Paul Wilkinson has a provocative post over at Thinking Out Loud on the subject of silence in worship services.
As you know, Internet Monk has long been a proponent of silence as an essential part of a Jesus-shaped spirituality. We have encouraged that people intentionally experience silence both as a personal spiritual practice and as a part of our worship liturgies.
For example, in his 2009 series on “The Evangelical Liturgy,” Michael Spencer devoted an entire post to the subject of liturgical silence. In that piece, he wrote:
Silence 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?”
Though he recognized some functional problems with group silence, Michael recommended it as a corporate practice in order that we might pursue “simply the idea of ceasing conversations and being still and quiet before the Lord as a preparation for worship.”
But are contemporary worshipers ready to be silent?
In Paul’s article he reflects upon some words of warning from Henri Nouwen, who certainly appreciated the value of silence in spiritual formation.
One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up.
As soon as a minister says during a worship service, “Let us be silent for a few moments,” people tend to become restless and pre-occupied with only one thought: “When will this be over?” Imposed silence often creates hostility and resentment.
Many ministers who have experimented with silence in their services have soon found out that silence can be more demonic than divine and have quickly picked up the signals that were saying: “Please keep talking.” It is quite understandable that most forms of ministry avoid silence precisely so as to ward off the anxiety it provokes.
• Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 52
So, what are we to make of this dilemma? Paul Wilkinson reminds us that introducing things like periods of silence into our services without preparation can become “well-intentioned forms and elements in our worship services [that] are producing the opposite effect to what is intended because of the way we’re wired.”
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that Christian leaders are often thinking about these kinds of things, while people in our congregations dwell in an entirely different thought universe. When I was in non-liturgical congregations, I tried to change things many times and found the results mixed at best. Some things simply represent a different “world” that is too far away, and a lot of folks aren’t willing to make the trip.
Are the more evangelical traditions, for whom this is especially difficult, simply consigned to practice worship habits that will never allow them to appreciate the value of deep and regular silence in their gatherings and spiritual formation practices?
If so, what does this portend for the health and maturity of the church?