Spontaneous Worship vs. Planned Worship



A tension you may feel as a worship leader is finding a balance between planned worship and spontaneous worship. We want to do our best to be prepared and have a clear plan for every worship service. Our musicians and tech teams need a clear picture of what to expect so they can rehearse and play their part with excellence. At the same time, we are worshipping a living God who can move and speak unexpectedly during worship. We want to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit during our gatherings. Here are a few key things to consider as you wrestle with this tension, as well as some practical tips for engaging in both of these forms of worship.

Biblical Considerations

When reflecting on the nature of worship, it’s always a good idea to search for what scripture has to say on the subject. The passage most commonly associated with planned and orderly worship is 1 Corinthians 14:26. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because they were having a lot of issues in the community regarding worship and they were not doing it in a way that was edifying to the church body. He writes, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” He goes on to give them specifics regarding how to share prophetic words and tongues and ends within verse 30, “God is not a God of confusion but of Peace.”

Paul was writing this to a specific church within a particular context, so we need to identify the timeless principle behind this passage for corporate worship. I see two of them. First, everything we do in worship should be done to build up the body. Second, our gatherings should not confuse.

Intentionally planning our worship gatherings allows us to craft edifying worship gatherings for our churches. We are not leading worship to entertain or merely inspire the emotions. We want our worship to unify the body, direct people’s hearts toward God, and ultimately make them better disciples of Jesus. It’s difficult to do this without putting in the time and effort to intentionally plan our services.

Scripture makes it clear that God regularly moves and speaks in unexpected ways. Take a look at the book of Acts. In chapter two, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the believers in Jerusalem in a spontaneous and unexpected fashion. In Acts 16, we read that Paul had plans to go one place to preach the gospel, but the Holy Spirit changed his plans and directed him elsewhere.

This tension between planning and spontaneity is healthy for God’s people. It exists in our worship gatherings as well as in Christian living in general. Neither approach is wrong. We should embrace both planning and spontaneity.

It’s also worth clarifying what spontaneous worship is. This style of worship is a regular part of worship at Bethel Church in Redding, California. Their worship is very charismatic and they have contributed a lot to the worship songwriting world in the past few years. They’ve also popularized spontaneous worship for our generation. Regardless of your opinion on their ministry, they have great insight on spontaneous worship since they intentionally make it a part of their worship experiences. One could say they PLAN to have spontaneous moments.

On their Worship U blog, Bethel defines spontaneous worship as “fresh expressions of worship beyond the songs that have been pre-written, planned and practiced.” They also differentiate spontaneous worship from prophetic worship, which they define as “unique to a specific moment. The prophetic comes when we can sense what the Spirit is doing in a certain place on a certain day. Then we choose to sing out what we feel God is saying or what heaven is doing at that time.”

In other words, “spontaneous worship springs from the overflow of our hearts towards His. Prophetic songs occur when we sense the stirrings of God’s heart towards us.”

I think this is a very helpful distinction between prophetic and spontaneous worship. Prophecy is not a foretelling of the future, but a "forthtelling" of truth for God’s people. Some people have the gift of prophecy, while others do not. If you’re a worship leader with the gift of prophecy, by all means, use it in a discerning way that builds up your church body in worship. If you do not have the gift of prophecy, it’s worth exploring spontaneous worship as another way to express adoration to God.

Practical Tips

Here are a few ways you can improve both planning and spontaneity in worship. First, let’s focus on the planning process.

  • Plan your set-list of songs
  • Prepare chord charts and other practice resources for your band
  • Plan your transitions between songs
  • Know what you will say or pray during your set
  • Plan transitions to other parts of the service like the sermon, announcement, and communion
  • Plan any audio/visual cues for your tech team

Planning what you will say or pray in worship is often overlooked. I've created a free guide to give you 25 ideas for meaningful things to say or pray. Click the button below to download the guide.

These are simple tips, I know, but do not overlook them as you prepare for worship. Disregarding these fundamentals will result in a train wreck.

Here are some tips for growing in your ability to lead spontaneous worship. I found these ideas in Bob Kauflin’s book, Worship Matters.

  • Sing scripture. Open up to the book of Psalms, play a simple chord progression, and sing the words of scripture to your own melody.
  • Sing scripture and respond to it in song. You’ll develop the ability to interact with God’s Word.
  • Sing your own words and melody over a simple chord progression
  • Work on spontaneity with your team. Make sure they know how to follow you when you decide to take things in a different direction. Create subtle gestures or signals to indicate different parts of the song.

Believe it or not, spontaneity does require practice and planning. Plan for a time in your worship service to be spontaneous. Planned worship and spontaneous worship are not opposed to one another. Both are biblical, and both can edify the church.