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3 Ways to Increase Your Congregation's Worship Engagement

Recently I was talking with a worship pastor who wanted to increase his congregation’s engagement in worship. Most worship leaders that I know also want to increase the congregation’s engagement in worship. Why is that? In a perfect world it would be because we want the people under our care to be so deeply convinced of God’s love for them that they are compelled to join in the corporate worship of God. But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? We live in a world where people come to church beat up, with questions, angry at God, and carrying a mere mustard seed of faith. And if we’re honest, sometimes that person is us. It’s also possible that we’re using congregational engagement as an external indicator of how good of a job we’re doing. When people are engaged we feel that we must be doing something right. And, conversely, when people are seemingly unresponsive we’re sure that we’re doing something wrong.

So what are we to make of our desires for greater engagement? And how can we lead our congregations into healthier participation in the worship service?

Most of us are leading worship because we’ve been touched deeply by the love of God and we want to lead others in worshiping him, but none of our motives are completely sanctified. It’s imperative that we treat those desires as an opportunity for God to examine us. What about the congregation’s lack of engagement bothers me? Am I personally offended or insecure as a result of their response? Before strategizing a “12 month plan for greater worship engagement,” sit with your feelings and concerns before God and ask Him to examine you and reveal any unhealthy ambition or insecurity that might be fueling your frustration. It’s quite possible that your congregation is exactly where they need to be and the growing dissatisfaction inside of you is something the Spirit is trying to heal. 

But appropriate engagement in worship is certainly a topic worthy of exploration. How people engage in any given environment is typically a byproduct of their convictions or values and their expectations.

If a congregation doesn’t understand why they might raise their hands or sing along during worship then they are unlikely to do it with conviction.

And most people are taking social cues from their environment for how they should participate. It’s expected that at a movie theater or the symphony, that when the lights go down you get quiet. At a sporting event, when the home team scores the audience cheers loudly. Congregational worship is neither a symphony or a sporting event – and shouldn’t treat them as such – but each congregation is a corporate gathering with its own set of implied cultural norms and expectations. So how do we, as worship leaders, assess and influence our congregation’s participation in corporate worship?  

1 – Have conversations.

First, talk to your pastor. What does he or she perceive to be appropriate engagement during the singing? Does he or she also desire more participation or engagement? If not, you should be wary of influencing the culture in a way that is not in alignment with what your pastor desires. Then, begin having conversations with parishioners. Hear their stories. Learn about their relationship with the Church and how they came to your congregation. What if while talking with someone you learn that they come from a background where church engagement is more about reverence than expression? Their stillness might actually be intentional engagement that looks like disengagement. You might learn that most of the congregation is made up of relatively new believers who don’t understand what worship is or how to engage with it. They just need teaching and an example.

Remember, you’re not ministering to a generic crowd, but a body made up of individuals who each have their own story, personalities, and mostly unspoken expectations.

2 – Use your influence intentionally.

One time I worked for someone who told me “my job is to preach; yours is to sing.” I appreciated the clarity, but that meant I’d need to get creative in how I would lead the congregation since he didn’t want me doing much talking. What could I do? I could be very strategic in song selection. I could model engaged participation in worship when I wasn’t leading. I could speak during vamps and instrumentals. I could read a scripture that instructs us on how to worship God – that alone wasn’t preaching! If your pastor is okay with you speaking, prepare moments where you invite people into moments of engagement whether that be lifting or opening their hands, kneeling, closing their eyes in silence or with gentle background music, a call and response liturgy, or picturing something in their mind while you enter into a new song.

Worship is the space where we are being invited to respond to God. Don’t be afraid to extend the invitation.

3 – Take the long-haul approach.

What we’re really after is long-term change in us and our people that can only be described as transformation. And transformation takes time. People need to gain knowledge which, by the Spirit, leads to true revelation. And from there they need to engage in practices that become habits that will embody the change which is happening on the inside. These things don’t happen overnight. Think about Saul on the road to Damascus. He had a momentary encounter that left him blind – something more sensational than most of us will ever experience. But there’s no indication that any real change happened that suddenly. He was then welcomed by Ananias who laid hands on him. From there he spent time with the disciples in Damascus, then Barnabas, then ultimately the other Apostles where he laid low for years prior to engaging in what would become his ministry. The point is that even authentic encounters take time to unfold in our real lives.

Plan your services considering how people will be shaped if they attend over the course of one year, ten years, and even twenty years. Too many of us are only thinking week to week or series to series and we’re carrying an immense amount of pressure to see results in too short a time frame.

Being shaped by faithfully engaging in the practices of the church works more like taking vitamins than getting injections of high-powered pharmaceuticals. God is patient with us so that we can be patient with each other. 

There is no silver bullet to changing culture. Healthy growth is the byproduct of making healthy decisions over a long period of time. Get into the lives of the people to whom God has called you, do what you’re called to do thoughtfully and faithfully, and be patient with your people. After all, isn’t this how God is at work in us? 

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