not just musicians. Sometimes the heartfelt singing of someone on the team who doesn’t even have a microphone (and maybe shouldn’t have one!), can more of an encouragement to people than anything you say or sing.
PREPARING YOUR CONGREGATION
If this spontaneous stuff isn’t the norm where you serve, relax! Don’t get frustrated that your congregation doesn’t “get it” or that they’re just “dead.” Remember that your job is to love well and to serve well.
That being said, don’t assume that the status quo is the way it has to be. Many people may desire more freedom in worship, but just don’t know what to do.
Sometimes it is good idea to give a simple word of exhortation (example: “In your own words, express your affection to God.”). Or you may need to give a brief explanation about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Then give some space. This requires that we as worship leaders (especially those of us who are constantly talking!) back off and be silent.
I hope these ideas and suggestions are helpful. We’d love to hear any ideas or experiences that you have had.
Jonathan Benedetti is the worship pastor at Tyler Christian Fellowship in Tyler, Texas. In addition to being able to play just about any instrument you put in front of him, he’s also well-read and kind and a devoted family man.