How to Step Into Spontaneous Worship With Spirit-Led Discernment

(Photo by Tyler Milligan on Unsplash)

"Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:18-19).

One of the questions I am often asked when people find out that I love to do spontaneous worship is "How does one start doing that?"

For me, it was a journey. Some of you reading this may not really know what spontaneous worship is. If you look up the definition of "spontaneous," it is just what it says: unplanned, unrehearsed— it's worship going off the plan by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

This can be a scary thought to some worship leaders out there. I am part of the worship ministry at my church, and to have a spontaneous flow of the spirit (and have it still sound right) takes not only the discernment of the person who is leading the song but also of the entire team, from the background vocals to the instruments to the sound people. Everyone needs to be able to tell where the leader is going and follow successfully, even though the leader doesn't exactly know where that will be!

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A New Way of Worship

I remember the first encounter I had with spontaneous worship almost 20 years ago as part of a choir in Florida. Our worship leader asked as many of us as could to attend a worship and warfare conference a few hours away. The group leading the conference was known for its extreme Spirit-led ministry, and I had never been in one of their meetings before. The whole conference floored me; I had never seen people flow in the Spirit in worship like that before. Whole songs would be created right there on the platform as they sang. They did have a plan and had some familiar songs, but I could tell that probably at least half of the worship was unrehearsed, led by the Spirit. And it sounded flawless. Most people there were having spiritual encounters during that amazing time of worship.

After that conference I wanted to start ministering that way, so I began to listen to worship leaders who flow in spontaneous worship. At that point, I was still scared to lead spontaneously. To let go of being in control can be frightening when you are faced with it. Little by little, I learned to listen to the Holy Spirit as I led. Sometimes I would feel Him nudging me in a certain direction during a song, or at times I had a heavy sense that I needed to pause and say something specific to the congregation to help them connect with what the Spirit was saying through music and then go back to the song or start singing something spontaneous based on what He was saying.

My family and I traveled full-time for several years, and I have led worship in many different churches, large and small, with all types of worship ministries. I tried to incorporate the church's own team, especially the band members, whenever possible. Because of this, I have met a lot of different worship leaders with various styles and techniques of leading. I remember one leader (who actually led from the drum set) who admitted that if the song differed at all from how he had learned it, he would get lost and not be able to complete the song. He would need to start over again. For him to lead spontaneously would seem an impossibility. But I believe that even those who are in the same scenario can still branch out and learn how to operate in the flow of the Spirit.

How to Step Into the Spontaneous

Leading spontaneously must start during practice, and don't feel bad about starting small. Most likely, you won't be able to just come out with a completely new spontaneous song during the next service and have everyone follow you. Talk to your team about the direction you feel God is leading you, and prep them with some basics before you actually start stepping out into the spontaneous. Start watching videos by groups who really flow in spontaneous worship and take some mental notes on what you notice they do.

I have found that there are parts of a song that are perfect for Spirit-led worship. Find a simple chord progression that can be repeated throughout that spontaneous time; even if it is three or four chords, it can give some backbone and stability musically to allow you and your vocalists the freedom to sing over it without clashing with the music. It may just start with a phrase that is impressed on your heart in the moment—go with it! I have found that the phrase normally will blossom into more as you are obedient to follow the Spirit's leading. And don't be surprised if one of your background vocalists gets a song from the Lord too. If you feel it's from the Lord, give them the space to run with it.

We serve a creative God, so my firm belief is that our worship should also be creative; a song doesn't have to be done exactly the same way all the time, with the same vocal infections or musical runs. Allowing the Lord to lead you into spontaneous worship is the perfect way to demonstrate God's creative nature. Don't be afraid to step out into the spontaneous!

"He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord" (Ps. 40:3, NLT).

Cathy Sanders has been involved with music for over 27 years. She is an anointed worship leader and psalmist who regularly leads worship for community and church events. She has produced three albums, and her music was played on the radio for over six years in the Northeast. She is also a prolific writer who has authored/coauthored five books. Cathy carries master's and doctorate degrees in Christian education, graduating with honors. Cathy and her husband, Andy, reside in New York with their two teenage children.

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