The Deep Work of the Worship Leader1
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues for two core abilities for thriving in today’s world: the ability to both quickly master hard things and to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed.
Newport says we must cultivate deep work into our lives, by which he means activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. “These eﬀorts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate” (p. 3). If you can’t learn to do deep work, you can’t thrive (pp. 29-31).
This type of work is in contrast to shallow work, things like meetings, emails, social networks, casual blog reading, and the like. These tasks are necessary, but also easily replicated and tend not to create much new value in the world (p. 6). “To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuﬀ you're capable of producing—a task that requires depth” (p. 13).
Worship leaders, take heed.
The Deep Work of Worship Planning
Without question worship leaders should strive to produce high-quality work. We should approach our task with an intensity of focus that produces a solid outcome. This is counterintuitive for some churches, where worship leadership is handed to a young man whose primary qualification is that he can play an instrument or sing. It counters worship leaders who do only what is needed to get through Sunday so the focus is solely on the preaching of the Word.
But this kind of shallow, lazy thinking is nonsense.
The Word is delivered throughout a worship service via prayers and songs, not just the sermon. Too many times I’ve spoken with worship leaders who give very little detailed attention to the arrangement of a service, or how the songs and prayers complement the readings and the sermon. This type of worship planning is shallow work, unfocused, disconnected, and merely administrative.
But to use Newport’s phrase, worship leading should be deep work. The leader planning the service liturgy should spend deep and concentrated work considering how each element preaches or distracts. He should think through all elements of a service with prayerful attention to the congregation that God has specifically brought together at his location. He should not flippantly choose songs based on likability or on current trends, as if the God we approach in worship isn’t the same God who threatened fire and destruction for unworthy worship. When we consider the greatness of God, we will not approach the greatness of worship planning as a menial task.
How much concentration should we devote to the planning of our services? The same amount the preaching pastor dedicates to preparing and planning the service.
The Deep Work of Songwriting
Unfortunately, we face the tendency to be lazy in our worship planning as well as in our songwriting. A catchy phrase or quick cliché is apparently enough these days. But worship leading and songwriting is not for the lazy.
If you are satisfied with shallow, lazy work in writing worship songs, maybe consider a different role in the church or a pursuit outside the church.
We should treat shallow songwriting with suspicion because it has the potential to damage the church body. Certainly some songs come together much quicker than others, but this is fearful responsibility.
We are singing teachers, putting the truth of God in the mouths of his people. We aim for clarity, substance, and meaning, avoiding anything superficial or trivial.
The type of planning and execution a worship leader does should be hard, not easy. Or at least we should not think of it as an easy task. It’s a sobering one! And we must master our task. We should work hard, and train ourselves to do it regularly. We must take control of our time and avoid distractions. We have only a few short years to serve. Make the most of it.
While your work should be high caliber, and while you should strive with every ounce of energy to serve the church with your gifts, focus on serving your context, not on being the most elite leader in your generation. Bring clarity to your work and put your local church at the center of your mind. Clarity about what matters gives clarity about what doesn’t matter. This clarity is vital if you want to leave a lasting mark on the world.
Produce at a high level. Work hard for God’s glory and for the good of your church. He will give the increase.
Josh Philpot (@joshphilpot) is the Pastor for Worship and Administration at Founders Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.