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Prophetic & Spontaneous Worship

Perhaps some of the truest worship is that which doesn’t come from a chord chart or a lyric sheet; isn’t learned from a YouTube video or an MP3.  Perhaps it’s that which comes from the overflow of our hearts when we’re so overtaken by God’s beauty, His power, His grace, and His deep and unending love for us.

This is why I tell worship leaders over and over again to get outside the song.  Whether it’s writing a new bridge or chorus to an old favorite, or if it’s changing the instrumentation or style to match your own, or if a spontaneous moment of instrumentation and singing turns into a completely new song that has never been heard before – taking the song from the page to the heart is an essential part of defining God’s worth.

God is more than capable of reading someone else’s chord charts on His own.  And I’m sure He has a great appreciation for good music.  But when it’s our hearts that he’s after, there must be something more we can bring than good tone and good musicianship and somebody else’s love song.

This isn’t to say that someone else’s words aren’t a great place to start.  Prewritten songs, poems, and especially scripture are a great launching point into prophetic and spontaneous worship.  They just shouldn’t be the only thing.

My wife loves greeting cards, and I always do my best to pick the ones with just the right words – the ones that express my thoughts and feelings, usually better than I could have done myself (at least I think so).  But there is one thing my wife expects to find in each of those cards, and it’s not money or my signature or even a line of X’s and O’s.  No, she wants to find something personal in each one – something handwritten – something straight from my heart.  And I believe God wants the same thing.

The Difference Between Prophetic & Spontaneous Worship

Even though many people interchange these two terms freely to describe anything that is not pre-scripted into a service (or if it is scripted, it is at least something outside or beyond the standard version of the selected songs), there is a huge difference between prophetic worship and spontaneous worship.  The primary differences are the source and direction of the message.

Prophetic worship comes from God to man.  It is hard even to consider this worship, although sometimes it is a declaration by God of our worth to Him, and would therefore be appropriate.  Still, much of the time it would be better called prophetic singing (or prophetic music, if it’s instrumental).  These moments come from a musician or leader who hears a word from God, either during a service or in preparation for a service, and puts it to music for the edification of the body.  It may be direction, validation, encouragement, correction, romance, or any number of things God wants to share with His people in a very-much two-way kind of worship.  It is a call and response between God and man.

Spontaneous worship, however, comes from man to God.  It is the song of our hearts; the overflow of our affection to God.  This might be in the form of praise or thanksgiving, repentance, seeking or questioning, romance, or even declarations in agreement with God’s word.  It might even be an instrumental piece, played to express our emotions beyond words to our Father in Heaven.  More often than not, this is what we think of when we hear either of these terms, and while it’s not worth fighting over semantics, it is important to understand the differentiation between the two.

Exercises in Prophetic and Spontaneous Worship

How do you teach this kind of worship?  Well, it’s not exactly a science, but there are some exercises that I find helpful when teaching a team to get outside the song and to feel comfortable and confident in prophetic and spontaneous singing.

The most important part of these exercises is this, that you practice it together.  Start taking 10-15 minutes during each practice to have “free worship”.  Pick a key and start playing some basic progressions.  Take just 2 or occasionally 3 chords to start and begin to play variations of them that are repeatable, predictable, and yet hopefully not too monotonous.  I have found that you can play enough variations on 2 chords to keep this exercise going for over an hour, but if you need to change up the chords after a few minutes, or even change keys, do what feels right to you.

Then, give your musicians (and not just the assigned vocalists) the freedom to sing out – to experiment – to “musically brainstorm” for a bit.  Be encouraging, and take opportunities to demonstrate and experiment with them.  This is also a great way to learn how your team members worship together.  You will begin to see unique things in each person that you can draw on when you need them, and you will all become better at watching each other and predicting where a person will go next, which will add incredible strength to your team.

A great way to get started is this.  Pick a psalm or section of scripture (5-10 verses tops), and ask each person on your team to come to the mic and sing it in four ways…

1. First, have them sing the scripture just as it’s written.  This will help them become familiar with the words, and will help them learn to pick out key words, to listen for meaning, and to find the hidden melodies within your chord progressions.

2. Then, have them sing the same passage again, but ask them to change the words.  Ask them to make it a personal prayer to God, singing to Him in the first-person.  This will again help them to pick out key words and listen for meaning, and will help them take a prewritten piece and turn it into something personal, heartfelt, and meaningful.

3. The third time through, have them sing the passage as if God is singing it to them.  This would be considered prophetic singing, and depending on the passage, might take a little more thought to figure out.  Again, it should be in the first-person, but this time it is God singing it over them. 

This is where people tend to really get it.  The first time to most people is meaningless.  The second time is vulnerable and intimidating to sing in front of others.  But this time, there is more strength, more confidence, and that AHA moment that comes when scripture comes alive.  This is where the scripture takes on new meaning and new life.

4. The last time, have them sing the passage as an exhortation.  In practice, it will be to the rest of your team, but have them imagine they are singing it to the congregation.  They will be in essence encouraging the body with the truths they have discovered.  Watch and be amazed as this is time through, they sing with 10 times the intensity of the first.  This is because step 3 has caused a transformation.  The scripture now has meaning beyond words.  And this step will help your team make prophetic and spontaneous worship meaningful for others, rather than asking the whole body to witness your own personal moment on the platform.

Let’s take a look at these steps through an example, taken from Psalm  62:5-8…

1. “My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him.  He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved.  In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge is in God.  Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.  Selah.”

2. Holy Father, I’m waiting for You right now, listening for You quietly.  All my hope, all my expectation is in You, and without You there is nothing.  I need you.  Please meet me here.  When everything around me is shaking, I can depend on You.  When I am weak, You save me from myself – You save me from everything in this world that comes against me.  I need You now to be my strength; to protect me and give me peace.  I trust You, Lord.  This is why I pour out my heart to You.  I know You hear me, and in You I rest secure.

3. My child, I am right here with you.  I know that you feel weak sometimes and that everything around you seems to be shaking.  But I will keep you steady.  You do not need to be afraid.  Look to Me now; trust Me; and set your expectations high, for I will save you from your trouble.  My plans are to prosper you, and to give you a future and a hope.  I will be your resting place, your peace, and your strength, and through all of this, my glory will shine in you.  Just quiet yourself, take a deep breath, and rest in Me.

4. Wait, just wait upon the Lord and expect great things!  For He is right here with you.  He won’t let you fall.  He will give you peace.  And His glory will shine – His glory will shine through you forever.  So wait… just wait… and pour out your hearts… give Him your trust.  For God is your refuge and strength.

Now first of all, notice… this doesn’t have to rhyme.  It doesn’t have to be polished or perfect.  This is “free worship”.  The rules of songwriting are not important right now.  Just let it be a safe place for your team to practice singing to God, hearing from Him, and declaring His word.  But as you practice, notice your songs take shape.  Even in step 4 above, you begin to feel it turn into song.  And sometimes that will come earlier.  Sometimes step 3 is where it’s at.  Sometimes, when it seems God is silent, you stay at step 2.

Oftentimes, a spontaneous song or prophetic word might come forth from these times of practice.  Perhaps a piece of scripture stands out to you or a team member.  Maybe a certain word or phrase begins to take shape in your heart and find its way into your worship service.  Maybe in this example, it’s “wait, just wait, and expect great things” or perhaps it’s “Pour out your heart and wait up on the Lord” or even “His glory will shine in your heart”.  You never know where something like this may take you. 

You might be in the middle of another song that reminds you of a scripture you sang in practice, and the words will come flowing back.  Maybe God speaks a fresh word to you, or even reminds you of a particular scripture in the midst of your service, and you and your team will be ready to turn it into an exhortation.  Or maybe it will just be a time for your team to be vulnerable with each other, to grow in confidence, and to share some intimate moments with God during your practice.  But I encourage you, give it a shot and see where God takes you!

Active Listening

Perhaps the most important thing to learn when it comes to prophetic and spontaneous worship is the art of active listening.  We often think of worship as one-way communication, or at least the kind of two-way conversation where we do all the talking and God just nods and smiles and says “uh-huh” every couple of moments.  But to hear what God is saying to you, to others on your team, and to your congregation, you have to do more than just listen to yourself and adjust for tone.

This means you should be constantly attentive to the spiritual and physical atmospheres around you.  Plan moments during your worship set to listen, whether that’s through instrumental interludes or intentional silence.  Take time to listen to God’s response.

It also means you need to pay attention to your team.  God may be speaking to someone else on your team, but if you’re too concerned about being the leader (instead of letting the Holy Spirit lead) and trying too hard to take your team into the next bridge or follow the order of the lyrics on the screen, you may completely miss it when God gives a word or a song or even an epic guitar solo to someone else on your team.

But it doesn’t end there.  You also have to pay close attention to your congregation.  They are the ones you are leading, so pay close attention to their response.  Are they responding to a particular part of a song?  Is a particular phrase touching their hearts?  If so, stay there until the Spirit is done working.  Is there a song that just isn’t working – people are lost or bored or disengaged?  Maybe you should cut that one short and consider a different direction.  Or maybe it’s a good time for silent or instrumental listening to see what God is up to.

And of course, you need to listen in planning.  I spend at least as much time planning a worship set than I do writing the spoken message for a service.  I spend a lot of time in prayer, private worship, and scripture reading to prepare my heart and to hear where God wants to lead a particular service, and then I take that direction and begin to work through making the keys and styles and instrumentation fit my congregation and my team.

It is also out of preparation that much of what we consider “spontaneous worship is born.  Seeds are planted, words are hashed out, and melodies are discovered in the safety and experimentation of private worship.  This doesn’t make it any less sincere when God prompts you for it in a service, so long as it comes as a result of spending time in God’s presence and listening for His voice.

Now, to be able to listen during your worship, there are a few guidelines to follow.  Number one, don’t play beyond your ability.  If you’re too focused on the skill of music, you won’t be able to pay attention to the more important aspects of worship (first God, then your team and congregation).

Number two, leave room for the Spirit to move.  Always have a plan (for without a plan the people perish [Proverbs 29:18]), but in that plan, be ready to adapt and respond.  Add to your plan times of listening and even times of “free worship” where your team feels released to go beyond the song.

Number three, don’t be afraid of silence.  The most powerful moves of God that I have experienced in worship have come out of holy silence.  I can’t say they were planned.  They just happened.  A holy moment came, the presence of God was thick and tangible, and in our awe, we became silent.  Almost always when this happens, it builds a cry from the congregation – a deep and passionate cry – of longing, of brokenness, of repentance, of overwhelming love.

And this leads to number four… don’t be afraid to let the back row lead you in worship.  Yes, you want to be careful of those who cry out just because they can’t handle the silence.  And you want to be careful of those who might try to sabotage the service either by their own will or the influence of the enemy.  But sometimes the most incredible thing as a worship leader is to let the cry of the people lead you somewhere you never would have gone on your own.

Building on A Song

One of the easiest ways to get outside the songs in your worship is to build on a song that is already written.  You don’t have to come up with your own thought or idea, but you can expand someone else’s thought and make it your own.

Pay attention to key words or phrases in a song, and especially those that seem to move the hearts of your congregation, and turn them into something special.  Make up your own bridge by repeating a phrase for a while, building in intensity until the words can really sink in.  Use the exercise in this section that was dedicated to scripture and use it to reword the song in the form of 1) a prayer, 2) a message from God, or 3) an exhortation.  Explore the concept of the song, fill in the blanks, apply it to your own (corporate) situation.  Help it reach home for the people gathered around you.

And don’t be afraid of repetition.  Surely there’s a point where it’s too much, but the first time we sing something it is just words.  The next few times, we are memorizing it and considering the meaning.  But after that, it begins to resonate with our hearts and take on new life.  A good rule of thumb is this: whenever you think it’s time to stop repeating something, do it one more time before you move on.  This is what takes people from reading words off a screen to worshiping from their hearts, and the results are transformational!

Moderation and Discernment

Prophetic and spontaneous songs are wonderful, but remember that there is a time and place for them.  In a house of prayer, you can spend hours in this type of worship.  But on a Sunday morning, or at a formal worship gathering such as a conference or event (especially with time restraints), be careful not to do it too much.

People need familiarity to connect.  If every line of a song is new (even if it’s repeated), it becomes difficult for people to follow or participate in, and it might make things particularly uncomfortable for guests or for those who are young in their faith.  So use these kinds of worship to supplement the familiar worship songs and not to replace them.

Use these forms of worship to draw people deeper, through the familiar (as opposed to going around it) and offer them their own opportunity to respond.  These opportunities might come by encouraging people to listen during times of silence or instrumentation.  Or they might come by letting your congregation “free worship”, or to simultaneously lift their own songs to the Lord (this may be a stretch for many congregations, so you may need to take them there gradually).

Likewise, know your moments.  While you want to be constantly attentive to the Spirit and open to whatever time and method God leads, you also would be wise to go in with a plan.  Unless your team is blessed with the position of “prophetic powerpoint”, make sure you plan your set so your team can follow.  Using set times for instrumentation and “free worship” will help your team, you’re A/V crew, and your congregation to follow along and be more engaged in the process.

Most of all, have fun with this.  It is an awesome experience, even though at first it might be a little uncomfortable.  Look for God in your worship, listen for Him, and let Him lead you.  Then watch the dance unfold, and watch how He transforms you and your worship along the way.

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