You Want Me to Do What in Public?

Here’s a fun game you can play if you’re a pastor or lead a worship service: throughout the service, insert a few significant pauses, maybe 20 or 30 seconds. Try between songs or before the sermon or, perhaps better, right after the sermon or in the middle of the announcements or just wherever. Don’t add anything else to the time (if you have screens, don’t put anything on them, etc.); just leave it as quiet.

Sit back, and watch.

Most Evangelicals really don’t like silence.  Most churches avoid it at all costs.  In those moments in a typical worship service where silence inadvertently pops up, you can feel the tension and nervousness in the air.  There’s actually a palpable discomfort and dislike that washes over the room.  My wife used to attend a small, unfortunately dwindling church that was primarily people over 60.  Before taking communion, they spent 30 seconds or so examining their hearts in silence.  When this church merged with another, quite a bit younger, church, they kept this practice once per month, and the younger church went crazy in those moments.  Their silence was filled with anxiety and uncertainty.

What is that?

At the end of such an experiment, explain that this was done intentionally and ask people to consider their feelings in the silence.  What are they anxious about?  Where does this need for noise and activity come from?  Why are people so itchy to make it stop?

Now, admittedly this isn’t entirely fair, and it probably isn’t warranted as is, and I don’t know if I really advise trying it.  Silence of this sort is unstructured and seemingly random, and that’s not the way such a space should be employed.  I’m a bit of an imp, and I admittedly get a little kick out of shocking people just a hair (which may explain the title of the post) (Go ahead and psychoanalyze.  Probably a small amount of anger mixed with an insecurity attempting to assert a form of control in odd ways.).  So perhaps this ought to be done differently.

Still, I think it’s an interesting experiment, and it makes me think of a couple of things.  First, it makes me wonder if things like silence or the like are actually being integrated into worship.  There are copious amounts of books now about silence and solitude and spiritual disciplines, and there has to be some of that happening among individuals, but churches?  That feels not so much.  What is this resistance to integrating things like this into public worship?

As my wife has pointed out, there are spaces for this in some churches.  High liturgical services are generally full of such silence spaces, traditional Friends services are filled with silence where people wait for the Spirit to move, and a similar thing occurs in some charismatic services as people wait for the Spirit.  So this isn’t unknown, but I don’t think it’s common, either.  And I remember times when I was growing up where that space before communion was used for self-examination, but even that was filled with music, and I don’t see it very often anymore.  We don’t like doing this kind of thing.  But what if we went into it together more often?  What if we integrated spaces of silence or potentially other kinds of spiritual practice and discipline into our corporate worship?  Corporate prayer or service or confession or solitude right within the worship service?  … okay, so that last one might not work.  Skip that one.

I’ve already hit a little bit on the other thing I was thinking about.  Silence is so good for self-examination, but we seem to have generally abandoned this within our services.  Quiet scares us, so we run from it, but who are we running away from?  What do we encounter within the silence beyond ourselves?  So are we trying to run away from ourselves?  We’re at the very least running away from the feelings that we are experiencing, but those feelings are a part of us, and in running away from them, we are compounding a message in ourselves that this is a part of ourselves that needs to be avoided, that is even bad.  But if Christ died to save sinners, then He died to save even that part of ourselves that freaks us out.  And in so doing, we are running away from the chance to be loved, and running away from love is running away from having fear removed (1 John 4:18) and problems healed (1 Pet. 4:8).

Maybe you shouldn’t try my little experimental game.  But is there a way to accomplish something similar?  Can we reintegrate silence as a space for people to safely look at their hearts and ask the Spirit to invite them into what He is already trying to do in their souls?  Can we find ways to integrate spiritual practices beyond singing and listening to a sermon into a worship service?  (Of course, I’m admittedly coming from a perspective of several years of high church services, so maybe I’m way out of touch anymore.)

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4 responses

  1. Nice piece. I’d point out that our avoidance of silence extends beyond our worship services. It seems our culture has arrived at a place that knows no silence. Our days are filled with noise. In fact, how do we isolate in modern America? We plug in our iPods and turn on music. I think your suggestion to try a little silence would be good advice for many parts of our lives.

    September 10, 2009 at 6:39 am

    • What? I can’t hear you over the background music in the [insert public place here].

      You’re right. The lack of quiet is sort of epidemic in worship services and out. Still, some people are learning to try a little more silence here and there, but most worship services (outside of high liturgy Anglican or Lutheran or whatnot) aren’t, even if the people in them are. Why is that?

      September 10, 2009 at 9:09 am

  2. It’s our pervasive consumerism. If we aren’t getting something tangible (in the case of worship, song or talk or music) we aren’t getting value. How can there be value in nothing (silence)?

    I’m being flippant. Sorry.

    In the end, I think you are right. . .there’s something about being alone with ourselves and what’s inside our own heads and hearts that creates anxiety. It’s sad. I’m a runner/walker from waaaaay back, and we tend to develop a craving for that quiet reflective time. I have trouble identifying with those who can’t abide silence.

    MDS

    September 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    • I don’t see that as flippant; I see it as a statement of how the world tends to look at silence. I suspect, however, that the issue is more unconscious than intentional. The consumerism definitely drives it, but perhaps not directly. The consumerism leads to the belief that we should be amused all the time. Silence simply isn’t amusing. In addition, consumerism leads to the belief that we don’t have to feel discomfort (numb, numb, numb yourself / gently to the grave) and silence can often bring out discomfort. Therefore, it has anti-value.

      September 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm

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