The Worship Swing-Vote Principle: Maximizing Engagement

“Over the years, I have talked to many worship leaders who are perplexed when the worship time feels flat.”

We bombed. The worship set was a dud. The congregation was lethargic. Each musician on the worship team seemed to be in a universe all on their own. No rhythm. Wrong chords. I could not remember the lyrics. The wrong words were projected on the screens. It was awful.

In a daze, I crouched down to put my guitar away, when there came a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a guy with tears welling up in his eyes. “That was the best worship I have ever experienced,” he said. “Man, God really worked through it. I feel so refreshed and blessed. Thank you.”

“What?!” I thought. “Were we in the same room? Didn’t you hear all the bad music we delivered? Best worship?”

The usual phrase to describe this phenomenon is something like, “God worked despite our efforts. Isn’t God good?” While that can certainly be true, and maybe often is, does that mean we should just stand up there, do a shoddy, unprepared job, and “trust God”? I had a feeling there was more to it than that simple formula.

Over the years, I began to quiz people after church about the musical worship time. I found that there were some people who, no matter how good the music and leadership was, didn’t worship. On the opposite end, there were those who worshipped (and wholeheartedly, at that) no matter how good or bad our team did leading. And then there were those who were sometimes “into it” and other times “not so much.”

I began to notice patterns and dynamics. I began to see the relationship between leadership and these people groups. My conclusions led me to what I call the “Swing Vote” principle, or 60/20/20 rule. It starts with the people.

Top 20

The “Top 20” are the roughly 20 percent of any congregation who will wholeheartedly worship no matter what happens—mostly because they bring it with them. They are worshippers. We could tank, hit all the wrong notes, sing off-key and have the power go out halfway through, and they would still worship, enjoy it, and come up and affirm you afterward (like my friend I mentioned above).

Bottom 20

The “Bottom 20” are the roughly 20 percent of people who, no matter what we do, cannot worship. If God unzipped the heavens and came down, they would still be flatlined. Whether it is because they aren’t saved yet or are hard as a marble countertop, they cannot enter in. If you look out and make eye contact with them, you may be tempted to think they hate you. In reality, they just don’t care.

Middle 60

The “Middle 60” are everyone else in the church. They come reasonably unprepared and without a lot of commitment to entering in. They may have woken up with hair growing off their teeth, bed-haired kids in a grouchy mood, and a spouse who made them late because of too much time working on “that look” in the mirror. They may have had a hard time getting their kids checked into children’s ministry or finding a seat. And, there are a lot of them. They are the biggest group by far.

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NOTE: The actual percentages will vary in every group and every gathering. The point is that there is a small group of easier-to-lead people, a small group of hard-to-lead folks, and a large group who will follow our lead if we lead well.

Leading TO a Group

If you are a worship leader, you are usually a Top-20 person yourself, and it is natural to aim your leadership toward that group because they think like you, are expressive like you, and love to worship like you. However, if you are effective with them, it doesn’t mean you have effectively led the congregation in worship.

[The presence of God in worship—what many of us miss]

On the other hand, some of us have a sort of death wish, saying, “Somehow I have got to lead those hard-to-lead folks into meaningful worship and praise.” As hard as we try, they are still disengaged, and we are disappointed and feel like we have failed.

I noticed that there are times when most of the Middle-60 folks get engaged in worship, and at those peak times it seems like the heavens have opened, time slows down and we are overwhelmed by God’s presence in our midst. Tears flow. People randomly clap. Prayers bubble up from within and cannot help but be spoken. It’s electric! This is what worship leaders live for. This is the peak.

What has happened under the surface of things is that the Middle 60 have been added to the Top 20, creating a New Top 80. The truth is, when you engage 80 percent of people in worship, the momentum is powerful. There is a simple dynamic of volume.

Eighty percent of a congregation engaged and singing loudly is a force. We have temporarily lost ourselves in the “we” of worship together. All voices combine into one voice. Even though God was there the whole time, the acute sense of his presence has increased … you can almost touch him! Why doesn’t this happen all the time?

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Meaningful Leadership

Over the years, I have talked to many worship leaders who are perplexed when people are aloof and disengaged, and the worship time feels flat. All kinds of reasons are given for this: The Devil is sitting on the service. People are coming in with unconfessed sin. The sound mix was bad. The list goes on. I believe part of this flat dynamic is that we have not directed our leadership efforts toward the right people.

The Top 20 need very little leadership. The Bottom 20 won’t respond to any leadership. But, the Middle 60 will enter in if we engage them and will stay out if we do not. They are the group for whom our leadership is most meaningful. If we lead them well, upward of 80 percent of the church will worship our King. If we do not lead them well, they may stay in neutral, observe what people are wearing around them, if the carpet is clean enough or how cool it would feel to play electric guitar!

In politics, they call the people who are undecided the “swing vote.” In worship leadership, or any leadership for that matter, we must engage the undecideds and help them decide that they are going to enter in. Thus, we’ll call this the “Swing Vote” principle.

Knowing People

Worship leaders lead people to worship God, using music as transportation. Many worship leaders think they are merely leading worship. They are not. They are leading people. Worship is where we are leading them. Many leaders do not understand people dynamics and focus instead on music and lyrical dynamics and wonder why people don’t follow. The Middle 60 will respond if we pay attention to the people dynamics and engage them.

The Middle 60 are a sensitive group. They do not want to hear themselves singing when no one else is singing. They feel more secure when we let them know where the song is going. They can be distracted by all kinds of things. Once distracted, it can be difficult to get them back aboard.

Understanding people dynamics can produce amazing results if we take the time to notice, learn and lead accordingly.

Here are some ways to help people join in …