What's the deal with SPONTANEOUS Worship?

This article is a conversation I had about the idea of spontaneous worship with Zac Hicks, the author of the book “The Worship Pastor.”

Spontaneous worship is a growing trend for churches.  It doesn’t plan out a song, but focuses on discovering the song or lyrics from the heart and Holy Spirit in order to be as authentic as possible. I’ve been wrestling with this topic for quite some time and I’ve had a lot of conversations about it to create a well-formed and fair opinion on it. 

I hosted Zac on the Churchfront Podcast where we had a much longer discussion about this, but I’m sharing an edited portion of our talk here where we dive into the topic. If you want to listen to the full discussion and hear more about pastoral care as worship leaders, you can check it out here from Feb. 20th, 2019.

Also, before we dive in, I want to list two other resources that helped me think about spontaneous worship.


What is spontaneous worship and what are worship leaders supposed to do with it? 


Lately, I think especially the past couple of years with the growing popularity and influence of ministries like Bethel Music and their worship ministry, I'm hearing a lot of worship leaders talk about the concept of spontaneous worship. People think of this as the most authentic form of worship because it just flows from them–like the holy grail of worship. 

As a worship pastor, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that. From your perspective, what is spontaneous worship and how should we be handling that as worship leaders?


What a great question. I probably don't jam on this enough with folks, but I think about it a lot because we're listening to all these tracks that have “spontaneous” next to them and supposedly–and probably truly–these songs emerge from moments where the singers didn't have a song in mind ahead of time.

I want to think through this idea biblically. I want to think through it historically. I want to start with what you said about the pressure we feel that it’s almost the holy grail of the worship experience. 

I want to ask why do people assume that’s the pinnacle? 

It's assumed that it's the pinnacle, I think, because there is an underlying philosophy about what worship is.

“Right now, a lot of people seem to think that the best worship is not fake from your lips but true from your heart.“

Spontaneous worship typifies what can only be from the heart. It's just coming out of my heart so that must be the truest form of worship. 

Personally, I think that's worth questioning. Even though we have biblical warrant to say, “Yes, God is ultimately looking at the heart and concerned with the heart” I don't necessarily think that automatically means that stuff coming out of my heart spontaneously is therefore the pinnacle expression of what it means for worship. 

In other words, while I fully believe that God cares about the heart, I don’t think that pre-planned worship with written words and music is less good. 

Should we always embrace spontaneous worship? Are there any theological concerns to this?


What’s interesting is that in most cases when the Bible is referring to the human heart, it's often saying how flawed it is and that we can't trust it. 

That’s what’s concerning to me about the just “singing from the heart.” Maybe it’s not as pure and good as people claim it is.


I do think the Bible tells us even though I am saved and I am filled with the spirit of God, I still have what Paul calls the flesh, which always makes me, until the day I die, live in constant suspicion of my heart. 

Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is deceitful and wicked above all things who can understand it?" I think that that's still a true statement for the Christian. That's how I interpret Romans 7 when Paul says "I do what I don't want to do, and what I don't want to do, I do.

It's what Luther talked about when he said "Simul Justus et Peccator" which means Simultaneously justified and sinner. 

I'm going to have this sober, realistic understanding of my own heart and that makes me suspicious of saying that the things that come out of my heart are going to be totally pure.

While I don’t think the heart is the purest, I do think spontaneous worship is fully warranted in scripture. I think that's part of how we can define part of the Psalms that talk about singing to the Lord a “new psalm.” 

I agree with some interpreters who say that it means singing old psalms newly. 

“But I also think it means singing new psalms and maybe new psalms that are given to us by the Holy Spirit in the moment of worship. I'm totally for that and totally willing to engage in that as I can.” 

The case for planned worship


I mean, all of the psalms in a sense began at a moment of spontaneity when a text, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, came into the heart of the psalmist and they started penning it. But, those psalms God gave to the people have got to be sung again and again. No Bethel songs are inspired, no Zac songs are inspired that way, but the Psalms have a unique status as inspired songs of God.

We want to engage every aspect, planned or not-planned heartily. There's a big thing that Thomas Cranmer was interested in in the Book of Common Prayer, which should blow our minds as liturgical Christians.

If we only valued spontaneous worship, then liturgies are the most dead thing in the world because we say them over and over again. They’re written down and not spontaneous. It'll be the farthest thing from Cranmer’s mind or any of the reformers' minds that this liturgy would be something dead, but it would be what he calls hearty–literally from the heart. 

The core of spontaneous and planned worship


Thomas Cranmer was interested in the heart being on fire and I think that's the essence of all worship. We want it to be from our hearts and not just from our lips, and that's what I enjoy and appreciate about the spontaneous worship movement. However, I also question the underlying value that the heart is the purest source of our worship.


That's very helpful unpacking that for us, especially because we want to often forget the historical aspect of things and that all of our churches have traditions that came from or are kind of evolution of prior traditions. We all have liturgies. 


Exactly. Even planned spontaneity is a liturgy. We're going to plan for this spontaneous time where we're not planning anything. That's a liturgy, man. 

How do worship pastors lead spontaneous worship responsibly?


My concern is if we just again make it a regular habit of always coming up with spontaneous songs in a service, are we really singing as a unified corporate body at that point? 

Is it pastorally responsible for leaders to be spontaneous in worship? Some people in the congregation may be really thrown off. 


Right. I think that's the question to ask.

Have we developed a culture where the congregation expects this and knows what to do in this moment?

The worship leader is kind of finding a song in the moment and relaying it to the congregation based on what they're hearing from the Holy Spirit. The congregation is hearing it and it’s usually something simple enough for the congregation grasp. They eventually grasp and respond and I don’t think it’s irresponsible for the worship leader to spontaneous worship as long as they guide it well. 

How to introduce spontaneous worship into you congregation. 


If you’re trying to automatically include it in your congregation without any history of spontaneous worship, people are going to reject it. The pastoral question is:

How do I engage spontaneous worship in faithful ways where we're inching toward that goal and are not just shoving it done their throats?

If we're trying to issue a cultural change in our worship practices, you got to think about incremental steps and about how you do that over time and patiently with trust?

You should ask yourself

  • What's your relationship with the congregation like? 

  • How well do they trust you? 

  • How intimately are you connected with them? 

  • How are you engaging your congregation from Monday through Saturday? That will affect how they respond to you on Sunday.

  • Are there relationships that connect you across the demographics of your congregation? Do you know the people who attend your church?

If you want to change and influence the culture of your church’s worship, you have to get out and meet with everybody. You can just sit in your office and hang out with your music buds. 

Final thoughts


I think that's a great note to end this conversation on. There's so much clarity you provided on how we're supposed to provide pastoral to our congregations. Thank you for taking the questions about spontaneous worship.

Where can folks go to just keep in touch with your latest content or where can they pick up a book?


You can check out my blog at Zachicks.com.

Or if you want to stay connected with me, I'm happy to connect with you on Instagram at @zachickscom, @zachicks on Twitter and then Facebook.com/zmhicks.

 Happy to be friends and process things in and around worship. 


Awesome. Thanks so much for your insight today and making yourself available to folks!


I hope you walk away with a lot more clarity around this topic spontaneous worship and how to handle it pastorally as a worship leader. 

If you want to learn more about how to plan and lead worship, check out Worshipleaderschool.com. You're going to find all the essential training, advice, and support you need to plan and lead worship at your church.

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