A major roadblock to spontaneity in worship is linear thinking. When all of the songs on our setlist have a precise beginning, middle and end, there is very little room for creativity or even just lingering in the moment. Sure, tight arrangements sound great and have their place, but every worship service needs to have at least one portion that doesn’t feel programmed or rushed.
Instead, I like to think of each part of a song as a cog or gear. The verse, chorus and bridge are all connected, but in a way where we can move from one to the other without a specific order or pattern in mind. Each part can be repeated as many or few times as necessary. I’m even a fan of repeating one line of the verse a few extra times for impact. It makes us think about what we are singing.
Some songs lend themselves to this kind of thinking very easily because the chord progressions they use are circular. For instance, C – Am – F – G is a circular chord progression. The bass note moves down from C, down from Am, up from F and up from G. One time through the progression is one revolution.
Songs with only one chord progression are the easiest to lead without a linear structure. Your band can’t mess up too badly when all they have to play is four chords. Using simple songs and intentionally practicing them with no order will give your team confidence to flow. Sometimes, I like to start a song with the bridge or chorus rather than the intro or verse. My team is generally prepared to jump in wherever I start.
Teach your team how to follow your body language and use hand signals. My team knows how big I want to build by how high my hands jump off the keyboard. I also signal them in other ways if they are going a direction that I am not headed. Sometimes I follow the lead of one of the other instruments if they are really flowing well.
Flowing together spontaneously as a team takes practice. Give them lots of opportunity to do so before Sunday morning.
Do you think more or less linear when it comes to worship?
Spontaneous choruses. What are they and how do you use them? First the name is rather self-explanatory. A spontaneous chorus is a chorus which is written and sung in the moment without rehearsal. Developing spontaneous choruses is a skill that comes very naturally to some people. If that’s not you, don’t worry, you can learn how to write and use them effectively. Another option is to delegate chorus writing to a capable vocalist on your team.
As with choruses from existing songs, our spontaneous ones need three things: melody, lyric and a chord progression. Typically, we will borrow an existing chord progression from the song we are singing before the spontaneous chorus. This isn’t always the case, but it is easiest and you need to tell your team if you are planning to use something different. An example of a good chord progression is: C G Am F or I V vi IV. It has a circular motion and is simple enough to create many memorable melodies.
When it comes to melody, we must think of structure. A good melody is easy enough to remember. Catchy is another word that describes good melodies. Spontaneous choruses with hard arduous melodies are not fun for anyone. So in our structure, we must incorporate some repetition. Too much and it will be boring. Too little and will be unfocused. An example of good repetition can be found in the melodic structure we call question and answer.
As children we were taught to raise the inflection of our voice when asking a question. The same is true with this type of melody. The first line ends on a high note (a question). To answer the question we can repeat the melody only ending on a low note instead. Hum the tune Mary had a Little Lamb to yourself. Notice the question and answer structure. What other songs can you think of having a similar melodic structure? We can also call this type of melody: AB.
Following the AB line of thinking, we could create many other melodic structures like: AAAB or ABAC or ABCABC. Be creative and recognize what works well. We will use this same structure for lyrics too. Here’s an example of AAAB:
You are good
You are good
You are good
And Your mercy endures
The first three lines are the same. Same words. Same melody. Only the fourth line is different. This is an example of good repetition with just enough variety. Try creating your own melody with the lyrics and chord progression above.
Moving on to lyrics, scripture is very helpful. Something extremely profound happens when singing the Word. It gets caught in the human spirit and renews the mind. The other consideration is discerning what God is saying in the moment during worship. Holy Spirit will bring scriptures or other words and ideas to our minds if we are listening. Use those thoughts to create a spontaneous chorus.
Now you might be feeling overwhelmed if you’ve never done this before. That’s okay. Give it some time. Meanwhile, you can practice your chorus writing ability with this baby step: modify an existing chorus to express a new meaning. An example of this could be the old chorus I Exalt Thee. Change the “I” to “we”. It’s not a big change, but it could be spontaneous and bring a stronger sense of community to the corporate worship setting.
Another example, singing the chorus from How Great is Our God, change “is our” to “are You”. How great are You God // Lord we sing, how great are You God // and all will sing, how great, how great are You God. This change redirects the focus from singing about God to singing to Him. There are many songs that you could try these two changes on. Practice with those first before trying to launch into a truly spontaneous chorus.
Spontaneous choruses can be used during or in-between songs in worship. Incorporating them into your leading will bring a new dimension of worship and greater awareness of God’s presence and involvement.
A current trend for that last decade or so has been the constant clarification that music is not worship. In our culture, it is especially easy to refer to the worship time of our services as the singing time. But singing in and of itself, is no more worship than throwing a rock in a pond. Worship is the response of the human heart to God.
Now, having said that, let’s talk music! Even though music itself isn’t worship, music has a deeply powerful effect on the human body, soul and spirit. It’s not a coincidence. God created it that way. (It was an amazing day when I realized that God created music and art and color. You’re believing a lie if you think God is in anyway uncreative or boring. He’s the most magnificent, interesting and wonderful being in the universe.) God created music to be able to engage us in a different way. Different from pictures. Different from stories. Different from movement. Its not necessarily better than other ways. Just different.
There is a story of Elisha the prophet in the book of Kings. When asked to give the word of the Lord, Elisha first asks for a musician to play the harp. While the music was playing, God’s Spirit came on Elisha and he began to prophesy. Likewise, when King David established a tabernacle in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant, he ordered musical worship night and day and taught the musicians to prophesy on their instruments.
If we come to worship and think that an electric guitar solo or a drum solo is just about enjoying the music and having a good time, usually that’s all it will be. I’m proposing that, as worship leaders, we invite God to release His song through our instruments so that we begin to prophesy. I’m not asking you to be weird! Please don’t. I’m not suggesting that we manufacture something either. Other than being skillful on our instruments, the only thing we need to do is be open in our minds for God to move through the notes we play. The change in thinking and expectation is enough to bring it about.
We can also develop our ears by practicing simple chord progressions. Start with something easy and familiar. Play until you’re bored and then begin to listen for new melodies or different chord resolutions. Ask God to sing to you. Try it out. You’ll be surprised. It may take some time, but you can develop your relationship with the Lord and discover how He interacts with you in the music.
When you prophesy on your instrument in a worship service, you will know. Something will feel very fresh and new. Often, someone else will confirm it too by describing how God was ministering to them. If you truly prophesy with your guitar or keyboard, others will recognize and acknowledge God’s involvement.
Have you ever prophesied on your instrument before? I’d love to hear the story.
It sounds like an oxymoron, I know. Still, scheduling a time of spontaneity into the worship service is the best way to make sure it happens if you’re not accustomed to being spontaneous.
So, what do we plan? Certain songs are great launching points for times of free praise. Free praise or spontaneous singing are terms that mean everyone sings their own song to God with their own words at the same time. It can sound chaotic, but most often, it is simply wonderful. An example of a planned spontaneity could look like this:
- Sing to the King
- Sing My Love
- O Praise Him
- Free Praise – Chord progression same as O Praise Him chorus
- Agnes Dei
- Worthy is the Lamb
This way, everyone on the team knows when to expect the free praise and they will not be caught off guard. Eventually, when your team gets really comfortable with free praise, you can then take it out of the plan and just give a vocal cue in the moment whenever it seems timely. To cue, use phrases like “Lift your voice to the Lord”, “Sing with your own words” or “Sing the love song of your heart”.
Getting everyone on board can be a challenge at first, but with the right leadership, people become familiar with the idea and participate joyfully. The best way to lead free praise or spontaneous singing is by example. You as the worship leader and your vocalists should all sing very boldly. We can’t demonstrate timidly because that is what the congregation will do. Having multiple singers on stage actively engaging encourages people to engage also. If only one person is singing loudly, people will tend to listen to that one person.
Before you ever try it in a worship service, you should acclimate your team by practicing in a rehearsal. Find words that are easy to sing spontaneously. They can be simple phrases like “Jesus, we love you” or “Hallelujah”. Try spontaneous singing without instrumentation and with instrumentation. Practice for a really long time (10 minutes or more) until everyone is uncomfortable. The more you push the limits, the easier it becomes. Once the team is ready, then it will be much easier for the congregation to follow.
Do you incorporate free praise into your service? Is it planned or spontaneous?