Demonic Silence?

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?

49 thoughts on “Demonic Silence?

  1. I love that early morning time when it’s just me and my coffee.

    And one of the silver linings of working Saturday overtime for a office job I once had was that fewer people were there; it was much more peaceful and quiet.


  2. I haven’t heard that song in years. Yep, very a propose – and the show/entertainment must be done by semi-professionals who must not be a day over 32. Shoot, 30.


  3. Quakers think they can channel the Holy Spirit, like Pentecostals on Prozac, but what comes out is just their own leftist-progressive bullshit. It started as a cult. Americans used to join so they could dodge the draft or get laid. Now they’ve got nothing to offer anybody. All the young people who might have joined go support Bernie instead, and the Quakers don’t even claim to believe in Jesus anymore. They’re like the Unitarians–you don’t have to believe in anything, you can even be Bhuddist for all they care.


  4. Used to get up very early in the morning before the rest of the family to make some coffee and light some candles and sit in the quiet. It was a good way to begin the day. I do think the ‘silence’ helped in some way, yes.


  5. I don’t think Nouwen means to indict silence itself of being demonic, although that is what he says. As someone who spent a lifetime seeking out the deepest silences, he was aware that the journey to really deep silence, as opposed to more superficial forms of it, is one fraught with dangers. To arrive at deep silence, we have to intentionally dive through the deep places in ourselves that we spend most of our lifetime trying to ignore and suppress. Socialization itself is a process whereby we depart from what is scariest and darkest in ourselves, in order to function as normally as possible in society; the true pursuit of silence pushes that aside, and dives into the deepest, most turbulent waters of our spirits. Nouwen was painfully aware of this, from his long pursuit of intentional silence; perhaps you could forgive him for his inexact expression of the real dangers that the journey to silence involves.


  6. The subtitle on my blog is “The world looks different out here.”

    It’s good to get away once in a while. The desert worked for Jesus, and for Paul, and even Moses, although 40 years would be a stretch.

    On the trip I was just on we stayed at a church camp in the woods about a half hour from the hospital where we worked. Although the Dominican Republic is the noisiest country I’ve ever been to, the evenings were very peaceful under the trees (they have pines there, away from the coast!) and the closest thing to a retreat I ever get. Reading outside in the evenings, no phone, no bills, no internet. Playing cribbage with friends in the dining hall after dark.

    Sometimes I want to go along with you to Gethsamani.

    But it’s good to be home. It’s quiet here this time of year.


  7. In the RC parish my wife plays as supply pianist for at Saturday evening mass, there is no silence after the Eucharist. There is music during the Eucharist, and after as the priest does what he does with the consecrated elements.


  8. Actually Christiane, not sure what you were saying.

    My point; different people with different desires in worship. That’s all.

    Humanity; a motley crew at best.


  9. As a minister, I’ve lowered my expectations on this but only in the sense of trying in a helpful way serve my people about something this over-stimulated age finds unnerving—moments/time of silence in worship. I want to model for them to some degree if possible what could be a beneficial discipline. I not going to say anything anyone in this discussion doesn’t already know. Something which might have helped over the years in my particular setting is employing some sort of written or announced rubric during the specific time of prayer in the service. Something on the order of “silence for meditation” or “time for silent petitions or prayers.” Biggest thing for myself is making use of that myself and avoiding the temptation to just stand vacant in mind and wait for the seconds to tick by in order to go on to the next thing. Will the faithful pick up on that and use it to good effect? I don’t know. Maybe more than I think. I prefer to hope so.


  10. Thinking about the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, there is really no time that is completely silent, in terms of external sounds. Someone is always chanting, whether it’s the choir or the Priest and Deacon, and speaking during the homily and some of the prayer of consecration. Of course, it’s completely okay if someone not in the choir wants to sing with them the responses and the prayers that don’t change from week to week; most in our parish do. But it’s not a din or hubbub, and it’s not enforced, either; it’s one prayer proceeding into another, and this can lead the worshiper somewhere. I find that as the Liturgy goes on, especially if I’m not singing in the choir that week, I find more opportunity to cultivate interior silence and sharpen my focus on God (not that I always do it).

    In EO, we are very much encouraged to be silent: to have that interior silence in worship and prayer, and to add the silence of our environment as we pray or work at home, or in God’s beautiful natural creation. Ways to silence are opened for us without “guided” meditation. Bishop Anthony Bloom once advised a woman who was having difficulty praying to simply sit in front of her icons while she did her knitting.



  11. I enjoy a silent retreat where at times I can sit in the chapel watching light coming through the stain glass, the rays being articulated by the bits of dust in the air….

    …and also Eucharistic Adoration where for an hour one can just turn the mind off… of course sometimes that leads to deep mediation followed by snoring…


  12. Ted, you also have the advantage of being in your boat out on that beautiful ocean. I’m not sure I’ve felt stillness and peace so wonderful as when looking out over the cliffs on Monhegan or hearing the waves lap the shore at sunrise near Boothbay. Even the fog and rain we endured while with you a couple of years ago was different on the water, as though we were immersed in tangible silence.

    This Midwest boy needs an ocean!


  13. I cringe at the pairing of “demonic” with “silence.” And as much as I like Nouwen, I bristled at his statement, “…silence can be more demonic than divine…”

    Anything can lead you down a dark path if you let it. I could take this idea a step further and say “…God can be more demonic than divine…” Just look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc etc.

    So…I guess I’m not there on silence ever being demonic.


  14. Exactly. I like quiet, reflective moments. Most others don’t. But I, and others, periodically spearhead unique services that offer up things like that. Like moments of reflection, stations for reflection, an hour of prayer, etc.


  15. “Only in silence the word,
    Only in dark the light,
    Only in dying life:
    Bright the hawk’s flight
    On the empty sky.

    —The Creation of Éa”
    (Ursula K. Le Guin)


  16. we have to practice a calm silence if we are ever to help bear one another’s burdens with the ministry of ‘listening’

    to open up a quiet space for a troubled person to talk and to listen to them and not to interrupt and not to make it about oneself, but instead just to listen
    . . . . that is something so needed in this world . . . . people need someone who will listen to them . . . . .


  17. That song often comes to my mind when faced with the Great Evangelical Entertainment Machine…


  18. 🙂

    but then, senecagriggs, all those folks who are uncomfortable with ‘formal’ silence in the Church will themselves go out to the mountains and the lakes hiking, fishing, hunting, kayaking, or just for a while ‘being’ alone with God

    my family used to sail . . . sailing at night under the stars is practically a holy silence

    ‘into the quiet’ is not something reserved for we Catholic folk, no . . . . . there are many, many evangelical people who crave that quiet time in ‘the green cathedral’ of the forests . . . . and there, they walk with God also in the quiet


  19. the silence after receiving Eucharist is a welcomed respite from the cares of this world . . . . just for a while, peace


  20. Greg U R Right, about the silence part of corporate worship but all for it as an individual. . Let’s all get together and not talk and keep to ourselves is not the idea of corporate worship for me but if it is for others that is why we have at least 2 or 3 different denominations. You can be silent at home or anywhere , anytime if you so chose. Even Jack Webb aka Sgt. Friday, knew you have the right to remain silent. However my wife uses what I say against me and never forgets it if I occasionally am wrong.
    Most people attend a corporate worship service once a week or twice at most. They come for the “message: to find Jesus aka the word, they come for fellowship, they come to sing and they come feel a part of the family of God. Silence is good but why get together and meditate. Marcel Marceau would not be a good church leader after a couple of weeks. I get it , he made a career being in a imaginary box but after a couple of minutes it got up. I guess it is better to let the cat get your tongue than the devil.
    Sometimes when I am meditating my wife thinks I am asleep but I tell her snoring is a part of Zen and I am in a altered state on a different level. The person who coined Silence is Golden statement must have had Thanksgiving dinner with my brother in law.


  21. Good idea. Initiatives that can be implemented locally to gauge interest, and then follow through if adequate participation indicates a possibility of serving a portion of your faith community, are a frequently neglected means for identifying new ways to strengthen your fellowship. If you have a the idea, it will probably fall to you to nurse and grow it to maturity.


  22. Trying to impose silence in an evangelical setting is going to bring you up against some deep-rooted cultural forces that are so much a part of the fabric of the thing that people aren’t even aware of them.

    But the main obstacle I think is that to be in silence is to enter a place of profound surrender of the self because God is there, or can be at least, in a way that is different from other types of worship, with a lot less in the way. It’s not just very different from the worship experience of most evangelicals, it’s different enough to be frightening.

    You might get a few people to voluntarily join a small group voluntarily to practice contemplative silence, but I don’t see much chance of success with a whole congregation.

    To paraphrase from the Lord of the Rings: Things that should not have been forgotten have been (mostly) lost.


  23. Excellent, Mike Bell. Thanks.

    While most pastors encourage retreats and quiet time, our church services never seem to practice that.

    “Be still and know that I am God.” I just re-read Psalm 46 and it’s still good.


  24. Is there a moment when it’s quiet? QUICK, START SLOWLY STRUMMING THE GUITAR TO FILL THE AWKWARD SILENCE!!!!!!!!!!


  25. Mike, you took some heat a few weeks ago for your article on “masturbatory worship music,” but I know what you mean. At the time, I had just been commenting to my wife about a member of our church’s “worship team” who, when it’s her turn to pray or praise in between CCM songs, sounds to me like she’s faking an orgasm.

    There is very little silence in our church, even less so when it’s the youth pastor’s turn to lead. Lots of noise, tossing candy to the congregation, jumping and clapping. Fortunately he’s only a few times a year.

    I’ve just returned from a two-week medical mission to the Dominican Republic. Morning devotionals are by volunteer effort, 3 to 5 minutes, and some of the most memorable are in the nature of “Be still and know that I am God.” And last year we had a young woman, a med student, whose devotional led us through a guided meditation, involving contemplating our inner parts. Some people commented negatively, but we can take what we want from such an experience. No mention of God, but he’s there anyway if we focus on him during that devotional. And we don’t get anything like that in our evangelical churches. There seems to be a fear or a reluctance to practice silence and meditation.

    In recent years, one of the most memorable “sermons” I have experienced was when we visited a daughter in Massachusetts and attended her Unitarian Universalist church. The minister was away that week, and the music director led a time of meditation while he stroked various gongs and cymbals from his worldwide collection. Rather than clashing or clanging, the sounds resembled waves on the beach or leaves rustling in the trees. While 20 minutes of this would not have worked in my own church, I found it very worshipful as it freed me to pray and meditate on God. I have no idea what the effect was on the UU members, but I suspect positive at least.

    I think we are altogether too busy and noisy in our evangelical churches. Let’s have a time out once in a while.


  26. Michael, excellent post and so true. We must practice that silence. It does not happen overnight. Do not get discouraged put press on. You will be happy you did.


  27. At least the Roman Catholics have silence as part of their “tool bag”, even if its been a few (thousand) yrs since they used it. Many protestant churches see that kind of leaning as “eastern” or “emptying your mind for the devil”….. Even the phrase “spiritual disciplines” needs to fight for a fair hearing, and defend itself as not being pagan/tool-of-the-devil.


  28. I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I worship with Quakers who wait in expectation of leadings from the Holy Spirit. I have experienced powerful moments of inspiration as well painful moments of epiphany in the silence.

    I urge all Christians to experience this form of worship in their own churches. Demons do exist in the silence but they also lurk in all forms of worship.

    I have been a Friend for 14 years and I have been very blessed by the Lord in that time.


  29. I love the idea of incorporating more silence and stillness into worship, but if the mega church that I attend tried that, people would think that the sound system had died.


  30. One of my favorite worship moments in the last 10 years was at a PCA church during their several minute long moment of silence. It was beautiful. You could hear the breeze outside. Rarely had the divine felt so close.


  31. I wouldn’t push for large, or even moderate amounts of it (silence) corporately, but I’d lobby for its virtues. Maybe have a few people vouch , publicly, how it had helped them connect to both GOD and people. I think this is a “side door” situation. For some, silence is right up there with the smells and bells.


  32. This reminded me of a sermon written by A. B. Simpson back in the 1800s entitled “A Still Small Voice”. I would suggest googling it. Here is an excerpt:

    A score of years ago a friend placed in my hand a little book which became one of the turning points of my life. It was called “True Peace.” It was an old mediaeval message with but one thought, which was this, that God was waiting in the depths of my being to talk to me if I would only get still enough to hear His voice.

    I thought this would be a very easy matter, and so I began to get still. But I had no sooner commenced than a perfect pandemonium of voices reached my ears, a thousand clamoring notes from without and within, until I could hear nothing but their noise and din. Some of them were my own voice, some of them were my own questions, some of them were my own cares, and some of them were my very prayers. Others were suggestions of the tempter and voices from the world’s turmoil. Never before did there seem so many things to be done, to be said, to be thought; and in every direction I was pushed, and pulled, and greeted with noisy acclamations and unspeakable unrest. It seemed necessary for me to listen to some of them, and to answer some of them, but God said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Then came the conflict of thoughts for the morrow, and its duties and cares, but God said, “Be still.” And then there came the very prayers which my restless heart wanted to press upon Him, but God said, “Be still.” And as I listened and slowly learned to obey and shut my ears to every sound, I found after awhile that when the other voices ceased, or I ceased to hear them, there was a still, small voice in the depths of my being that began to speak with an inexpressible tenderness, power and comfort. As I listened it became to me the voice of prayer, and the voice of wisdom, and the voice of duty. I did not need to think so hard, or pray so hard, or trust so hard, but that “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit in my heart was God’s prayer in my secret soul, was God’s answer to all my questions, was God’s life and strength for soul and body, and became the substance of all knowledge, and all prayer, and all blessing; for it was the living God Himself as my Life and my All.”


  33. I think that people need guiding into silence, gently.

    A few ideas off the top of my head:
    – Start by talking about why silence is helpful/useful
    – A personal testimony about the experience of silence
    – Acknowledge the difficulties for homo internetis
    – Discuss how to handle our raging inner noise
    – Invite people to try on their own some time.

    I think that beyond this, what we as Christians really REALLY need to think and meditate on is our whole relationship with time, with productivity, with ‘progress’. THIS is a dimension in which I feel we could really have something prophetic and positive to bring to the rest of our generation, but first we need to elevate ourselves beyond the day-to-day drudgery and have a good deep breath and take stock.


  34. This music has been burrowing through my mind on my silent afternoon.
    I enjoy the silence as it makes me aware of my place in my little corner of the world.
    It stimulates prayer.

    1964 was a long time ago but as yesterday for some.

    Simon and Garfunkel

    Our priest intersperses the Sunday Service with periods of silence and reflection.
    It is well received.

    A Blessed weekend to all, Susan


  35. “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.”

    Of how many, many more things can this be said besides style of worship? 😦


  36. “All of humanity’s problems stem from (our) inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Pascal, “Pensees”


  37. Must… resist… must… resist…


    “Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress…”

    C S Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”


  38. Nouwen is right: the intentional and serious practice of prolonged and repeated silence will often throw up very dark stuff from the unconscious of those who practice it. I think this is what he means when he says that the practice of silence can be “more demonic than divine.” If one is not prepared to deal with this stuff, it can be debilitating, and even deadly. Anyone who guides others into intentional, serious silence must be prepared to help them deal with the dark stuff that is likely to arise in the process; the vast majority ministers are not prepared to to do this.


  39. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, as an adult have spent three decades in mainline Protestant churches, and in my experience have seen little effort at intentionally practicing regular periods of corporate silence in worship together. The evangelicals are not alone in their tendency to neglect silence; it is a widespread phenomenon.

    Of course, change is always possible, both in the mainlines/Roman Catholic churches, and in the evangelical world. Roman Catholicism does have the advantage of a tradition of monasticism to help source attempts to practice worshipful silence; but then, the monastic tradition is dying out in the Western Roman Catholic church, with fewer and fewer vocations, and more and more monastic houses closing. The situation is dire all around.


  40. Excellent reflections !

    I came from a tradition that would see Christian meditation as a step away from zen & thus a doorway to the demonic. Most low church types have no idea. The only way to bring silence in is via guided meditation, nest done in a small group.

    I’ve been attending a Catholic Renewal community that has a meditation group for lent. It has been fantastic. They start with meditation around lectio divina. A guided meditation. The beauty was it taught the difference between a normal bible study & using your imagination to meditate on the text. It was read 3 times with a pause for silence after each reading. This is “surface level” meditation. It gets deeper with more silence.

    I think in a Church setting reflection needs to be taught & can only happen in small chunks.

    Liturgical churches also have issues with it. I remember going to a Coptic service & they were racing through it like they didn’t want to miss the 2nd Coming ?


  41. I’ve found that the best way to try something different regarding worship is to hold a special service.


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