It is possible that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is one of the most misunderstood and controversial topics today. While almost every believer will agree to the supernatural work of the Spirit in conversion and sanctification, few will see eye to eye on how real intimacy with the Holy Spirit is supposed to play out in our churches and daily lives. Certain questions are occasionally raised over congregational worship and the nature of the Spirit’s involvement. Is the Holy Spirit free to move when a worship service is structured? Does the Holy Spirit favor unplanned meetings over planned ones? And how we answer has implications on how we worship.
Spontaneity in congregational worship will often result in—but might not limited to—the placing of lyrics to musical melody without prior rehearsal, the preacher preaching an entire sermon that he never planned to preach, the elder making a prayer request that never came to mind prior to that moment in the service. I have no basis to say that all these expressions are wrong, except that many have been fooled into believing that the only marker for a vibrant walk with the Holy Spirit is spontaneity.
I have been in meetings where nothing was planned. And I mean nothing. No preparation regarding the songs to be sung, or the sermon to be preached, or the prayers to be led. We simply came in faith. We relied on the Holy Spirit to guide our steps. And then we moved. The results were sometimes beautiful. Sometimes, they were ugly.
I believe spontaneity should have its place in our gatherings. There should be an attitude among believers that allows the Holy Spirit lead them in totally unforeseen ways, should He choose to do so. Suppose the elder appointed to lead the congregation in prayer senses the need to pray for a cause that was not scheduled to be prayed for that day, or the worship leader remembers an unrehearsed song. I believe that they should act as they believe they are led. Spontaneity is not evil.
But many believers have pushed spontaneity to the point that it has become dangerous. They are consciously on the lookout for the strange and spectacular whenever they gather: The keyboard is often played in the background while everyone waits for the Spirit to dictate the next step. And, unless He does, everyone waits, taking an unnecessary cue from the Israelites who didn’t move until the cloud moved—which really makes little sense today.
Asides the fact that spontaneity in congregational worship could often lead to activities that really do not make much sense, there are certain dangers that I have seen sprouting from this approach to congregational worship.
We become accustomed to thinking that planning is “anti-Spirit”
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
This verse is often misinterpreted to mean that everyone who is born of the Spirit is meant to be spontaneous and unpredictable. But the verse, when placed in its proper context, refers to how the Holy Spirit saves people, not how saved people are to live daily.
As a pastor or minister, have you ever prayed for hours over a sermon or a meeting without actually planning how it was to go? I have. I was schooled to believe that the Holy Spirit could not be predicted, and that planning could be a means of stopping His move. The alternative to planning was to pray. I was encouraged to pray hard and long. Better to pray than to plan.
We must understand that structure is not about stifling the Holy Spirit, but about allowing more people to benefit from His voice. Just like refusing to take control led to disorder in the Corinthian church, disorganized meetings could prevent us from benefitting from what He would have us hear from His Word.
We assume that properly prepared sermons quenches the Spirit
I never knew that sermons could be prepared meticulously because I rarely saw people do so. Imagine my surprise then to find out that certain preachers actually prepared their entire sermons. A few years back, I would have classified them as insensitive men, not open to the leading of the Spirit.
Sam Storms admits to preparing his sermons (to be preached on Sunday) on Monday morning and typically concluding his sermon preparation no later than Wednesday. He goes on to say, “Tragically, I fear that the appeal to spontaneity is sometimes more of an excuse to be lazy than it is a reflection of one’s desire to honor the Spirit by making it necessary for him to act spontaneously. Our dependence upon the Spirit must be a conscious act in our preparation to preach at any and every moment of any and every day.”
The same Holy Spirit who indwells the pastor will guide him during his sermon preparation. Whether the preacher chooses to preach extemporaneously like George Whitefield or from a manuscript like Thomas Chalmers is no reason for the Holy Spirit to go on a compulsory break—He saves and delivers in spite of our preferred styles of sermon delivery, not because of them.
Spontaneity can sometimes downplay the importance of God’s word
I believe that the degree to which believers see the Bible as important and vital to their growth spiritually is the degree to which they get excited about it. They can’t get excited about the Bible if they see the Bible portrayed to them as just another document of our faith. And pastors are sometimes the culprits.
On the one hand, too many Christians go to church week after week to hear what the pastor thinks about political, social or economic issues. On the other, many have become used to only receiving a present “word” from the pastor, often retrieved from Heaven in a spontaneous session of singing or praying or dancing, reducing the Bible to a past word from the Lord. I believe the latter proves to be more dangerous.
If the Bible is really “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), and if “all Scripture is inspired by God. . . so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), then it should be taught systematically, verse by verse, book by book, Sunday by Sunday, in season and out of season. Unplanned meetings could make that impossible; spontaneity would rob us of that.
Spontaneous or Planned?
I believe that we could have a mixture of both extemporaneous and meticulously planned sermons, planned prayer meetings and unplanned ones, without creating unhealthy systems when we worship as congregations. I’m aware that this will play out in different ways practically.
But we must never accept the idea that the Holy Spirit is against planned meetings. Or that He only works when believers meet in structured settings. Done healthily and biblically, planned, loosely planned and even unplanned meetings could both glorify God and edify the saints.