Planning and Spontaneity in Worship

Luke Barry

March 18, 2021
5 min read

There are two kinds of worship leaders: the planners and the spontaneous. Okay, this is an oversimplification. But I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about. In my experience, people tend to lean one way or the other. On one end of the spectrum, you have the guys (or girls) who want to sync tracks, lights, and lyrics on SMPTE via Ableton. (If you’re not in this camp, I may have lost you already.) On the other end, you have the people who would rather kill the click, forget the setlist, and feel it out. Where do you fall on the spectrum? You can include me in the planner group.

My hope is that I will be able to draw on the best of both of these worlds. That has always been our vision for worship at VOUS. We want to create an environment where those leading and participating in a service experience the order and clarity of preparation and the freedom and passion of spontaneity. We’re not big fans of either/or thinking. We try to go both/and whenever possible. There are beautiful things on both ends of this spectrum. I don’t want to lose half of them in exchange for the rest. And we don’t have to.

Here are three things I’ve learned over the years about the delicate dance between planning and spontaneity.

1. Your Plan is a Good Suggestion

My general outlook on the plans we create for our services and worship sets could be summarized like this: If we were to do exactly what we planned, things would be good. Poor planning leaves gaps and requires extra effort when the time comes to execute. Good planning considers the details and prepares effectively. But an overly rigid plan leaves no room for the unexpected. Maybe you view the unexpected as a bad thing, but the things we didn’t see coming are often the things that make moments memorable. That is why we need to hold our plans with open hands. We don’t abandon the plan on a whim. We adjust when a better opportunity arises.

The last thing you want your plan to do is limit you. It should empower you. Your plan should not be a burden. You are not here to serve your plan; your plan is here to serve you. Creating it will take some effort, but ultimately it will make your life easier. That said, the plan should always be open for revision. It should always be tentative, always subject to change. The moment we start obsessing over what we planned to do is the moment we have relinquished control and started serving the schedule. If an issue arises and we need to pivot, so be it. If someone comes up with a creative idea and we want to make a change, the service will be better for it. Some of the greatest moments I have been part of in worship have been a deviation from the plan.

2. Spontaneity is No Excuse for a Lack of Preparation

That was my challenge to the hardcore planners. Now I’m coming for the freeflow crowd. People often use spontaneity—or more often in church, “following the Spirit”—as an excuse for a lack of preparation. I am all for being sensitive to the Spirit in worship. We do not need dry worship services devoid of the Spirit and power of God. We desperately need God to show up and move in our midst as we seek him in worship. But we should not use spontaneity as a license for laziness. Before you change the plan, make the plan. Don’t be spontaneous because you had no other option.

I once heard pastor Louie Giglio say something to the effect of, “I believe in following the leading of the Holy Spirit. But I also believe that the Spirit can move two weeks before the service starts.” This is not a choice between human planning and divine guidance. As you prepare, God is leading you. Before you ever get to the stage, the Spirit is speaking. Trust him in the preparation process as you anticipate his work in the moment.

3. Planning Creates Room for Spontaneity

Lean into both sides of this equation and you will see that planning and spontaneity are not mutually exclusive, they go hand in hand. It is not exactly a reciprocal relationship. Spontaneity doesn’t lead to planning, but planning will create room for spontaneity. The sooner you prepare, the sooner you will be able to tweak and adjust. The better you prepare, the freer you will be to flow. Spontaneity will take you outside of your plan. Learn to weave in and out of the two and you will go to another level of freedom and power as a worship leader.

At VOUS, we have this thing we call “extended worship.” The term simply refers to any worship that goes beyond what we had planned to do. Often, we put time on the clock for extended worship. This is the time where we plan to be unplanned. Each week, we select one song as an extended worship option—a song we could flow into if we were to go off script. Sometimes, we sing that song. Often, we don’t. In rehearsals, I always like to remind our team that our extended worship song is just one option for what we could do. Maybe we’ll stay in our post-sermon song for ten minutes. Maybe we’ll sing a different song, or not sing at all. Maybe we’ll change the plan entirely. We prepare so we can always be ready to pivot.

There is no one way that your service is supposed to go. There is just your plan and an endless string of possibilities. Who knows what God wants to do. Prepare to the best of your ability, then do your best to stay open to the options. Never value your plan above the moment you’re in and the people you’re in it with. The Spirit of God is working in and through you. His work is not limited to your plan or your place in time. He’s preparing you now for what he wants to do in the future. He will never give you the whole picture ahead of time. Be ready for him to surprise you.

Get help with the hard-to-answer questions.

Our team is here to answer your questions and provide advice and insight when you need it most.