Practicing Silence in Church

When we gather as the church, we have sometimes placed more value on speaking the words of our heart to God than we have on cultivating an attentive, listening heart before God. Many struggle with any silence in church. We might do well to let the wisdom of James guide us when we gather as God’s people: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak… (Jms 1:19).”

For the first couple of decades of my life in the church, I was part of fairly typical Evangelical churches where silence in the service was more likely to be an unwelcome interruption than a welcome encounter. Silence would have been seen in the same way that silence is assessed on the radio: “Dead Air.” The goal of our services would have been to fill them as full of good words, good music, and good visuals as possible that would fully engage the minds of those who attended.

But the practice of silence is alive, not dead. It is being awake together in the presence of the Risen Christ. It is a place to lift our eyes to the Father of life. It is allowing our souls to rest in the Spirit of Life. And silence isn’t empty, but full. It is fuller than all of our words spoken in preaching or prayer.

A big reason churches don’t provide moments of silence when God’s people gather is because people are often uncomfortable with silence. To be honest, a lot of pastors are just as uncomfortable. Silence presses us to pay attention to what we have been avoiding. Silence might wake us to unhealthy or unholy patterns in our actual lives. But silence might also open us to how the Spirit of God might wish to affirm the truths of scripture in a more personal way. Silence might enable us to hear the voice of the One Who calls us His beloved.

If we let people decide whether or not there will be any silence in our gatherings as God’s people, they will probably default to “No.” But many of the invitations of Jesus come to us as counterintuitive. Not too many people want to lose their life so that they will actually find it, but we extend that invitation (or should) because Jesus knows that this is how the kingdom of God actually works. A moment of attentive silence together is an opportunity to encounter the real presence of the God we sing about, preach about and pray to.

We can help reshape our congregation’s imagination when it comes to silence in church. The opportunity here is to help people understand the purpose (and opportunity) of silence in God’s presence together. It may be unfamiliar, but this doesn’t make it bad. Like in prayer, we tend to assume that the goodness of a church service is found in things that are said and done. Silence says that there might be goodness in a place of quiet listening and peaceful receptivity in God’s presence.

I’ve enjoyed our local Anglican church where silence is built into the service as a meaningful element of our meeting together in worship of God. For the 10-15 minutes before service begins, we have a tradition of a quiet sanctuary where people can enter in to settle into the presence of God. (Those who would like to visit instead enjoy that space in the courtyard next to the sanctuary). There are always a few moments of silence after the sermon for reflection and prayerful consideration of our response to what we’ve heard. We enjoy moments of silence in the practice of corporate confession.

What has been your experience of practiced silence in church services?

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