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?
One of the challenges every worship leader faces is knowing when to talk and how much to say. My personal preference is to err on the side of saying nothing, but for many, a few words throughout the service helps them engage. On the other hand, too many words make for a very distracting worship time.
Today, I’m proposing there is another way to communicate during worship without stopping the music and talking. Singing. Yep, that’s right. Aren’t we already singing? Yes, but the singing I’m suggesting is a sung version of what you would otherwise say. A spontaneous song. It’s possible to phrase your thoughts in such a way that instead of being an exhortation to the congregation only, it is also a response to God.
Below is a link to an example of what I’m describing from our worship service at The Well. Skip ahead to 35:00 on the play bar if you don’t want to listen to the sermon (which was very good). The spontaneous song starts at 35:39. Listen for the spontaneous chorus (37:07) I use to end the song and help the congregation respond to the message.
What did you think? How would you use this technique?
If you missed my first post on Spontaneous Choruses, you’ll want to check it out. As it was quite the lengthy post, I thought I would wrap up a few details in this one.
When you are first introducing your congregation to spontaneous choruses, don’t try to do too much. Keep the choruses simple and not more than one or two per set. You want them to be interested rather than turned off.
The other thing that you must do is repeat, repeat, repeat. Eight times per new chorus is good. The first two times you sing the chorus all the way through are the writing process. Once the chorus has been written, then your worship team vocalists can join in. If they join in too soon, there is a disaster waiting to happen. Instruct them to join in after you sing the entire chorus two times through, and have them only sing the melody. This helps the congregation learn the chorus well.
After two times through with the worship team singing melody, then the chorus is established and you can introduce harmony. This helps to build the chorus and avoid monotony. Continue to build with instrumentation during the last two repetitions. Of course if the chorus is a real hit, you don’t have to stop after 8 times, but go at least 8 times so that people get familiar enough with the new words and melody to worship.
Here is a breakdown in list form:
Write: Sing chorus 2 times through solo
Establish: Sing chorus 2 times adding vocalists (melody only)
Build: Sing chorus 2-4 times adding harmonies and other instrumentation
End: Sing a name of God
Ending a spontaneous chorus is easy provided the worship team is communicating before and during the worship service. Use a phrase or name of God to signal that you won’t be repeating the chorus. An example chorus, “All our love is to you // You are our reward // All our praise we give you // You’re worth living for”, can be end by singing “You’re worth living for, Jesus”. That addition of the name “Jesus” lets the team know you are ready to end.
One more thing that can really help you do spontaneous choruses well is getting your video projector operator on board. Many worship projection programs have an option for spontaneous text. Have your projector person type the words for the chorus on the spot so the congregation can engage even more easily.
Alright, I’m sure I could find a few more things to say, but we’ll keep this one short!
What are your questions? Would you sing a spontaneous chorus during a worship service?
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.
As a worship leader, one of the best things you can do for yourself, your team and your congregation is to memorize your music. Here is a quick list (in no particular order) of reasons why:
- Memorizing a song forces you to learn it better. If you can rely on your music stand you will. No matter how well you think you know the song, you don’t know it fully until you can play it comfortably without the chord chart.
- Memorized music looks better. When you are in front of people, they will look at you. If you are watching your music stand the entire time, people notice. It’s not a good visual. You want to be free to move with the music.
- Memorized music frees you to close your eyes or make eye contact with the congregation. Both are important. Eye contact helps people engage who are otherwise disengaged. Closed eyes helps you focus. Having your eyes free also helps you discern what is going on in the room and communicate with your team.
- Memorized music frees your mind to think about other things while you lead. The less you have to think about the better. You have to focus on Jesus, the band, and the congregation. That’s enough to think about without adding paying attention to a music stand.
- Memorized music gives you confidence. You know the songs and you know that you know the songs. Confidence allows you to lead well. People don’t like following an unconfident leader. They will disengage quickly.
- Memorized music allows for spontaneity. You will never break into spontaneity as long as you are tied to a page. Memorizing is really the only way to get there.
So here’s how you do it. If you have never memorized a song before, go to your instrument right now and try playing anything that comes to mind. See how far you can get. Did you know all the words? Did you know all the chords? Could you tell when you were wrong?
Now, look at the music and see what you missed. Put the music away and try again. Try it with your eyes closed. Repeat it over and over until your confident. Work on it a little bit at a time every day. Doing something for a short amount of time every day has much longer lasting results than practicing for three hours once a week. Muscles have memory and practice makes permanent. So get to it!
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?
Today, I want to share a simple way to introduce spontaneity into the worship service. Repetition. Since spontaneity tends to make people feel uncomfortable, we can bring it into the meeting wearing the cloak of repetition, which tends to be very comforting.
Being spontaneous means that you do something unplanned. Using repetition as our helper, this is as simple as repeating a chorus just because it’s going well. I usually operate from the premise that if it’s going well (or there’s “life” on it) keep doing it. Whether it’s the verse, chorus or bridge, get comfortable repeating them without a plan.
In order to do this well, you will need to communicate to your team and the congregation. If they are not used to anything but the plan, first talk about the idea of spontaneous repetition. Cast vision for it and demystify anything that causes concern or worry. Once the team is on board and you practice some spontaneous repetitions, you’ll be ready to use it in the worship service. If your band can’t follow you, it will most likely create confusion in the congregation.
The next place we can use repetition is with one line of a song. Now instead of repeating the entire verse or chorus, we just repeat one line of it. Which line? The one that the Holy Spirit highlights to you in the moment. For example, the song Tradin’ My Sorrows (I know it’s old, but it was the first example that came to mind) has a line which says, “I’m blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure.” That’s a great declaration, but in the song we breeze by very fast. It wouldn’t be fun to sing it slow either. So one day, I started repeating just this line. After five or six times, people are beginning to realize the truth they are declaring as it sinks in.
Life generally tells us that we’re not blessed. Well, life is wrong. God’s word says that He has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. Wow! That’s a lot of blessing. Every one. Being blessed beyond the curse means that my life is not defined by the curse of the law. My life is defined in Christ and I have become his righteousness. Coming to that understanding is all apart of having a renewed mind. I don’t know what it did for the entire congregation that day, but that little repetition has stuck with me all these years.
Help your congregation find meaning in the songs they are singing using this simple technique. Everyone wins, except possibly your video projector operator, but there are lots of good software options that make spontaneous decisions manageable.
What are some of your favorite worship lyrics to declare? Does the music allow for you to repeat that one line?
BGV stands for background vocal, and while it serves a very good purpose in defining roles for most of the music world, I believe we should to step away from that model in worship. Regarding someone as a BGV ignores the potential they have for helping to lead the worship service.
As worship leaders, it is too easy to miss the valuable resource God has given us in our singers. Singers are generally relegated to one of three categories: melody support, harmonies, occasional lead on a particular song. All those are great functions, but still there is more.
To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.”
Adopt a team ministry approach to leading worship. Empower the BGVs to step out from the back and release the song, prayer, scripture, or testimony that God gives them during worship. When the team is ministering in this way, we begin to get away from that “programmed” feeling kind of meeting and step into something more genuine and communal.
What about excellence? I know some worship leader right now is freaking out at the thought of turning their singers loose. Here’s the thing, incorporating a team approach to leading does not equal chaos or a lack of boundaries. Rather, clearly communicate expectations and the new boundaries/responsibilities your singers will have. Work on a communication system so that things can still flow smoothly.
In the early stages of transition, things may feel rocky. Don’t give up! Keep talking and working through the problems. Allow for input from your team and congregation. Be open to spontaneity in worship.
What do you think about a team ministry approach to worship leading?
Music theory, that is. While I am definitely not about putting the cart before the horse, I think every budding worship leader should learn music theory and teach it to their team. Increasing your knowledge and ability in this area will lead to your next breakthrough in excellence.
Right alongside music theory is ear training. The combination of these two elements is critical for skill development. Your ear is like the director for your hands and voice. Ear training is one of the practical sides of music theory. A highly developed ear provides great freedom while playing, singing and leading worship. Conversely, an underdeveloped ear will stunt your growth and keep you from your full potential as a musician.
So, where do we start? In the future, I plan on writing posts with theory lessons specific to worship leading, but for today, I thought I would introduce you to one of the most helpful resources on the web: Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net.
Adams has equipped the site with many lessons, exercises and tools (there’s even an app). Whether you are brand new to music or have a rudimentary understanding of theory, this website will bring the pieces together and provide a wonderfully easy way for you to develop your ear. Check it out!
Is music theory exciting for you or a complete headache? Are you a nerd or a free-spirit?