Detailed planning and preparation are sometimes seen as a bad thing in ministry. We don’t want to “plan,” we want to be “led by the Holy Spirit.” Preparation, particularly “over-preparation,” is often viewed as leading to an event that will be “canned” or “inauthentic.” It’s easy to see why. Most of us have suffered through dry, pre-packaged religious activities before that demonstrated little dynamic empowerment or improvisation by the Spirit. Also, the Bible doesn’t say much directly about the importance of preparation for times of ministry. And so, like the human beings that we are, we tend to equate preparation and inauthenticity based on our limited experience, without fully examining the matter.
We know that at least some practical preparation is important. Haven’t we all at some point approached a ministry event (like teaching or worship leading) with the “just be led by the Spirit” attitude and fallen flat on our face, ending up so nervous, rattled, and self-conscious on “stage” that we couldn’t even keep our own thoughts straight, let alone hear anything the Spirit was saying?
The Bible does say this about preparation: “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). The implication is clear: we are to prepare thoroughly, but ultimately trust God for the results. The Israelites trusted the Lord for victory, but their confidence in the Lord did not detract from their practical preparation.
So, how should we prepare? If given the choice (and we always are), is it better to slightly over-prepare or slightly under-prepare? I’m going to passionately argue this thesis (and please hear me out): It is rigorous, meticulous, and thorough preparation that allows us to walk in authority of the Holy Spirit and foster holy spontaneity.
There’s nothing un-spiritual about preparation in itself. In fact, preparation faithfully done should be profoundly spiritual, even an act of worship. I believe that the God of the universe can give us a plan a week in advance, six weeks in advance, a year in advance of an event, knowing everyone who will be there and what they will be thinking and feeling. I also believe that God can help us compose a battle plan that is prayerfully and strategically designed for accomplishing specific purposes.
So here you are leading worship, to give an example. You have prayerfully, strategically, and thoroughly prepared every aspect of the event step-by-step. You know the purpose of the gathering and what God wants to accomplish through it (because you have prayed for these purposes and asked for them to happen). You have prayerfully and strategically planned the opening prayer, the song order, the transitions, some extra sharing of prayers or scriptures, testimonies, etc., and are excited about this plan because the Lord has assured you of victory and of the plan’s soundness. (Side note: Your level of excitement before leading something is a good indicator of how well you’ve prepared. If you can’t wait to get up there and lead people through the plan, you’ve prepared well.) Let’s say things are going smoothly as planned, and then, at some point, God gives you a word to share (maybe as the second song winds down), and it’s not according to plan! The plan says “turn left” and now the Holy Spirit is saying “turn right.” Well, this is a no-brainer, folks! TURN RIGHT!! Over-planning allows us to walk in the confident spiritual authority it takes to relax, hear from God, and improvise as the Spirit leads. If we under-plan, we run the risk of being nervous, erratic, and incoherent as soon as something goes wrong and we don’t have a foundation to fall back on.
Another reason to over-plan: people can tell when the person “on stage” is not prepared and not in control (i.e. they are not under God’s firm control). They can tell when you don’t really know where you’re going, and when you’re making it up as you go without clear direction from the Holy Spirit. When people detect irresponsibility, lack of authority, and a bit of nerves on account of the leader, their focus naturally shifts, whether they want it to or not. They’re no longer focused on the words you’re saying or singing; they’re preoccupied with your behavior. You’re not putting people at ease. You’re not creating freedom in the room. You’re making people feel uncomfortable, distracted, and, at times, a little annoyed. If it’s clear the person leading doesn’t have any specific direction or purpose, why listen? At least, that’s how they feel. Some people may be able to brush all those feelings aside. But it’s a factor. A big one.
Allow me to illustrate this authority-freedom connection further. Let’s say you’re relaxing and watching some late-night TV, and you find out a comedian is on next. So, you decide you’ll stay up another 15 minutes and see if he’s any good. Within the first minute of his performance, though, it’s clear that he’s not confidently prepared. He’s not in control. You’re quickly so preoccupied with his awkward behavior that you’ve stopped even listening to his jokes. It’s painful to watch, and you have enough stress in your life as it is. So, what do you do? Probably either pray for him, turn the channel, or turn off the TV and call it a night. There’s no reason to keep watching. You know how this show’s going to end.
Now let’s say the comedian comes out and is obviously well-prepared and confident. He totally takes charge and walks in authority on stage. What do you do now? You relax and engage. You set down the remote, kick back, pick up the popcorn, and enjoy the ride. Your reactions are no longer inhibited by nerves – you’re free to relax and engage. The comedian, by the authority with which he carries himself, has created freedom in the room. And even though no one saw it, he accomplished this freedom in the room through hours of diligent, meticulous preparation – emotional, physical, mental, and perhaps, in his case, even spiritual.
One of my mentors in my early days as a Christian, Virgil, taught me this simple formula for preparation: three hours of preparation for every one hour of presentation. That rule, while obviously not a hard-and-fast law, has served me well. I typically prepare about 10 hours for a sermon if I’m teaching at a church. I prepare about 1-3 hours (at least) for a 30-minute time of worship. I formulate a sound default plan if, for whatever reason, I’m distracted or struggling to hear from the Lord. I can walk in confidence and authority, knowing that I may not be hearing clearly from the Lord this minute, but I was hearing clearly when I made the plan, so it’s all the same. Plus, when the Lord does speak and take things in a spontaneous direction, I can take that new path with the same confidence and authority in which I had already been walking. If the new path take me somewhere that seems “wrong” or “off” spiritually, I can always hop back on the path God has already blazed, or on a new path He’s opened up.
Preparation does not kill spontaneity; it empowers it. It sets you free to walk in the confidence and authority of the Holy Spirit as you lead people.
This post is just the first in a series on “holy preparation.” In the future, I hope to share some more insights on how to engage people, make them feel like more than just “spectators,” and how to let the Holy Spirit completely take control of a gathering. Blessings, all!
**I owe many (most) of the ideas in this post from Tom Jackson, a prominent onstage coach for worship leaders and musical artists.