Spontaneity, Planning, and the Holy Spirit in Worship

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Pastoring, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

In the Cracks

For many of us who have been knowingly or unknowingly schooled by a certain influential slice of evangelical worship, our view of the Holy Spirit’s role in worship is pretty straightforward. The Spirit comes in the “cracks”–the surprising moments, the in-between times, the unplanned invasions. And, to God’s glory, Scripture describes the Spirit’s work in this way. We witness Jesus, for instance, sparring with a well-educated theologian with this little jab about the way salvation works: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, ESV). The Spirit’s surprising, unplanned work is tied in with some pretty pivotal moments in the history of the Church, such as Pentecost (Acts 2). The very Greek and Hebrew terms for “spirit” (pneuma, ruach) are the same words for “wind” and “breath,” those ethereal elements of nature that can’t be fully pinned down. 

So it’s natural and fitting for us to believe that the Holy Spirit works in worship in the unexpected places. Some traditions actually plan for unplanned time so that this kind of Spiritual work might be made manifest, and I for one need to constantly listen to these voices and practices…God really does amazing things there.

Orderly Spontaneity

I would hope, though, that the traditions that preeminently cherish the Spirit’s spontaneous work in worship would also increasingly hear Scripture’s voice about the work of the Spirit in the order of things. Now, with that statement, I’m sure that for some, it feels like I have thrown a big bucket of water on the raging Fire of God. Hang with me, though, and check out what Constance Cherry has to say about all of this:

[When we turn to the Scriptures,] what we find there is that God is a God of order–it is one of the most significant aspects of God’s nature. There are many examples of this in Scripture, but none more obvious than that found in the creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis. One simply cannot miss the orchestrated plan that God uses to create the heavens and the earth…The order of creation mattered. …

When we give some forethought to planning the order of worship, we emulate God’s approach to events. Remember, in providing for order, one creates a condition in which every part or unit is in its right place. An order (to anything) is simply a plan for a succession of events. Order provides direction for these actions.

The Holy Spirit is always at work–in advance, during, and after the events of human history. Though the Holy Spirit may appear to us to act spontaneously, this is because we are often unaware of the Spirit’s action until it occurs, for we are not often privy to God’s actions in advance. Therefore it is a leap in logic to assume that the Spirit primarily acts spontaneously and is therefore the preferred mode for the ordering of worship events. I am not suggesting that there should not be room for unexpected movements of God’s Spirit in worship; these should be expected and welcomed when they occur. Yet there is no biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is especially available as an antidote for inadequate worship planning.*

There is a lot of great wisdom packed in there, and it’s a helpful balance for those of us who plan and lead worship. If we lean toward believing that the Holy Spirit’s work is more or less equivalent to the unplanned and spontaneous, it’s a helpful check to ponder the “orderliness” of God’s actions. The Spirit, who hovered over the waters, had a central role in moving creation from chaos to order as those opening days progressed. Order is rooted in the nature of God, who is the Holy Spirit. This is what more liturgical traditions will try to articulate to more charismatic traditions about the nature of the Holy Spirit in their worship services, and I think it’s worth hearing.

How I Try to Find a Balance

Here are some of the ways I try to find a balance, being someone who believes in the dynamic and immediate work of the Spirit in my life, open to surprises yet believing in His work in the “systems.”

First, with some regularity, I pause to invoke and invite the Holy Spirit even as I’m sitting before Planning Center thinking through my liturgy and song set. As I do this, I must admit that things still feel very human. I’m thinking through songs, wrestling with tempos, keys, arrangements, and affects. I’m not all of a sudden feeling like I’m in some heightened spiritual state (though it would be refreshing if it happened more often). It feels very mundane. But I try, I strain to believe that when I ask for and invite the Holy Spirit’s presence, He graciously condescends to fill me.

Second, I’m often firing up what some of us evangelicals call “arrow prayers” throughout the week and especially on Sundays, asking the Holy Spirit to prepare the people and fill the service with His life and power. As I’m going about other tasks, when it comes to mind, I simply ask God for those things in one or two sentences.

Third, I’m repeatedly firing up those same types of prayers throughout the service I am leading. In little instrumental breaks or turns between verses, choruses, and bridges, especially in the opening songs, I’m praying in my head/heart (or even sometimes with my lips), “Holy Spirit, come and fill your people,” “Help us now, Spirit!”

Fourth, with less frequency but with a steady regularity, I pray with our teams before worship and include this type of sentiment: “O Holy Spirit, we want to acknowledge that You’ve been moving among us through the planning and rehearsing of this service. These plans are your plans, and we believe that You’ve been faithful to make them. Even so, sometimes we can get in the middle of things and mingle our sin, idolatry, and misdirection into Your perfect plans. Forgive us. We give this service to You. If you want to take it in an entirely different direction, or if you would desire to disrupt and change our plans, make us ready and open. We come to you with open hands. We want to be honest that though our plans aren’t sacred and infallible, Your work in them always is.”

Fifth, I try to plan for what I know the Holy Spirit loves all day every day: Jesus. I’m firmly convinced that a Spirit-filled worship service is, at its core, a service that makes little of ourselves and much of the person and work of Jesus Christ. (For more on this, check out this post.)

Trans-Tribal Relationships

I know my charismatic brothers and sisters will want to press me here for at least one more thing on this list–actually creating space for spontaneity in the service, whether it be an extended interlude or an open time of prayer and ministry. Ah, I’m trying. Seriously, pray for me and my church. I believe that these moments can be powerful, and within who God has made us to be and what God has called us to do as a church, I want to foster this kind of culture in the appropriate places.

But, hopefully, we can keep the dialogue open and ongoing. I certainly haven’t said anything new, but I thought it worth reiterating and sharing what my practice is. My encouragement to all of us across traditions is to continue listening to each other…and I mean a deeper listening than reading a blog post or article from “outside your tradition.” I mean relationships. Get to know the worship leaders in your town and give them the freedom to talk about what their passions, hopes, and dreams are for worship. Give them the benefit of the doubt (love hopes all things), and then graciously share your own heart. I’ve found strange and wonderful things happen when I legitimately get out of my tribe for a bit.

*Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 40-41.

One Comment on “Spontaneity, Planning, and the Holy Spirit in Worship”

  1. Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in. Leonard Cohen

    Love your blogs, Zac….. The Holy Spirit is definitely shining through the cracks : ) Miss Coral Ridge so much 🙂 looking SO forward to August 16…. Flying back August 15 …. Until then, love to you and the fam

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