And Now It's Time to Be Quiet

After all the excitement generated by my last two posts, it’s time for something completely different. One correspondent sent along the following note:

“What about the disappearance of the musical language of silence? It seems to me that a problematic aspect of our modern context is over-stimulation and a resulting loss of the language of silence, which I believe is part of what has robbed much music—and the spoken word—of their power. I lead contemplative services which include a lot of music, but I feel the silence which is practised as part of that service makes it so much more powerful. It’s a sign of the times when two minutes of real silence is experienced as threatening.”

I remember taking communion in small Plymouth (Christian) Brethren churches, and how much silence there often was. Nothing but silence, sometimes for five or even ten minutes at a time, in between someone spontaneously standing up to pray, or to give out a hymn number for us to sing, or to preach briefly (or sometimes not so briefly) from a passage of Scripture.

Silence . . . in which one could daydream, yes, or notice other people’s sense of fashion, or try to catch the eye of the cute girl across the room, or actually pray. Muse. Meditate. All the things we mostly didn’t do in the relentless busyness of life.

In most churches I have been in since—and I’ve been in most brands of Protestant churches and a few Catholic ones along the way–silence is rare indeed, and I miss it. People come chatting into the sanctuary while an organ plays or a worship band tunes up or someone does a sound check. The service proceeds with no silence at all except for a little “dead air” between segments. Even communion seems to need “filling in” with some music. When a preacher actually asks us to pause for a moment to reflect on the sermon, it’s extraordinary–and even then some worship leaders or organists feel obliged to “heighten” the moment with some dreamy music in the background.

So where can we be truly, fully quiet anymore? Where can we let the swirling sediments of our psyches settle down to let the Spirit shine clearly into our lives?

Church would be a good place for that.

And having made that suggestion, I’ll just be still for a while now…

0 Responses to “And Now It's Time to Be Quiet”

  1. E.G.

    There is no silence anywhere in life anymore. Much of today’s noise isn’t aural, but rather a continual flow of RSS feeds, emails, voice mails (OK I’ll concede that voice mails are aural), and Tweets. Unless you move to a hole in the ground, noise is at least somewhat inescapable.

    So, yes, silence – true silence, as in nothing but you and your Creator – is bound to freak people out when it happens in church (or anywhere for that matter).

  2. poetreehugger

    You’re right.
    In our small-town Prairies Mennonite church, we have a silent prayer time every Wednesday evening, when any and all can come to pray. The sanctuary becomes just that: a sanctuary (“holy”, “refuge”)from the busyness, the noise, the sad brutality of life, the worries, the constant demands. Every time I enter and sink into one of the benches, I feel myself relax with a full-body sigh. The silence is restorative. It’s too bad only a handful of people from our congregation take the time and make the effort to enjoy this gift.
    (I could do without the power-point slide show at the front, but it’s easy to close my eyes and let meditation happen despite the distracting pictures happening up there.)

  3. Jake

    I think silence would be great. Some worship leaders seem to think that it’s impossible to pray, or have a spiritual moment without finger-picking.

  4. Jon Coutts

    To me the classic illustration of the problem is Steven Curtis’ Chapman’s song “Speechless”, which waxes poetic about how we are speechless before God’s majesty and then proceeds to have the backing vocals repeat “we are speechless etc…” ad nauseum until fade-out.

    Another classic example is what has become of Matt Redman’s “Heart of Worship”. I understand the original story behind the song and I think it is great, and I like the song too, but it seems now to have become a convenient (and even enjoyable) way of dealing with the possible idol of our worship music—this all within a 4 minute song usually sunk into your standard worship set.
    I know this opens up the can of worms from your last post, but i think churches could stand to take a fast from music for awhile, just as I understand redman did before he wrote that song.

    Lots of people commenting on your last post questioning how you could chide something or someone who had done so much good. But just because God uses something doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a lot better, or is totally healthy. God is gracious and condescends to meet us. What about the many people who have felt disillusioned and out of the loop with their churches because, thought they’ve tried, they just couldn’t see what was so exciting about the worship time. And unable to get into it, they question themselves, even their faith, which produces guilt and an overwhelming fear about saying anything (which anyone who read the comments from your last post will understand), and on it goes. I’m sorry, but worship music as it has become in the last couple decades, has done harm as well as good.

    It would be great to see confession, silence, meditation, and so on. These seem like important things that don’t happen enough. But I’m a pastor and I confess I’m not sure how to get it done. We’re working within a complicated web of relationships and traditions, and rarely are any of them ALL bad. Silence is usually awkward, and it is tough to stick with it when the people you serve honestly don’t seem helped by it. It probably takes persistence and training, and selling it to your music teams, and so on. Easier said than done.

  5. Micah Smith

    I also, would appreciate more (even just some!?) times of silence in worship; to collect my thoughts and emotions between segments or transitions of the liturgy.

    I am frustrated by the current mentality that assumes that an empty stage is a broken worship service: It might ruin the performance. Whoever is coming up next is supposed to come up during the last verse of the current song so that there is no dead air. Otherwise people walking down the aisle would be the focus of attention. I enjoy the moments of ‘dead air’ between singing and scripture being read. Or between prayer and song, or song and sermon, or song and Eucharist … etc. And I deeply appreciate the times of willful silence taken where a few minutes pass in individual reflection before joining again as a body in communal worship.

    Does anyone have an argument against silence?!? I would love to hear that. Maybe it would be similar to the argument against putting the Bible in the pews? Don’t let the community work out their salvation without our strict guidance!

  6. Maria

    I’m beginning to think that so much of the refusal of silence in church has to do with our need to feel we’re creating worship or the atmosphere for worship, as if a band can do that. So when someone begins to pray, there are soft chords coming from the keyboard or guitar, just so we get the point that this is prayer. There’s way to much “drumming up” an experience, rather than allowing ourselves to receive whatever God has for us in that moment (or perhaps what he doesn’t have). Silence means giving up control of the scene, and too few are willing to do that.

  7. smokey

    I enjoyed this post more than the last two. I’ve been teaching a class at church on spiritual disciplines for the past few months. So far, silence has been the one that most of the class has found the most difficult to practice. Part of the resistance comes from our connection of religion with doing something as opposed to recognizing that God is doing something. Yet silence is restorative, powerful, frightening, and humbling. Like singing, or preaching, or the public reading of Scripture it can overwhelm a liturgy, but our problem generally seems to be that it has been left out and disregarded as an “irrelevant” aspect of worship that doesn’t “connect” the way that a band or a dynamic speaker supposedly does. Practicing silence is one way that we Christians can teach something to the world instead of aping the world in order to appear relevant.

  8. Paul

    Silence is the willful choice to quiet every voice but One…God’s.

    “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).

    “Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zech 2:13).

    Silence frees us from the temptation to control people or circumstances with our words. When we’re silent, we tacitly agree to trust God and wait for him, just as Jesus did. Consider 1 Pt 3:16, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus knew the words of Isaiah “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).

    Silence disarms the weapons of our duplicity; namely, the “words” that wage war in relationships. How often have you said one thing but meant another in an effort to hide your true thoughts and feelings? Silence strips us of deceit and forces us to remain honest. There is nothing dishonest about silence. Pr 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

    In silence we express our hope and trust in God rather than take matters into our own hands. “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation…For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” Ps 62:1, 5. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Ps 37:7).

    Silence gives us the time to consider our words carefully so our mouths don’t unexpectedly “erupt.” Jm 1:26 “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

    In silence the doorway to our heart is opened to receive the healing touch of God’s love. “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love” (Zeph 3:17).

    Silence provides opportunity to respect others’ need to be heard. Jm 1:19, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.”

  9. Peter Brimson

    Silence – reminds me of two occasions of silence. The first in the beginning before God spoke in creation. That is a silence filled with nothing and as such it brings fear. The second after Jesus greated Mary on the first Easter morning. A silence of love.
    Silence of itself is empty but silence filled with the potential of discerning the ‘still small voice’ is the greatest opportunity to enconter grace.
    Paul #10 was helpful in his post. Thank you.
    If we can consider ways of encouraging each other then falling silent in God’s presence should be one.
    It is not simply a matter of being quiet that makes silence special I would suggest that in the end it is the listening that is the key. God has much to say to his beloved if only we would ‘be still and know’ that he is God.
    PS: Do not be quiet too long Professor – you have been a channel of grace. Thank you.

  10. Drew Snider

    Intriguingly, I’ve tried that on occasion at Gospel Mission on the Downtown East Side, where I’m one of the pastors. (GM is an actual church — the oldest church within the original boundaries of the city of Vancouver.) Prior to the sermon, I’ve invited the people to take a moment and pray. Anyone who thinks that people on the DTES just come to our services to get a free meal should see these folks in that attitude of prayer — some pray quietly, some pray in tongues, some pray in the “natural”, and some just sit there respectfully. When that happens, God takes over the message and it becomes something that reaches people. You’ve just reminded me that it may be time to do it again.

    BTW … I know you’ve shut down comments on your piece on Chris Tomlin, but I just saw it and wanted to weigh in with an observation. You’ve pinpointed an essential problem with music in churches: for some reason, one is willing to cut someone slack if they’re “playing (or writing) for the Lord”. When you consider the reputed standard of David’s musicians at his temple, and the works of Bach and Handel and the great hymn-writers through history — and even the popular and enduring music today (Larry Norman, the Newsboys, Michael W. Smith, e.g. — at least to my thinking), if the Lord is truly leading the composition process, He will make sure it’s a quality piece of music.

  11. Jin Soo Kim

    I once read a blog post (can’t remember where it was I’d love to quote it here). It was about the new jumbo jet Airbus A380. The crew of Singapore Airlines who was the first airline to get delivery of this huge jet was complaining because of ‘noise problems’
    Wait a minute here, the A380 is supposed to be the quietest airliner in history. What’s going on here?
    Apparently what was happening is that since engine noise is a periodic noise the crews while not on duty could take a nap or relax with that noise. However since the A380 was so quiet, you could start to hear the cabin noise of people talking and doing all sorts of stuff.
    This is like that phenomenon where one can fall asleep in the middle of a heavy metal concert (I did!) but can’t go to sleep in a quiet bedroom because of a ticking clock hand.

    Well how does that apply here?

    I’d like to mention the song ‘crown him with many crowns’. It has a verse saying “Hark, how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.”

    Silence can be good, but silence can be a more distracting experience. In the Korean church tradition (which I am a part of) we devalue silent prayer because it’s distracting. Your thoughts go all over the place when you are silent. You need to keep your mind working by praying in full sentences to drown out the noise and concentrate on God. (Sounds like the S-types in Myers-Briggs, huh?) Although I resented this so much, and I still do, I believe there is some merit to this position.

    Some people will mention that they need the silence to look back and meditate or reflect on what was just sung. These kind of people resent being ‘pushed around’, being manipulated, and being controlled. However let’s think about this. This insistence on silence so that they could catch a breath and reflect in itself can be a urge to be in control, instead of giving up control to something else. Who knows? Maybe God doesn’t want you to think, but follow? Why do you need to be in control, and be sober and thoughtful?

    Another thing is that, for spiritually mature people who can focus more intently by reflecting during those silence, the constant noise can be distracting. However how about those ‘immature’ Christians whose thoughts will wander all over the place once they are given silence? Is this manipulation or control? Is it wrong for a teacher to use music to draw attention to himself so the class may be focused? Is this necessarily bad manipulation?

    I’m not opting the church to become so loud or continuously have music running for the services. However I’d say the logic behind advocating silence in church has some flaws as well for two reasons: seeking silence itself can be an urge to ‘be in control’, and also ‘controlled silence’ which is stuff like background music may be necessary to be focused.

  12. Stephen Nettles

    I’m a member of worship bands. And I’ll say this…. often during the end of a sermon we’re called up to play an “altar song”…. and I can’t stand it!!! Your right… silence is lost…. every time the pianist gets up to play a dreamy piano peace during communion or a time of reflection… I completely lose my focus… and get a little angry…. I need to chill out… and people need to appreciate silence. For the record I’m a teenage musician that plays a lot of loud punk and alternative rock so I’m not some old guy wishing for the old days.


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