September 25, 2020

The Evangelical Liturgy 20: Silence

silenceSilence 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.


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

    Shouldn’t we already be getting a heavy doses of “still and quiet” when we go into our closet for secret prayer? I don’t have a problem with corporate silence, but I don’t see it as a necessity.

  2. I imagine one of the reasons silence is so unpopular in evangelicalism is because, given the time to be still and think in the presence of God, we might actually self-examine and therefore experience feelings of guilt. That MUST be avoided at ALL costs if the church is to “grow”. At most we can acknowledge sin intellectually through systematic theology, but let us not actually ponder the depths from which we call out to God! Then his mercy would become so unimaginably huge to us, that nobody in their right mind could actually believe in it.

    As the great theologian Stephen Colbert says, “Church should be a solemn 45 minutes to sit quietly and feel guilty, with donuts at the end to make you feel better.”

  3. Maybe one of the problems we have is not just silence during worship, but silence any time. We are so used to the noise in our lives that we feel uncomfortable with silence. People have earbuds plugged in when they walk and when they work. They can’t even shop without holding a running conversation on their cell phones, and few people drive in silence.
    I wonder if David would have had the inspiration to write psalms while tending sheep if he’d had bluetooth plugged into his head, or if Abraham would ever have heard the call to leave Ur if he’d had surround sound in his tent, or what kind of a raft would have been built if Noah had been wearing headphones when God gave him the blueprints for the ark.
    If we are to practice the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence suggests, perhaps we’d better do it quietly.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      People have earbuds plugged in when they walk and when they work. They can’t even shop without holding a running conversation on their cell phones, and few people drive in silence.

      I have to keep a CD running into my headphones at work to drown out distractions. If I don’t, any sound coming from the next cubicle (like the nonstop clacking of keyboards) breaks my concentration on the task and I have to start over.

      Artists and writers call it “getting into the zone”, where the momentum just start flowing naturally. It takes me half an hour to do so, and any distraction or sound kicks me back to square one. I have to be utterly psychologically alone in order to function, and having something blasting on my earphones helps a lot.

    • Where is the cartoonist out there who can illustrate this comment? It is so interesting to image David with a bluetooth, Abraham with surround sound and Noah with headphones. HA!

  4. This is probably the most profound and important installment. Evangelicals just can’t handle silence. I noticed that at our Lutheran church that the pastoral prayer for some reason needs background music. So hyperactive.

    • Agreed.
      Isn’t the purpose of background music is to set a mood, to provoke certain, allegedly spiritual feelings in us that we can’t be trusted to have, if left to ourselves in silence?

    • Hey , I’ll trade you my quasi-charismatic worship extravaganza for some of your Lutheran hyperactivity… would seem like a day-spa to me. I’ll even throw in a few of your favorite ‘chorus-must-repeat-10-times’ praise songs. Act fast: this offer good today ONLY.

    • The point being that this is a recent thing – something apparently learned from revivalistic-charismatic worship. The pastoral prayer historically never needed a backing track.

    • Steve Newell says

      In the Lutheran Church that I attend, we have silence before public confession (just me and my sins), silence before prayers, silence prior to the distribution of Holy Communion, and silence after the last hymn but before the pastor says “Go in peace and serve the Lord”.

      It’s a bet scary to be alone with my and my thoughts. Many times, my thoughts are the most unholy aspect of me during worship.

  5. When silence falls in our church, you can hear the ticking of the clock on the wall in the back of the sanctuary. My husband says all churches should have a ticking clock; he says it’s a suitable reminder of our mortality.

  6. As a musician and an intellectual, I appreciate silence a lot. I think there is a tendency for musicians to always want to be heard and intellectuals to love the sound of their own voice speaking.

    Silence lets us know to shut up.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And from a musical standpoint, silent interludes act as a counterpoint to the audible music.

      • At my previous church, there was no such thing as silence, ‘cuz the pastor would always have me (the music dude) play “quiet” guitar chords as background to anything that would otherwise be quiet. At my new church, when I lead the music I’ve refused to play background music to prayer or anything else.

  7. I think we find God best in stillness and solitude – while this is impossible to replicate during a worship service, a few moments here and there might give us a chance to draw a little nearer then we would without “dead air”

    If anything, I think it’s more a reflection of the short attention spans and the marketing that permeates many churches today – the sales message must be on 100%, and constantly varying and changing, as if we were kids needing constant gratification, instead of a worship experience that brings us closer to God


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think we find God best in stillness and solitude – while this is impossible to replicate during a worship service…

      Especially when “worship” means a nonstop CCM concert. (Spinning our socks over our heads optional.)

      • “You spin me right round, Jesus, like a record, Jesus, right round”

        When I saw that on youtube, I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or weep uncontrollably. That’s at least one example where silence would have been a blessing.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          At least they didn’t do it Jamaican-style — setting their socks on fire before spinning them right round round Jesus round round. “MORE FIRE! MORE FIRE!”

  8. Christiane says

    There is a wonderful account about holy silence from the Rev. Katie Crowe in a sermon whe wrote called “Speaking in the Silence”.
    A mother asked a minister to pray at the side of her premature infant. . The minister was tired and weary and had to walk to the other end of the hospital to get to the where the child lay. He found her in the silence of the neonatal intensive care unit in a ‘bubble’ hooked up to many tubes and wires. They were surrounded by silence. In that quiet, the minister sat quietly and said no words and the silence deepened and became noticeably more peaceful to him.. The minister felt the Presence of the Lord in that quiet.

    All of sudden, the bells and lights went off around the infant and a nurse came over.
    “Don’t worry.” said the nurse,
    “She always gets excited when someone speaks to her.’

    Maybe the first time the Lord spoke to us was ‘in silence’, so long ago that we have forgotten.

  9. As an introvert, I thrive in silence, in church and outside it. It’s just a par of my personality. Now, I am attached to my iPod, but I know when to throw that baby on the couch and recline in silence.

    Silence, to me, can make any place sacred, even the woman’s bathroom.

  10. To take it farther, what would happen if the pastor read the text “Be still and know that I am God,” or “Let all the earth keep silence before me,” and sat down to let the people do what the texts say?

  11. Christiane says

    from T.S. Eliot

    ” . . . You are here to
    kneel where prayer has been valid.
    And prayer is more than an order
    of words, the conscious occupation
    of the praying mind, or the sound
    of the voice praying . .
    Of timeless moments, So, where the
    light fails on a winters afternoon,
    in a secluded chapel . . . “

  12. In the case of Meditation over music, the music, no matter how softly it plays, is a huge distraction to me personally. I love music, all kinds. When music plays I find it extremely difficult to tune it out and continue the act of praying or meditating. I was very disappointed when our church incorporated this into the formerly silent Lord’s Supper.

    Our entire service used to be 1 1/2 hours, but when we recently implemented a second service, there was an effort to whittle down the service time. The sermon was zapped down to 20 min. and the meditation time during the Lord’s Supper was cut down to less than the time it takes to play one track on a praise and worship CD. Some people barely received the emblems before the Offertory prayer begins!

    I agree w/ the poster above that many feel uncomfortable w/ silence. I am also seeing evidence that the value of time spent meditating in corporate worship, whether in silence or “over music,” is totally underestimated. (It’s the first thing that will be cut when you’re looking to cut something.)

    • Your comment about preferring absolute silence and not even soft music is interesting to me and I appreciate hearing (or reading) it. Usually as a musician, I hear folks comment on the fact that they liked my meditative selections because they were familiar or connected with the sermon or some other reason, but I rarely hear a comment like yours. I have no problem with stopping the music and having real silence at times rather than feeling like we need musical “cover” every moment where someone up front isn’t explicitly speaking. A balance for those who want quiet and those who want or need the music for meditation is a good thing to keep in mind, in my view. Thanks again for that perspective.

  13. My most moving spiritual experience occured on a silent retreat.

  14. Christiane says

    Is STILLNESS the same as ‘silence’ ?
    I don’t know, but I suspect it means something more.

  15. My problem isn’t silence in church, but that I can’t get my head to shut up. It’s like a train wreck which won’t end.

    • Same here. Medication helped turn the volume down.

    • Silence kicks my ADD into high. Meditation over music does it for me. Even when alone, I need the sound of the wind or the birds or a stream to concentrate. Then again, in college i studied to Crosby, Stills and Nash.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Same here. It’s been getting worse for me over the past 10-15 years, to the point where I need help to focus on ANYTHING.

        I was a kid genius with a multitrack mind that never stops running at redline, not even when I sleep. It takes a lot of effort and concentration just to isolate and follow one of those myriad threads long enough to accomplish anything. And silence DOES kick it into high; that’s why I need background music to block out the outside world and counter it.

        • Seriously, keep that organ playing or will not be able to pray.
          You know , headless unicorn guy, I had that genius kid syndrome also, but if you apply enough alcohol to the affected area, that particular problem will decrease, as will your prospects, your spirituality and your health.

          • My husband is like those of you saying your mind keeps going and you need sounds in order to focus at all. He says his thoughts just keep going and going to the point that he cannot even sleep and when he does sleep, he has horrible nightmares. He feels that drinking helps to slow his brain down and let him sleep. The alcohol surely causes other problems but he doesn’t want to try medication, feeling the meds will make not be himself.

            I am the opposite. I like silence. I can focus, though, when there is noise around me, but I can’t focus if two people are talking to me at the same time. That makes me nuts!

            I don’t mind the small choir at my local Catholic church playing/singing a song during Communion. If it’s a song I know and like, I will sing along as will others in the congregation. There isn’t actually much silence during the Mass, but I don’t expect there to be. I get my silence during my solitary prayer at home.

  16. Silence has been a part of our worship service since the beginning of our baptist church, influenced from both high church reverence of some and church of the brethren silence of others. (Our founds were an eclectic lot.) Seventeen years later, the times of silent meditation and prayer are most often cited as reasons why people embrace the worship service. Silence is such an identifiable element of the service that we tend to think of the service as an hour of silence interrupted occasionally by sung and spoken elements. We conceive of the worship service like we are in a canoe floating down the river together. To have silence is to trust that we don’t always have to be pulling with our oars, but instead we trust the water beneath us to carry us along. Occasionally we dip our oars in the water with an element to propel us along, but this is simply our work joining the ongoing movement of God. Thanks for highlighting silence as an element in worship, not just the absence or unwelcome pause between elements.

  17. It seems, I think, that there’s a question here about absolute silence and also possibly a question about silence from everyone but a musician of some sort providing meditative music. As a musician myself, I have no problem leaving times for absolute silence—I provide music for a reason, not as filler or background music to be tuned out. So unless something will be listened to or meditated on, I’d prefer absolute silence.

    My opinion, echoing others’ sentiments above, is that much of the problem with silence has to do with our general cultural attitudes and in particular, a lack of a sense of separation between church “space” and other “space.” To me, if we are to truly prepare our hearts for worship (really and truly, as opposed to hearing that phrase at the end of the announcements and then waiting impatiently for the next 15 seconds for the worship leader to “get on with it”) and maintain that attitude of worship during a service, I think we have to shut out everyday secular concerns like chatting with friends, keeping kids entertained, etc and treat the sanctuary as something distinct and special where we act differently than anywhere else—-it’s not an extension of our living rooms, our offices or even a church fellowship hall. For many who really do want quiet time before the service to reflect on why they’re there or to listen to the prelude (or whatever preservice music there is), it’s incredibly rude in my opinion for others to come into the sanctuary and carry on conversations, laughing loudly, walking around to visit others, etc. The point is that all those things can be done any other time and place but there’s only one time and one place that folks have an opportunity for quiet or to listen to the preservice music selections.

  18. I’d love to hear more silence in our services, but thre’s little hope of getting it soon. We need very badly to recapture the contemplative side of spirituality and the wisdom that comes through that tradition, and silence can be a way to move in that direction. I have a suspicion that may scare some people. I know it does me sometimes, but I still desire it.

    • as the world gets more wired, louder, and faster – our congregations need to sit together & worship our Lord in silence & stillness. we are loosing touch with God & filling our lives with “entertainment” – silence is what we need. the congregations need to get out of the entertaining business & moving on with the act of worship. i totally agree with our post.

  19. in Silence we can hear the angels sing and God breathe (Ru’ah)…

  20. In the ’79 BCP there’s a rubric in the Mass that demands a period of silence after the Fraction. I once heard a bishop refer to it as “the most defied rubric in all of the prayerbook” because most churches immediately follow it with either a sung Agnus Dei or the Christ our Passover with no pause whatsoever. It irks me when priests do that, and there’s a part of me that wants to jump and point to the rubric and say, “See! It says… SILENCE!”

    But I don’t, because I’m a wimp.

  21. L. Winthrop says

    Silence is a big thing in Quaker theology (both kinds), and has recently caught on in other churches, I think as a result of the popularity of Eastern religions. (I visited one Episcopal church which marked their moment of silence with a gong!)

    An interesting question is, what do we think is the purpose of this silence? (Yes, I saw the Bible verses–so what purpose does the Bible think silence has?) Is it just a tradition, like bell-ringing? Is it meant to calm us down, or make us feel spiritual? Can God speak to us more easily if we shut up? (But then, maybe a large group isn’t the best place to do that. Or is it better in a group?) Are we intended to use this time to pray, reflect on the reading (meditatio), or try to tune out all thought? If so, why do we think that would be good?

    I agree that background music is annoying, manupulative, and defeats the purpose (whatever it is).

    • Though most congregations won’t go for the extended corporate waiting in silence of a Quaker unprogrammed meeting (45 minutes, 60 minutes, 2 hours) or have people sometimes rising to speak if moved.

      • L. Winthrop says

        For Quakers, I think the appeal of silence is different from the appeal of nonprogrammed meetings. The lack of liturgy, clergy, vestments, etc. reflects a theology which locates the light of Christ within us, rather than from a church hierarchy. From this perspective, silence is what happens when nobody feels moved by the spirit to say anything. But silence also reflects a certain view of God, in which he is thought not to be describable by traditional attributes or (as some Quakers are now wont to say) even religious traditions. As a practical matter, sometimes people find the experience deeply moving, and sometimes they find it boring.

        But that’s the Quakers. How do other denominations conceive of the benefits of silence?

    • your post seems to be focused on what you will get out of it. to me the focus should be worship, which will recieve benefit as give. to stand before our God as a body of believers giving God our time, thoughts, conscience, and Love. we will feel his word on our hearts, but I don’t want to sound like I know everything about this my Church woefully lacks alot of silence but the silence we do have has been very benfical. —– now I was alittle put off by your problem with the gong in church, I don’t think a gong would be any better or worse than a piano, bell if done properly. Just because a Church uses something of a different country or culture doesn’t make the instrument less Christian. thanks for your post peace

  22. One must decide what is the primary purpose of worship or liturgy.

    If the primary purpose is for us to express our feelings, grattitude, and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Holy Spirit in the message or sacriment, then a worship service with us and our desires as the primary factor might find periods of silence rather uneventful.

    If the primary purpose of the service is for our Lord to carry on his priestly ministry, the assembly arriving at the service in assured expectation of receiving more of God (grace), then wonderful things happen in the quiet.

  23. 1 Kings 19:11-13
    The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

    In my Catholic church, I would choose silence over music by Marty Haugen and David Haas any time.

  24. I think silence is great, but difficult for many groups to achieve. Quite a few people think the organ music is simply a signal that they must speak even more loudly to be heard–the idea of sitting still and not TALKING for a few minutes would never occur to them–after all, the world is no doubt hanging on their every word and awaiting the next oracular pearl that will proceed from their mouth! 🙂 It used to be that one could only expect relative silence from the patrons in a movie theater, but now that’s pretty much gone too….

    In my experience, the older folk are probably the most egregious in this regard, probably because they need to speak even more loudly to hear each other. There’s an elderly couple at our church who will provide running color commentary OUT LOUD during the entire service. If they sit near me I have to get up and move because I know it’s basically going to be a near occasion of sin.

    • “Quite a few people think the organ music is simply a signal that they must speak even more loudly”

      You hit the nail on the head with that one. In my view, that is so incredibly rude, because it takes away the opportunity for the musician as well as those who are actually interested in listening to and being moved by the music to worship. The moment that the music is happening is the only moment that is available—there’s no rewind or pause, this is it so if by talking you spoil it, it’s gone for good.

      “In my experience, the older folk are probably the most egregious in this regard”

      I’ve noticed this too, though kids that are not restrained even in the smallest ways by parents are right up there as well–quiet prelude, most of the congregation trying to meditate on it and some little girl arguing out loud with her mother about some childish wish not being fulfilled. But as to the elderly, I think sometimes they don’t realize how loud they’re talking because many are hard of hearing (sometimes their hearing aids have high pitched whines going for long periods that I know they aren’t aware of). I try to have a little compassion because of the age/hardness of hearing, but it doesn’t take away the problem that I think there shouldn’t be talking in the first place, ESPECIALLY while the music is going on. I’ve been in a church where the older couple behind us only talked during the music and it was loud talking—-selfish, rude and totally ruined the ability to concentrate on and worship with the music.

  25. Even during weekly Communion in our evangelical church, we don’t get silence. Nope, we get praise music the whole time while people file up and help themselves to the elements and after the song we participate together, led by the pastor. How I would LOVE to have silence during Communion or occasionally during prayer.

    When the pastor gives us silence for private prayer, he spends most of the time telling us what to pray about, so we only get 15-30 seconds. Sigh….

  26. The element of silence is missing in life altogether for me- I’m giving serious thought to exploring a local Friends community and their services for just that reason. Hard hard hard to “hear” God above the daily cacaphony, at least for me.

  27. I understand this post and thread is about silence of the group.
    But I wonder how many use silence in their own personal prayer time?
    When you practice it alone, it make it easier in a group setting.
    Many people can’t practice it by themselves. The tv or radio/ipod are always going. They have never learned to wait on God in their personal time.

    Waiting on God is one of the most neglected and yet most powerful forms of prayer.
    They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength.
    Be still and know the He is God.

    I know I’m showing my age, but one of the best books on prayer has chapters on, not just intercession and petition, but also on waiting, watching, and listening.
    It’s a classic. But there is a reason it’s a classic.

    The Hour That Changes the World by Dick Eastman

    Look it up on amazon. I think it is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary.
    Encourage the practice private silence, and your corperate silence will go much better.

    who used to love to wait on God and needs to get back into that practice again.

    • MR, I checked that book out on Amazon and it looks very good. Amazon has the feature that allows you to read the first few pages and those were great with wonderful quotations from “famous” people about the power of and need for prayer. I have a tiny page on Theologica where I am putting some quotations about prayer and I am thinking I will need to put a few of these quotations there!

      I need to order a couple books from Amazon anyway and may add this one. I am very happy with my silent prayer time and only wish that I could be more regular with it, so I don’t know that I will learn anything from reading the book that I don’t already know in terms of the “practice” of prayer, but I do like what he writes and how he writes it. The most important thing to do is to actually pray. We are told to “pray always” but it’s important to begin by praying sometimes, somewhere so that prayer becomes a natural part of us. Someone has said that we become what we think. Prayer helps our thinking to be directed to God and God will not fail to respond.

      Thanks for the book recommendation.

      • You are more than welcome.

        The only thing I might add is that Eastman sets up a structure but adds that the structure is in no way mandatory, but rather a spring board (my terms) into prayer. The structure is more to help the timid and beginners into exploring the different aspects of prayer in an orderly fashion.
        I’ve heard some refer to his structure as too rigid. And I’m wondering to myself, did they even read the part about not getting religious (legalistic or rigid) about the structure.

        He has another book called, “No Easy Road” which is also good. But it’s been a while since I read that one.

    • The discipline of silence was an important factor to me. I spent about a year practicing silent meditation until I was finally able to stop thinking and rest in the arms of God. I need to get back into it.

      • Jjoe: “practicing silent meditation until I was finally able to stop thinking and rest in the arms of God. I need to get back into it.”

        Yes! Yes! Yes!

    • I love silence. Many times when I am home alone there is no TV on, no radio going, just natural
      sounds of the house and nature or the work I am doing. I like to sit quietly and hear what is being said to me. Sometimes its my mind telling me things, other times, I get a word from God and those rare moments I love. How else can we commicate with the almighty. Prayer is great but silence is golden. Listen carefully. You may be surprised at what you hear.

  28. This is one thing I definitely miss about the Friends (Quaker) tradition. Although I grew up in a fairly evangelical “programmed” meeting, we still had periods where we sat in silence until someone felt called to speak.

    I think part of the problem with silence and evangelicalism, particularly of the Reformed variety, is that is can be so rationalistic, that anything that doesn’t involve the analysis of content is written off and anathemized as “contemplative spirituality.” If memory serves, there are whole watchblogs dedicated to this.

    My cynical side says that, if we allow the sheep too much direct communion with the Divine, the Divine might just lead them outside of the boundaries our confessions.

    • Yes, you’ll find bloggers who argue quite forcefully that prayer can ONLY be in the form of talking to God, because 1) That’s what scripture and Jesus models and 2) prayer as listening to God means that we are looking for inspiration and direction outside the Word he has already given us.

      Which is exactly backwards, for 1) God already knows what we’re going to say and 2) we’d still have slavery (as one of any number of examples) if we ignored the Holy Spirit in favor of literal words on a piece of paper.

    • being quite drives the theologians crazy —- it can’t be dogamtized

  29. Sometimes when my church fellowship is engaged in participatory prayer, a time of worshipful silence will just sort of happen on its own — as if we all received a message to shut up and let Him minister to us or speak to us or just embrace us with His presence. We have had some meaningful times of silence that were intentionally facilitated, but the best times are when the Spirit instigates it and we get the hint to clam up and let Him be God.
    I think times of silence are a way for us to recognize, experience, and explore a part of God’s nature and character that isn’t often stressed in many churches — that He is timeless (i.e., He isn’t pressed for time), at total peace with Himself, and not worried about anything. We fallen humans, on the other hand, tend to be uptight, high strung, stressed out, and worried to death. And, too often, we seek to relieve these symptoms by trying to control everything and everyone in our environment — which is really moving in the opposite direction of faith. I know I do this. But it’s in silence and stillness before God — either alone or corporately with fellow believers — that I’ve found a place where I can unload all that junk and (at least, for a time) experience real peace.
    What confounds and frustrates me is that I so seldom choose to go to this place — or even forget that I can go to this place.

  30. BiggieBiggs says

    I hate the fact that when there is silence all that you can hear the sound of people unwrapping little hard candies. Why does everyone over 50 need to have a peppermint during service? Or a tic-tac, that is so absurd. I should just come with random wrappers and just start crinkling them for no reason……..

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

    This is probably an overstatement. Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist — the churches that trace themselves more directly back to the higher-church Protestant Reformers rather than being offshoots from later reform movements or the Anabaptist Reformers — have always had traditions of silence at the beginning and/or close of worship. They haven’t necessarily been written down as elements of liturgy, but I think it’s saying too much to say there hasn’t been a “tradition.”

    BTW, this may also have been a common practice among Baptists in former days as well, but I’m not as familiar with that. I do know a church I used to attend in a denomination that had Anabaptist roots but had drifted more toward something between evangelical and fundamental Baptist over the last century also practiced it as something of a given.

  32. BTW, the fact that the above-mentioned folks aren’t doing it consistently anymore doesn’t mean there isn’t a tradition of it, just that the tradition’s being rejected, ignored, or forgotten about.

  33. Imonk wrote:
    ‘Silence has been banished from most contemporary worship as if it were an outright evil…’

    Imonk, you are badly understating the case. For a significant segment of (especially Protestant) Christians, silence of mind in any sense is often associated with the threat of evil influences, perhaps because this silence can occasionally bring to the surface psychologically (and spiritually) unpleasant material. Inner unpleasantness (bad feelings, bad memories, bad thoughts) = demonic threat, rather than useful information about your current mental state (including sinful tendencies).

    Also, although there are traditions of ‘meditation’ in some Christian traditions (e.g. Desert fathers), and although ‘meditation’ occasionally comes up in Scripture with reference to the Word (meditating on God’s word), many Christians shy away from meditation because it’s primary cultural association is with eastern religions. There is a fear, it seems, that if we spend too much time in silence (whether in public worship or privately), we might seem like Buddhists or New Agers. Again, the fear of demonic threat and ‘falling away’ from the faith is enormous.

    We need to reclaim silence, not fear it.

    • Thanks Peter for bringing this up;

      It’s funny that you should say that “many Christians shy away from meditation because it’s primary cultural association is with eastern religions.” because as far as western civilization goes, we have much deeper roots in the Old Testament than these relatively recent fads about Buddhism or Hinduism. Of course I know there was some interchange over the centuries between east and west, and Paramahansa Yogananda hit the lecture circuit in America in the 1920s, but really, why would the Asian association with meditation be the first thing people think of?

      The answer lies in the tendency of many protestants to view the spiritual practices of the RC community as heretical and wrong out of hand. Now I am not speaking of any of you now days, and your attitudes, unless the shoe fits. But there has been a tendency in Protestantism over time, to relegate practically anything which the catholics did to the rubbish bin. These folks would say, “we don’t do this” and the reason given would be that catholics (or New Agers) do it. This to me is not a reasonable answer.

      I can read and I see the word “meditate” all over the Old Testament and I don’t mean TM, so if you jolly fellows don’t mind I will continue to prefer silence and meditation on Scripture, if you please. And silence at church if I can get it, that is why I go to the spoken eucharist service (the one without music).
      As far as any of us know OT style meditation is what Jesus may have been doing when He went off alone to pray, after all, He is Jewish.

      Besides, I think I have heard enough praise bands, louder than Led Zeppelin concerts, to last a lifetime (My ears, …Aaargh…the ringing won’t stop).


      • Nathan, I read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and it was his book that convinced me that I could believe things like God’s voice was actually heard when it tells us in the Gospels that God said, “This is my beloved son.”

        Centering prayer can lead to contemplative prayer which can lead to bringing the love of God to the hurting world. We need all we can get of God’s love.

      • L. Winthrop says

        “Meditation”…that sounds like a Latin word, doesn’t it? (Although what is nowadays meant by “meditation” usually comes closer to “contemplation.”)

        Oddly enough, there is no strict equivalent in Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese. Rather there are a number of practices which might, or might not, be called “meditation” in English. It depends on what we mean.

        Also, Buddhism and other Eastern religions have elaborate theoretical schema in which various form of meditation are situated. The West has people like Pseudo-Dionysius, but on the whole, tends to regard the whole process as a mystery.

        • mystery is a word we need more of in our churches – less teaching, more listening & learning!

    • just be careful the evangelicals don’t try to make it “entertaining” (lazor light show!)

  34. Something I read this morning:

    “The first mystery of the Rosary concerns a God whos speaks, who speaks through various messengers, who is therefore heard or not heard. He is never something or someone whose presence can be demonstrated…He is one who speaks when man may not be listening and he is therefore somewhat at the mercy of man’s interest and response. He is also one who may not speak at all, who can choose to be silent – for example, when man desperately wants to know what only God can tell him.” – J. Neville Ward, from “Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy” (note: J. Neville Ward was a Methodist minister in England).

    I think silence in worship is one of the greatest acts of worship. It sets aside our capriciousness and desire to fit God to our own whims and even longings. It is so antithetical to the faith-prosperity doctrine, which teaches how to demand what one wants from God – using his own promises against him to get what we want. Silence sets aside our expectations.

    In my pentecostal days, a period of silence in worship was always broken by a loud, boisterous message in tongues. I have experienced this in other stages of my journey. Silence, if permitted at all, is almost treated as giving God an opportunity – albeit short – to answer us – either through a prophetic utterance or a stirring in our hearts. After a preset moment of silence, the program moves on. If I am right, then I think this misses the point of silence in worship. I think silence states that after all our songs, all our prayers, all our proclamations, in the end we do not have God figured out. He is not in our worship box. God may inhabit our praises, but he is not contained by them. Silence states that God doesn’t have to say or do anything.

    “Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
    But if God stays silent, what else can you do
    Except listen to the silence?
    if you ever did you’d surely see
    That God won’t be reduced to an ideology…”
    – Bruce Cockburn, from “Gospel of Bondage”

  35. I’ll start out by saying that I’m an introvert and a lover of silence — can’t stand being in the same room as a TV, and the only time I listen to music is when I’m driving (and not always then). One of the things I value most about living alone is not being required to *respond* to other people’s conversation when I’m resting or working.

    And I spent twenty (mostly) very happy years as a Quaker. Both my Quaker friends and my Catholic friends still consider me a Quaker: one elderly nun used to describe me as “bi-sectarian” with a quirked eyebrow and a twinkle in her eye.

    There are two main problems I have noticed over the years with people new to the practice of silent worship. The easier one is that most people don’t know how to sit still. They can handle it for about ten or fifteen minutes, and then they start to shuffle their feet and wiggle around in their seats. (At the Quaker college I went to, this could be very funny to watch on parents’ visiting weekend.) It takes some practice to find positions that are comfortable to sit in for an hour, and to learn to change position gently and quietly.

    The harder one is that some people complain they “don’t know what to think about.” I think this is one reason behind the ubiquitous background music and slide shows during the “meditation” intervals in structured worship. People get a little panicky, because so many things rush through their minds and they haven’t learned how to control the flow (admittedly, this is MUCH more difficult for some people than others). Or, more insidiously, they are so used to being told “what to think about” every moment in a worship setting that they get confused and distressed when they don’t have that guidance. They know they are “supposed” to be thinking about “something holy,” but frequently don’t have a lifetime of experiences of God to draw on. Or, sadly, they simply don’t trust themselves to listen and accept whatever may occur.

    There *are* books and training available in how to sit and worship in silence, but as others have said, all too often either the people struggling with this don’t know about them, or they are from other faith traditions that people perhaps feel they “shouldn’t” draw from.

    Theresa of Avila had this problem, by the way — it’s not new. Her solution, and it’s another one that has worked for many people, is to have a book at hand. Open the book, read a few sentences, and wait, letting them soak in for a few minutes. When you get restless or your thoughts start to speed up, read a few more. The Bible works, of course, but there are other books that work well too. With practice, the intervals of silence get longer, if you let them.

    (I would actually recommend Thomas Merton’s _Seeds of Contemplation_ for this — the first edition, if you can find it, I didn’t like _New Seeds of Contemplation_ nearly as well. Another book I like is _Nurturing Silence in a Noisy Heart_ by Wayne Oates.)

    • Thanks for your post, I love all things Thomas Merton. i have received much help from the Centering prayer books by Father Basil Pennington, though he tends to be a little more “structured & dogmatic” then i care for. I love almost any book from Richard Foster on Prayer, silence, & meditation he seems to take a more “organic” approach to this disipline. peace

  36. Our church has just recently developed a compline service, meeting the last Sunday of each month at 8 PM. The thing I hear about the most is the preciousness of the silences. In my tradition we do not trust silences. We continually cram things into the mind. In fact, we end up shoving and bruising and pushing. InterVarsity taught me a lot about trusting silence when we had retreats of silence when I was a student. It seemed that the quieter we got the more electric the atmosphere.

  37. Christopher Lake says

    Every Sunday, my former church has a period of deliberate silence after the sermon. It lasts for perhaps two to three minutes, but what a difference it makes to even have that short time of silence! In my current church, there are occasionally times of silence, chosen by the main preaching elder, but there is no time of silence deliberately woven into the worship service. I wish that that would change, as the atmosphere is noticably different– filled with sound, with less of a sense of gravity…

  38. Silence is extremely meaningful and should be part of any primary worship service.