October 14, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: Silence in Worship

 

Monday with Michael Spencer: October 7, 2019
Silence in Worship

Silence has been banished from most contemporary worship as if it were an outright evil, yet what modern worship consumer is not likely to come back from a monastic retreat saying “I loved the silence?”

The Protestant liturgy has no tradition of silence, but periods of silence have often been incorporated into Protestant worship.

For example, the pastoral prayer is sometimes preceded by silence. Sermons can be followed by silence. Some congregations have announcements well before the prelude, then call for relative silence during the prelude. The basic idea of the prelude and/or postlude may involve silence for some churches.

Silence presents some functional obstacles, especially where there are small children, but keep in mind that we are not trying to achieve some sort of state of absolute silence as a task, but to “be still and know that I am God.”

Perhaps more useful is simply the idea of ceasing conversations and being still and quiet before the Lord as a preparation for worship.

Many evangelicals have little idea how noisy their services are. Bring a visitor from the Catholic or Anglican church and see how they compare the “quiet” portions of your worship to theirs.

I grew up in a tradition where “meditation over music” was common in worship, Many traditional Baptist services continue this practice as part of prayer during worship. Exactly how silence and the sounds of an electronic organ or projected slides of nature accompanied by canned music relate to worship is still a mystery to me. I find such moments of meditation to be anything but meditative.

Silence taken to uncomfortable extremes can be distracting, and occasionally embarassing. Be judicious.

I have used a silent introduction to pastoral prayer for years, and will continue to do so until I actually fall asleep during the silence. Then we’ll have to review the idea.

Comments

  1. I’ll take silence over cheesy praise choruses any say.

    • Agreed

    • –> “I’ll take silence over cheesy praise choruses any say.”

      –> “Silence taken to uncomfortable extremes can be distracting, and occasionally embarrassing. Be judicious.”

      I really, really like moments of silence during worship. However, my current worship setting has almost none. Seriously, in the past 6 months I can’t think of one “quiet moment” during any of our services. But here’s the thing: when I put myself in the shoes of a first-time or minimal attender, moments of silence might be very awkward and uncomfortable. Internal questions probably pop up, like “What are we doing now?” or “What am I supposed to do?”

      That said, there’s certainly a way to lead a person through those moments, if one chose to do them. And like Michael said, don’t them drift toward distraction/awkwardness.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And just from a performance/narrative perspective, periods of silence contrast with and set off periods of sound (music, voice, etc). Without the contrast of silence, constant sound will become a constant noisy gong. (Like Screwtape’s praise of Noise Noise Noise.)

  2. For the last year, our pastoral staff and council leadership of our Lutheran parish have been trying to establish silence in the sanctuary before the Sunday service starts. When our two services were reduced to one a year ago, due to low attendance at the earlier 8 AM service, the people who came over to the later service asked that silence be observed in the time leading up to the later service the way it had before the earlier one. The leadership has sought to honor their request, but has had limited success. The pattern has been that a relative silence is observed for a few weeks, then the traditional pre-service chattiness resumes, leading to another request at the announcements for silence to be observed, and the cycle repeats, etc. At this rate, it may take a decade or more for pre-service silence to be firmly established; by then, unfortunately, many more of our parishoners may be deceased, and who knows if our dwindling parish will still exist.

    • I like the idea and intent. Too bad it didn’t stick!

    • I remember the story of the High School chemistry teacher who would still his boisterous class but placing a flask of water on a burner and raising it to a boil. He reported that gradually the entire class would become absorbed in the sight of the boiling water. Not sure what the church equivalent of the boiling water would be.

      • –> “Not sure what the church equivalent of the boiling water would be.”

        Campfires usually works the same magic. So maybe a non-stop “Yuletide log” kinda thing that plays on the screen up-front…?

  3. > The Protestant liturgy has no tradition of silence, but periods of silence have often been incorporated into Protestant worship.

    Don’t the Quakers count?

    It’s never absolute silence either, even in a small Meeting when no one speaks, but it is a wonderful reminder of our shared humanity.

  4. Be still and know

  5. Love the end of this phrase:
    “Ozone on the midnight wind
    Got me thinking of the sea
    And the mercies of the currents that brought
    Me to you and you to me
    And in the silence at the heart of things
    Where all true meetings come to be”
    Bruce Cockburn ‘The Rose Above the Sky’

    • Yeah and I remember the one

      “If God is silent then listen to the silence”

      from a song whose title I can’t remember..

      • Christiane says

        Christian people have a kind of ministry called the ‘listening’ ministry. And many who are suffering in our world need to have someone LISTEN to them, to hear them, just that . . . so someone else knows their burden.
        And to listen in this way, one must be silent and let the other person have the space of that silence in which to speak,

        and it is said that in this kind, patient, and gentle ministry to those who so need to be heard,
        that God is ‘present’ in the listening.

      • I have a a line in a song I wrote: “Funny how you remain so still and still you say so much.”

  6. senecagriggs says

    Our Evangelical church attempted, unsuccessfully, a few years back to establish a degree of silence when entering the worship area. I guess that lasted a couple of months but we’ve been back to “meet and greet” for a long time now.

    • “we’ve been back to “meet and greet”

      From Thom S. Rainer:
      “I confess. I did not expect to write an article that engendered such strong emotions. But now nearly 600,000 people have viewed the article, and hundreds have commented. The article to which I refer was about the simple issue of what churches do that drives first-time guests away. The most discussed issue was that which is typically called “the stand and greet time.” A lot of people don’t like this time in many churches’ worship services. A lot of people really don’t like it.”

      https://thomrainer.com/2014/11/responses-really-dont-like-church-stand-greet-time/

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Then there’s the “meet-and-greet” that belongs on South Park instead of WalMart:

        Small Group Icebreakers(TM).

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        In every Church of Ebgland church I have been in, they have had the “peace“ which consists smply of a handshake or similar with just “peace be with you“ “and also with you“ and you’re done. You will generally also get a “Bye, thanks for coming“ from the vicar at the end as you go out the door. The usual thing (for churches that like to make surre they do these things) is to do a bit more of a proper meet and greet after the end of the service, where everyone who wants to stays for tea and coffee.
        II wonder if the “love it“ camps for meet & greet think this would seem stand-offish to them, or the “hate it“ camps still think it OTT and off-putting, or whether this sounds like a good balance?

    • Was part of a church for many years where one leader insisted on the “stand up and shake some hands” thing.
      Found it really funny / odd that before the service began, there was often much socializing and conversation. At the appointed start time, this leader would stand on stage and call everyone to their seats so we could get started. We all sit down and the first thing he wants us to do is stand up and greet someone. Then we are told to sit down for announcements.
      So we go from talking to one another to sitting to being told to stand and greet for 60 seconds.

  7. “we’ve been back to “meet and greet”

    From Thom S. Rainer:
    “I confess. I did not expect to write an article that engendered such strong emotions. But now nearly 600,000 people have viewed the article, and hundreds have commented. The article to which I refer was about the simple issue of what churches do that drives first-time guests away. The most discussed issue was that which is typically called “the stand and greet time.” A lot of people don’t like this time in many churches’ worship services. A lot of people really don’t like it.”

    https://thomrainer.com/2014/11/responses-really-dont-like-church-stand-greet-time/

    • Interesting. Our church does it, and a lot of people really like it. Which then begs the question, “who might we have driven away by doing it?”

  8. Klasie Kraalogies says

    During my church life I came to strongly prefer services with silence as part of both the liturgy and the general practice. However, in church as in general society, and in evangelicalism as well as non-evangelicals who ape evangelical practices, extroversion rules the day. This is also true of many other non-religious institutions. For those of us who aren’t extroverts, it can be very, very exhausting.

    • –> “For those of us who aren’t extroverts, it can be very, very exhausting.”

      Truer words have never been spoken…LOL.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Extrovert” as in “the back-slapping, grandstanding Used Car Salesman”.

    • Going to church can be the most exhausting thing I do all week. I’d prefer to worship alone in a forest. But that’s not the way things work in Christianity.

      • Why, if you’re not shakin’ hands and spreadin’ the love of Jesus, can you really consider yourself a Christian?!?! (he says jokingly)

        • Thankfully I know better after years of discouragement. I’m much more comfortable letting conversation happen naturally outside of church, where things don’t feel so contrived.

      • In addition to the regular Sunday service, I’ve been attending a monthly church in the wild and find it quite meaningful. There’s a growing network nationally.

      • Christiane says

        for Joel G.

        “When despair for the world grows in me
        and I wake in the night at the least sound
        in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
        I go and lie down where the wood drake
        rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
        I come into the peace of wild things
        who do not tax their lives with forethought
        of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
        And I feel above me the day-blind stars
        waiting with their light. For a time
        I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

        Wendell Barry

  9. Like many things in life this depends on your life experience and your expectations. We go to Mass with my Mother in law and it is a fine service. I go to a Baptist church with my Sister and it is the “traditional” SBC Baptist service with a stand up and shake hands time. Most of the visitors are not given any special notice by the members other than a hand shake and glad you are here. There is a “pamphlet” passed out and if visitors want to fill it out and drop it in the collection plate they can. Way different than the Mass. That is one great thing about America in most areas , we have choices. The Baptist are quite when it the time of prayer or when the common prayer is give. The Mass is of course more ritualistic and certainly more structed. Neither one is a deal breaker for me or my wife as we go to be with family and believers . There is no right way in many areas , it is tradition, where you are at (culture) and how you were raised. Most people can separate the wheat from the chaff . I went to one church were they sang hymns but did not use musical instruments and spent the whole time wondering why? Do not remember where exactly but it was not what I was use to. I will sum it up , my thoughts are whatever works.

    • –> “Most people can separate the wheat from the chaff.”

      Then again, some people can’t. And they tend to be leaders, demanding that the chaff is “Correct!”

    • –> “There is no right way in many areas , it is tradition, where you are at (culture) and how you were raised.”

      Yep. I’ve learned that a lot of our differences are the way we philosophically approach things (like Life in general), and there’s really no right and wrong, it’s just that people’s approaches are philosophically different.

      As you said, “Whatever works.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Stand up and shake hands time” sounds a lot like the Greeting of Peace in the middle of Mass; there it’s incorporated into the Liturgy of the Eucharist..

      Or is that too ROMISH for Baptists?

    • senecagriggs says

      I went to one church were they sang hymns but did not use musical instruments and spent the whole time wondering why? Some Church of Christ congregations do all their music acapella.

  10. Susan Dumbrell says

    We sit in silence. He does not hear me nor I him. He does not speak anyway.
    I have nothing to say and he is away somewhere.
    Work that one out.
    May God have mercy on us both.
    The impact of music fills my empty longing.

    Susan

  11. This is what I have had framed over the door in my den for years:

    “Let us be silent so that we may hear the whisper of God.”