Preparation vs. Spontaneity — Which Is Best?

My pastor does not want me to prepare ahead of time (make a song list) for leading worship. He believes it is better to “follow the Holy Spirit” by being spontaneous. Any comments?

The idea that being spontaneous is equal to following the Holy Spirit has been widely propagated in many parts of Christendom. The truth is that this idea is not found in the Bible. Nowhere does Scripture suggest that spontaneity is a guarantee that the Holy Spirit is leading. In fact, I have seen many spontaneous things happen in church that were clearly not God-directed.

The Bible also does not tell us that we cannot be led by God when planning ahead. In fact, if we look honestly at Scripture, we find just the opposite. The Lord Himself had a plan from the beginning of time for the redemption of mankind. It was not a last-minute thought. God did not wake up one morning and say, “Gosh, Son, look at the mess they’ve made. What are we going to do?!” No, He had it planned from the foundation of the earth (Revelation 13:8).

You probably recall the time in 2 Chronicles 20 when God’s people were about to be attacked by three foreign nations. King Jehoshaphat sent the singers out ahead of the army praising the Lord. Do you know why he did that? Because, under the leadership of Jehoshaphat, the people sought God about what they were to do, and He clearly told them. They did not wait for a spontaneous word in the midst of battle. They asked the Lord beforehand.

There are numerous other scriptural examples of this same thing happening. The important thing to remember is that being led by the Spirit simply means that God is guiding. It does not always have to be an immediate spontaneous revelation for the situation in which you are involved. God can give you guidance ahead of time just like He did for Jehoshaphat. It is safe to assume that God knows what He wants to accomplish on a given Sunday morning by at least Saturday night—maybe even sooner. And if we ask Him, He will tell us.

We too frequently have the picture of God as the big, celestial Cart-Driver in the sky who holds the carrot just beyond our reach. That is certainly not His heart. God is not in the business of frustrating His servants. If He calls us to do something, He will equip us to do it.

In planning for a given service, then, we must always remember that our number one priority is to seek God’s guidance. Do not get caught in the trap of relying on what has worked in the past. Without a fresh understanding of the Lord’s will for a given service we are really just going through the motions.

Now let me offer a broader perspective from a very different angle.

My kids—and now grandkids—have long been fans of Winnie the Pooh. The books and older videos have been part of our family life for many years. It seemed logical, therefore, that when the New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh came out in video format, we would check them out. One in particular, “Party Poohper,” caught my attention.

In this story Rabbit is about to give a party. He formulates a carefully planned schedule for all the preparations as well as for the party itself. Each detail is clearly articulated and scheduled to the minute.

“The key,” says Rabbit, “to giving a perfect party is an airtight schedule.” He then hands Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger each a lengthy to-do list. “Just follow your list of things to do, and the party will be a success.”

Tigger responds incredulously, “List? When a tigger gives a party, he just opens the door and hopes for the best. This way is no fun.”

“Fun?! Did you say ‘fun’?” asks Rabbit. “This is a party. Who said anything about fun?!”

Rabbit’s schedule is carefully itemized, so each person knows exactly what to do each minute. All three friends are reprimanded several times for not keeping precisely to the schedule.

Finally, as the guests burst through the door, Tigger drops what he’s doing, jumps in the air, and yells, “It’s party time!” Rabbit, however, shoos everyone back out because, according to the schedule, it’s not yet time for the party to begin. In typical cartoon fashion, the cake that Pooh has been baking explodes. At that point everything else falls apart, too.

Everyone leaves Rabbit’s home, and Rabbit continues to prepare for the party on his own. He cleans up the mess, decorates the house, and makes all the rest of the preparations by himself, all precisely according to his schedule. After the final detail is completed, he opens his front door and announces in a proud, excited voice that it is now time for the party. Much to Rabbit’s dismay, no one is there. He diligently looks for everyone but is unable to find them.

As I watched this video, it seemed to me that Rabbit missed the whole point. His comment, “Who said anything about fun?” suggests that the goal of even having the party was about to be missed. However, it also occurred to me that if the makers of the Winnie the Pooh videos were to do a sequel to this story, one where Tigger was to give a party, the final outcome would be total chaos. His idea of “open the door and hope for the best,” with no measure of preparation involved, could easily be a recipe for disaster.

My wife is an organizer by nature. She enjoys schedules and organization. The truth is that this is a good thing. Without organization and preparation, most things we endeavor to accomplish in life would go awry.

When Paul tells us, “…everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40), it seems apparent that there must be some measure of planning in order to facilitate such orderliness. Jesus would not even feed the five thousand until they were seated in groups of fifty and one-hundred (Mark 6:40). Clearly there is nothing inherently wrong with organization and planning.

I have found that people who insist on the spontaneous, “led by the Spirit” ideology have too often seen a rigid, Rabbit-like mentality where everything is so ordered and planned, that it can be done with no reliance at all on God.

In preparing for a worship service, there is nothing wrong with us planning out the various aspects of the service. We should know where we are headed. When I was the primary worship leader at our church, the worship team met for as long as three hours each week to pray and plan for our Sunday services. Our pastor would join us to share his sermon outline. We would coordinate all aspects of the next day’s service, as well as plan for future services. However, there is more to our services than just what we’ve planned.

Worship—if you understand it at its most foundational level—is relationship with God. And one of the things that builds any relationship are those spontaneous moments that just… happen.

Years ago one of the catch-phrases in the Church and in the world was “spending quality time with family.” I quickly realized that, although we can certainly provide a framework for quality time, it is almost always the spontaneous moments of life that make for actual quality time. I cannot go to my son and say, “Stephen, let’s spend 15 minutes of quality time together. What do you want to talk about?” What kind of reaction will I get? Most likely a blank look. However, if we just sit and talk or play table tennis together, the conversations we have can be amazing. It is indeed quality time, but it is a result of those spontaneous moments that just happen. Those kind of occurrences cannot be fully planned ahead of time.

Similarly, although I am thoroughly prepared for a given worship service, I do not always know exactly how things will go each step of the way. For example, I am not always certain whether we will repeat a particular chorus. I do not always know for sure exactly what I will say between some of the songs. Very often, however, something will happen during the service that will help me understand the direction we need to go with our worship. Perhaps a particular phrase in a hymn will grip my heart while we sing. I might have the instrumentalists continue playing while I share my thoughts and then have us sing that verse again. Or maybe I have just found out about something that happened to someone in our congregation that would be appropriate to share to enhance a particular theme of a song. My planning has provided a framework to allow for these types of moments, but the moments themselves cannot be planned. They are the spontaneous things that just happen, that help us to deepen—corporately—our relationship with the Lord.

Let me offer a practical example of this type of spontaneity. Our pastor often gives brief children’s sermons, usually with some kind of visual aids. On one particular morning near Christmas, he was talking about the garments God gives us—robes of righteousness—and he had handed out silver garland wreaths. The kids could put them around their necks or twist them around an arm as a reminder about their spiritual garments from the Lord. The garlands actually looked quite festive. Somehow a twenty-something lady—one who is very expressive in her worship—had gotten one of the garlands. She wore it as a wreath on her head. During one song she came forward, knelt at the front of the church, and laid the garland down in front of her. I immediately thought of the passage in Revelation that says, “They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God.'” (Revelation 4:10-11). I shared with the congregation what the woman had done, about the verse in Revelation, and about how we will someday have the opportunity to lay all our crowns at His feet. We then sang “Worthy is the Lamb” with an intensity that was beyond the normal Sunday morning singing. I could not have planned that moment. It just happened.

Please recognize that I am not proposing a Tigger-like chaos. However, Rabbit’s precision planning can too easily cause us to miss the real point: deepening and strengthening our corporate relationship with God. We need to provide a carefully planned framework while allowing for those spontaneous moments to occur that will deepen our relationship with the Lord.