Silencing Worship (Q&A)

15 08 2012
Q: Corrie Gustafson asked me to reflect on silence as worship, silence in worship, and why we aren’t so good at it.

I started taking Suzuki piano lessons when I was four years old: a method that emphasises the importance of listening as a means of learning and expression. Within the first few years of my training, as I blundered through a piece as quick as my chubby fingers would go, my teacher stopped me. “Listen to the silence,” she said. You have to listen to the space between the notes – pay attention to the rests – before you can hear where the notes need to go. This is one of the skills that separate a good musician from a great one – the ability to play the silence as well as the tones. To actually heed the rests – considering them not simply as empty space, but as giving shape to the music.

It’s hard to listen to silence in a world that surrounds us with noise. Every store, coffee shop, restaurant we enter will inevitably have music blaring. Many of us turn off our home stereo or TV before leaving the house and switch on the radio in the car. We walk from place to place with ear buds in our ears and iPods in our pockets. I have a theory as to why our culture is obsessed by constant noise: I think that we equate silence with stillness, and we equate stillness with death – of which our culture is pathologically afraid. In order to push death back, we surround ourselves with noise and keep moving.

But it’s not just our culture… Hands up if there’s music playing when you enter your church; hands up if once the band starts they transition musically or with words from song to song; hands up if you hear more words during the sermon; hands up if the music then plays you out into a crowded hall or entry way…

Even in gathered worship we sometimes forget what the music is doing, because we can’t hear the silence between the notes. Our music can become noise if we don’t pay attention to the rests in the score. Corrie asked about silence as worship – and I love that phrasing. What we’ve done by taking silence out of our worship is remove preparation. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps 37:7). Remove stillness as an active response to God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Remove the awe from our approach to God. “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2:20). Silence can prepare your congregation for worship. Silence can give them time to ingest the word of God. Silence can provide times of confession. Silence can be a way of letting go. Silence can be a means of rest.

BUT…

Silence without attentiveness is worse than noise. We cannot just throw silence into our worship services and expect that our congregation will follow (remember we’re all fighting against our culture here). We cannot simply observe silence without – as in music – carefully attending to its length, and its intention. So here are a few things to remember as you add intentional silence to your gathered worship.

  • Consider the length of silence very carefully. You might have to build up your congregation’s tolerance. Most congregations can handle about 30 seconds comfortably. Definitely push beyond this, but don’t push too far too fast. There are times when a silence as long as 5 or 10 minutes may be appropriate, but this must be carefully instructed, and will probably be seldom.
  • Always let your congregation know it’s coming. Whether it’s in an order of service, or on a screen, or a verbal instruction – the congregation must be warned. Otherwise, all you will accomplish is several minutes of uncomfortable rustling while everyone wonders who dropped the ball on the next service element.
  • Always let your congregation know the intent of the silence. If you want them to prepare themselves for the worship service – tell them that on paper, on a screen, or verbally. If you want them to simply rest – let them know. If you want them to spend time in confession, or praise, or digestion of God’s word – give them a heads up.

Despite my lengthy instructions, it’s not difficult to incorporate silence into a gathered worship service. It just takes some intentionality. It takes viewing silence as a valid means of worship. It takes a counter-cultural push against cultural fear. It takes attentiveness to the space between notes – so that carefully crafted silence can bring to life the music that surrounds it.