The Worship Swing-vote Principle
We bombed. The worship set was a dud. The congregation was lethargic. Each musician on the worship team seemed in a universe all 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. 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? What?!?”
The usual phrase to describe this phenomenon is “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, didn’t worship. On the opposite end, there were those who worshiped (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.
The “Top 20” are the roughly 20% of any congregation that 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).
The “Bottom 20” are the roughly 20% of people who, no matter what we do, cannot worship. If God unzipped the heavens and came down, they would still be flat-lined. 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.
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.
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.
On the other hand, some of us have a sort of death-wish where “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 percent 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?
Over the years, I have talked to many worship leaders who are perplexed when people are aloof, 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, upwards of 80% 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.
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…
- Spend some time coaching at the top of the set (this is what worship is, we minister to God, we express our thanks, love and adoration, it’s about him not us)
- Provide a musical prelude underneath asking people to think and/or voice their thanks for things that God has done in the past week, overall in his work
- Teach them a new song (with just the guitar or keys and leader) talking to the congregation, making eye-contact, teaching a harmony, repeating a tougher melody line or phrase, laughing, engaging. Don’t just play it and assume people will jump aboard. Actively teaching migrates people out of their self-consciousness into an us-consciousness. Get them outside themselves.
- Look them in the eyes at the beginning of the welcome… all of them. (in a sense, you’re saying, “I see you. I’m glad you’re here. You’re coming with me…”)
- Find songs that are peak songs (strong and engaging) and build your set around them.
- Make sure there are simpler songs mixed into the set that are not overly wordy.
- Teach them that when we repeat a phrase or verse or chorus we are learning to engage the theme a little deeper each time around. For many that will be an “Aha!” moment.
- Make sure the sound mix is loud enough or the musical dynamic can become flat. The sound person is actually one of the musicians enhancing the musical transportation we are providing.
- Make sure the worship players are servants. Nothing can kill a worship time quicker than a player/singer with a “look at me” attitude being expressed.
- Verbally let the church know where the song is going by telegraphing what’s next: “… sing, “You are the everlasting God” then into that chorus, etc. People feel more comfortable when they know where the song is going… and, again, no one wants to be heard singing when no one else is singing!
- Make sure the projected words are on time. If they are not, the Middle 60 will stay out. Guaranteed.
- Vary the linear dynamics within a song. If the song is “full-tilt” the entire time, people will get worn out after 2 songs. If the song is lighter during the verse, growing in intensity during the pre-chorus, and full-bore in the chorus, the song will breathe and people will stay engaged.
- Call people to raise their hands within a song. “Let’s raise our hands to him and sing it out…”
- Call people to sing it out loudly within a song. “Sing it loud! Hallelujah! He Reigns!” This invites people to expand their sphere of comfort within worship and helps them grow as worshippers.
- Get people clapping… on time, if possible! Start with something very rhythmic and get them clapping together (before the music starts). Make sure your backup singers clap expressively and the church will follow. Oddly enough, clapping gives people a feeling of us-ness very quickly as we attempt to get people onboard.
- Have someone read a Psalm or passage with music underneath it during the set. This can set the tone of a worship set, and help people focus on a point outside themselves. Ensure that the reader can eloquently convey the passage.
- Have the church read a passage or psalm aloud together! This can be very powerful, and once again, focusing them on Jesus and not themselves.
- Get some Top 20 people in the front rows to model full engagement for the rest, or intersperse them to infect the larger group. Modeling fully-engaged worship is powerful and necessary. When our younger folks engage fully, it helps the adult Middle 60 engage. We’ve actually coached our teens to strategically seat themselves for greater worship impact.
- Make sure the worship team singers are fully engaged and expressive. They can set the tone, or drain the life out of it. They have two main jobs: Sing and harmonize well, and model worship for the church!
- Make sure the leader sings enthusiastically and own the songs he or she leads. If you don’t have good song ownership, neither will the church.
- Don’t talk too much between songs or they will get off the train and may not get back on.
- Pay close attention to all your transitions between songs! If there is awkward space in between songs, the Middle 60 will jump off the train. Chain a set of songs together in a medley. If you have to change a capo on the guitar in between songs, make sure the keyboard player is playing some kind of synth texture to move from one song to the next. This is probably the most common problem I’ve seen. People will be fully engaged in worship. The song will end in a full stop. The leader will move his songsheet to the next song, change his capo on his guitar, and then start the next song. The Middle 60 are now counting ceiling tiles in the room, and thinking about lunch!
- Don’t be afraid of silence, but coach people of what to do in silence. “We’re going to be silent before God right now. Don’t get anxious. Let’s take a deep breath. We’re in God’s presence, and we’re dearly loved. Be still. Shhhh. Be still.” Be careful, however, to keep the time of silence on the shorter side. If you take it too long, people will be anxious next time you do it and it will be harder to get them to engage God in silence.
There are many other people dynamics that can help in leading more effectively. Hopefully these get your imagination going.
The Middle 60 are more susceptible to distractions. Thus, there are many off-ramps during a church service… that is, times when they are distracted and lose focus. If these are minimized, they will typically stay engaged longer. If there are too many, or there is one glaring distraction, they will take the off-ramp and never get back on.
Off-ramps can include:
- A cute baby cooing in the row in front of you. Goo goo!
- A crying baby who’s parent doesn’t have the social sense to remove them. Wah!
- An awkward pause between songs, like I mentioned above.
- A loud popping sound from an instrument being muted in the sound system.
- A mic feedback screech, or any overt mic misbehavior.
- The team not intro-ing the song together, or not finishing the song together… like the drummer going this way and the leader another! (We call this “landing the plane.” We may be on the ground at the end with everyone relatively safe, but the wings were scraped off in the rough and jittery landing!)
- A worship leader talking or praying too much during the song set (either between or during the songs).
- The worship leader’s mic volume is too low… or too loud! “Is this guy trying to be a rock star!”
- The music volume is too soft or too loud.
- An instrument badly out of tune. The Middle 60 person could not tell you why it is distracting, but they are distracted nonetheless.
- An electric guitar player playing leads while everyone is singing (instead of between lines being sung!). The electric guitar can be a lightning rod for distraction. Too loud, too many notes, too big an ego, too many special effects… the list goes on, and I play electric guitar!
- Any “look at me” from a worship team player.
- It’s goofy to say, but inappropriately dressed players and singers can be distracting! Too grungy. Too formal. Too out of sync. Too fashionable. Too much cleavage. Too short a skirt. You know what I mean.
- A lack of talent or practice from a player (that is, they don’t play their instrument well enough, or have not put in the time to learn the notes that need to be played).
- Playing a song too long. This is common among younger generations. The song can start slow, build to the chorus, build bigger through the bridge, come waaaay down, quieter chorus building up again and again… rinse and repeat! As I watch the Middle 60 during these times, they take the exit ramp earlier, and the second half of the song is strictly Top 20.
I could go on and on, but this gets you thinking about minimizing distractions, and the consciousness of this will usually help you to see it and make necessary corrections.
This is where we will end this week. Next week we will go into time periods and the common mistakes about anointed worship.
Bob Branch is pastor of The Springs Community Church in Temecula, CA. He has been leading worship for more than 35 years. He and his wife, Becky, have 4 grown children and are recent empty-nesters. He likes Telecaster, Stratocaster and Avalon guitars, high-tech toys and really good coffee.
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