Extemporaneous Sacred Moments

May 19, 2023
hands on a guitar

Music United exists to help foster the music-making community in local congregations, for regional councils, and with the national church. In each issue of Gathering, the Music United column features members from across the country involved in this work of music-making. In this issue, Shawn Whynot, Director of Music at Bethany United Church in Halifax, reflects on extemporaneous music-making.

Within a worship service, one may have a multitude of experiences. Many aspects of worship or liturgy are preplanned and rehearsed before they are deemed ready to present to those people in attendance. This is an expectation on the part of both the presenter and the receiver. However, a very meaningful experience can come from a sacred moment that is not planned or rehearsed, but simply presented in an extemporaneous fashion. Two aspects of worship that lend themselves especially to this notion of extemporaneity are prayer and music. And when these two aspects are combined in presentation, the experience can be quite profound.

The word extemporaneous comes from the Latin “ex tempore” (out of the time) and typically refers to something that is done without special advanced preparation. In reference to prayer, an extemporaneous prayer would be one that is said without the words being prepared, as opposed to a formal prayer: a prayer in the moment, from the heart, perhaps based on what one is experiencing, or the energy in the space, or feelings and emotions, and outside of time. Regarding music, one could possibly explain it as improvised music, made up on the spot, with perhaps little to no preparation. Coupling extemporaneous prayer with improvised music—two entities happening simultaneously, both without much pre-planning—can result in a profoundly sacred moment. A spontaneous soundtrack enhancing a free-flowing but deeply meaningful prayer? One could argue that the result is an experience that defies description.

The realm of extemporaneous prayer and music lends itself to worship easily enough, but putting it into practice seems especially appropriate during the season of Lent. Within formal prayer, offer a moment of silent prayer to allow the participants to carry out a short extemporaneous prayer. During this moment, offer an improvised accompaniment, perhaps based on one of the hymns of the day. Try making this a weekly part of your worship during the six Sundays of Lent. And through this offering of praying in the moment along with music of the moment, the worshipper may indeed experience a profound and meaningful sacred moment.