Friday, August 21, 2009

Silence, Please

Recently I worshipped in two churches of different denominations and came away feeling something was missing. After mentally rehearsing the experiences, I realized that the absent quality was silence. In each service, from stem to stern, there was not one moment of silence.

Well, there was a situation in which one worship leader forgot it was his turn, resulting in an awkward silence while the congregation held its corporate breath and he woke up to his responsibility. That in itself was the exception that proved the point—when there was silence in the service, it was of the awkward kind, born of an error, and everyone was antsy to get it over with. It was “dead time” that made everyone nervous.

There need to be times of silence in Sunday worship when there is nothing being said, sung or played on an instrument. Not “dead time” however—on the contrary, quality time bearing meaning and substance. Without such times, worship is likely to become agenda-oriented, focused on what has to happen, item after item, and gotten through. That kind of objectivity, centering on the external acts of liturgy, neglects the subjective dimension of worship, what goes on among the people and within each individual. Silence allows time for inner reflection, and opens the worshippers to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

There are several kinds of quality silence that are useful in worship—quite apart from the awkward type which is a distraction.

Relational Silence – This is the very brief pause (just a “beat” or two) before each time a pastor or reader actually launches into a prayer or reading, that few seconds when a long breath is taken and eye contact is made. This is an intimate moment, when silence allows the connection between the worshippers in the pews and those on the platform to be made. Such a moment of silence, fleeting though it may seem, affirms the unity of the worshipping community. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but in the course of a service it can add up to a great deal.

Contemplative Silence – Certain parts of the service call for a moment of private inner thought and personal reflection. Certainly after each reading from Scripture, it is appropriate to keep silent, to let what has been read and heard to soak in. God speaks personally to each of us, and we do well to listen carefully in our own hearts for God’s personal message. Similarly, silence for reflection may follow the sermon, as the proclamation is appropriated by each person. (Note: How long should these silences last? Don’t put a clock on them. The leader should consider him- or herself average, do his or her own reflection—after all he or she is worshipping too—and then bring it to a close.)

Prayerful Silence – Silence is more commonly found in the context of prayer. After the corporate prayer of confession, for example, there should be occasion for silent prayers of personal confession. Or within “prayers of the people” there are opportunities for silent personal prayers, especially if “bidding” prayers are used on various subjects. Here we can silently communicate with God in intimate terms with our own petitions and praise. Silent prayer fills the unison or group prayers with special and specific meaning from our lives in a way more real than any prayer written or composed by any leader ever could. (For duration, see the note above.)

At what other points in the worship service would a time of silence improve the quality of worship?

1 comment:

  1. During the Announcements! Sometimes, they seem unending.


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